Thursday, July 07, 2011

Electrolux Comes For Belding's Clock Tower

The clock tower on Silk Mill #2 in downtown Belding

Once upon a time, the city of Belding, Michigan was the home of three prosperous silk mills. The city had even changed its name to "Belding" to honor the Belding family, who had bought land there in 1855 and was said to have financed the first silk mill built in 1887. By 1900, the Belding Brothers owned mills all over the country and in Canada, and were national leaders in production of hand-sewing silks, but the town of Belding was their name and heritage, and they invested a lot in the area. The brothers built big dormitories for the mill's hundreds of young female employees, and Belding soon became known as the "Silk City of the World".

Belding Belrockton Dormitory
Belrockton Dorm, now the home of the Belding Museum

It all ended with the Depression. The mills closed by the mid-thirties, and the manufacturers moved in....

The mills were purchased by Greenville-based Gibson Refrigerator Co., which converted them into a plant for central and room air conditioners.

Gibson Refrigerator's roots date to 1877, when cabinet makers produced wooden ice boxes at Belding-Hall Co. in Belding. Belding-Hall was purchased in 1908 by Frank Gibson, and the ice-box production was moved to Greenville. Gibson Refrigerator was bought by Hupp Corp. in 1956 and sold in 1967 to White Consolidated Industries Inc. In 1986, Sweden-based Electrolux AB bought White Consolidated, which later became White-Westinghouse.

The Belding air-conditioner plant was operating as Belding Products when it closed in February 1988, with White-Westinghouse moving the operations to Edison, N.J. The factory had employed nearly 450 workers.

... and since then, the Belding Brothers Silk Mill #2 with the attached clock tower has sat empty and fallen into disrepair to the point of being condemned. The citizens of the town of Belding are doing their best to save the clock tower at the least, but of course the tough economy has made it hard to sell to developers or put together a use for the building. It is going to need major work and an environmental clean-up - and with Snyder canceling the tax incentives for both brownfield development and historic preservation, the job will become that much harder.

Electrolux wants to demolish the building. The city has placed various moratoriums on demolition while developers and historians try to put something together, and now is thinking of proclaiming the area a "historic district" - and Electrolux is taking them to court to stop a public hearing on the matter.

The company "bought the land with intentions of demolishing the buildings to reduce the potential for danger to the community," a representative with Electrolux told 24 Hour News 8.

In a statement from a company spokesperson, the factory buildings are described as "dangerous and unsafe."

"We believe the city and its representatives have exceeded their reach in keeping us from carrying out our plans," it reads. "And we have asked the court to remove the barriers to the final resolution of this issue."

The first step to the city preserving the property in a historic district is a public hearing, Rentrop said.

The company wants to stop the meeting from happening before the two sides can agree on a demolition plan, according to the lawsuit.

Good old Electrolux. First the take away the jobs, now they want to destroy the heritage. Belding itself has some responsibility in the matter as well, and needs to come up with a viable plan to save what they can save - but this public hearing was another step towards that goal. It sounds as if Electrolux is tired of the waiting, and now wants to take the decision out of the community's hands.

The case will be heard in Big Rapids today, and I'll update when we get a decision.


Update 7/8: Motion denied.

Mecosta County 49th Circuit Court Judge Scott P. Hill-Kennedy denied Electrolux's motion on Thursday. Mayor Roger Wills said a public hearing likely will take place Thursday evening in Belding.

"The judge decided to allow due process to move forward," Wills said. "It's just one small step. I'm proceeding cautiously. It was an interesting test of the waters. I think we're moving in a positive direction at the moment."

Follow the link for the full story - Electrolux does have a few good points to make. They are liable for the buildings and the contamination. They claim that they have made "good-faith" efforts to promise to preserve the parts and donate them to the city. But here is the kicker:

(Attorney) Rentrop said Electrolux has not conducted any environmental assessments at the site but he believes the property likely is contaminated in at least seven places from "very serious chemicals" used inside the plant over the years.

"If they do those assessments I think it will show some pretty significant contamination," Rentrop said. "I think Electrolux's motivation is to get those buildings torn down and get out of town."

He believes Electrolux's strategy is to level the buildings, erect a fence and leave the site vacant in perpetuity. As long as the contamination isn't proven and remains dormant the company isn't liable for a costly clean up.

You could see them doing that.

Good luck Belding. I hope you can find the money and the way to at least save the tower - if not on that particular building, then somewhere in the city.

Update 2 7/27: Electrolux tries again:

Electrolux believes it should be able to tear down the historic Gibson Building and clock tower because Belding's moratorium against the project was enacted improperly.

The company filed a motion Tuesday in Ionia County's 8th Judicial Circuit Court seeking a judgment to declare the moratorium invalid. According to court documents provided by Electrolux, the city established the demolition moratorium before setting up the historic study committee and beginning to review the proposed district.

Will continue to follow this as we go on...