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Battle Creek’s iconic Heritage Tower gets a fresh start – and new name – thanks to community partners and the MEDC
In 2018, Heritage Tower BC LLC revealed plans to rehabilitate a long-vacant, historic 1931 building into an iconic and mixed-use development in downtown Battle Creek. With critical support offered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and community partners, the development is bringing new residents and commercial business to downtown Battle Creek, while acting as a catalyst for future investment in the area.
Originally built in the 1930s for Old Merchants National Bank & Trust Company, the National Register-listed building was vacant for more than 10 years and required significant investment to address brownfield conditions and complete an appropriate historic rehabilitation. The Heritage Tower project transformed the historic 19-story building in the heart of downtown Battle Creek into a vibrant mixed-use development called The Milton.
Over $32 million in investment was required to restore The Milton, which features 85 apartment units and 32,000 square feet of commercial space along Michigan Avenue. According to developer Mark Harmsen, the name change was part of the building’s rebirth, while still honoring its past.
“The name Heritage Tower became synonymous with failure and bad ownership of the building for many years, so we needed a branding reset,” Harmsen said. “With the building being the most historic and iconic in Battle Creek, we wanted a new name to reflect the historic past of Battle Creek and discovered that the area now known as Battle Creek was originally part of Milton Township in the mid-1800s. We took that history and named the building The Milton.”
The redevelopment of Heritage Tower has long been a priority for the Battle Creek community. The MEDC first became engaged in redevelopment discussions in 2013 with a previous development team whose project did not come to fruition. In addition to the MEDC, the Heritage Tower BC LLC project team had support from the City of Battle Creek as well as key community partners including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek Unlimited and Battle Creek Community Foundation.
The project was awarded a Michigan Community Revitalization Program economic assistance loan and equity investment; in addition, the City of Battle Creek Brownfield Redevelopment Authority received MSF approval of $2,426,600 in local and school tax capture to be used to alleviate brownfield conditions at the site.
Through a Program Related Investment by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the City of Battle Creek contributed a $5 million investment in support of the project and approved Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act and Neighborhood Enterprise Zone abatements for the project valued at $3.1 million. Other local support included a $3 million investment from Battle Creek Unlimited and a $450,000 contribution from the Battle Creek Community Foundation.
“It is hard to imagine a more impactful redevelopment project than The Milton in downtown Battle Creek,” said Ted Dearing, assistant city manager for the City of Battle Creek. “The renovation brought to life a 19-story art deco masterpiece that sat vacant for years despite its prominence in the Battle Creek skyline. For many in Battle Creek, the building is not only historically significant but the source of countless memories of its grand presence as a centerpiece in downtown. At the city, we are very grateful for the efforts of several local partners across multiple sectors who collaborated to get the project done, including the MEDC. Without their support, the project would not have happened.”
As the tallest building in the City of Battle Creek, this marquee location includes a four-story interior mezzanine with a fully restored, hand-painted ceiling, as well as the original bank vault which is accessible to building residents. The mezzanine level, which has seen generations of family events, wedding photos and other community-centered use, will remain open to the public to ensure the property’s connection to the community will be maintained well into the future.
"Our efforts to restore the long-abandoned, condemned and mold-filled Heritage Tower building to its former iconic and historic glory was the final attempt of many before the building would have to be demolished, which would have been a physical and symbolic show of failure for downtown Battle Creek. Instead, the building was rebuilt and now stands as an architectural gem and the cornerstone of the rebirth of downtown Battle Creek, giving other property owners and stakeholders the confidence to invest in downtown Battle Creek."
The City of Battle Creek became a Certified Redevelopment Ready Community in 2017. The Battle Creek community has brought together many community stakeholders to work together on identifying and supporting development on key sites in the Community Development pipeline, including The Milton.
Along with the building’s 85 apartment units, The Milton includes five commercial spaces; two of the spaces are occupied by the Kellogg Company and financial institution Raymond James, while a third space has been leased to the Battle Creek Community Foundation to create a co-op market and make updates to the mezzanine level.
According to Joe Sobieralski, president and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited, interest in The Milton has exceeded expectations – and led to renewed energy for development in the downtown area.
“The place is basically 100 percent occupied on the residential side and has not only met but exceeded expectations in a market that people questioned,” said Sobieralski, who is also a resident of The Milton himself. “It has opened the eyes of naysayers or people who didn't know the Battle Creek market to take a harder look. They're penciling out housing projects in downtown right now. It was a springboard for that.”
Faye Alexander Nelson, director of Michigan Programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, also sees The Milton as a catalyst for change and renewed enthusiasm within the Battle Creek community.
“The Milton was a catalytic project for Battle Creek in a number of ways,” she said. “We were pleased to see the City of Battle Creek, Battle Creek Unlimited, the Battle Creek Community Foundation, the State of Michigan and many other funders work together in partnership with us at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to achieve a common goal in our organization’s hometown. The preservation and restoration of an iconic downtown building spurred additional renovations and created a number of new spaces for small businesses to operate and provide jobs and services for our neighbors and community members. The Milton has brought in new residential tenants who provide an instant customer base for our small businesses and contribute to a new vibrancy we’re experiencing downtown. All of these changes are helping more of our city’s families access good paying jobs, support their children to thrive and transform Battle Creek into a more equitable place of opportunity.”
The project was also awarded a 2022 Governor’s Awards for Historic Preservation, which recognizes standout projects across Michigan that exemplify the collaboration and deep impact preservation can have in Michigan communities. To learn more, visit here.
Learn how the MEDC supports the growth of vibrant, diverse and resilient communities across the state of Michigan at https://www.miplace.org/.