Big Rapids officials consider railroad depot purchase agreement

During a public meeting on Thursday, Sept. 6, City Manager Mark Gifford discussed the history and potential future of the old railroad depot on Maple Street with city officials and members of the public. With the option to purchase the building and the land it sits on from the state, city officials are attempting to gauge public interest in the project and come up with a plan for the property before moving forward with the agreement. (Pioneer photo/Taylor Fussman)

BIG RAPIDS — The prospect of reinventing the old railroad depot on Maple Street has once again captured the imagination of Big Rapids area residents, but this is far from the first time city officials have considered options for restoring the building.

After decades of discussions, the city of Big Rapids has the opportunity to purchase the depot and the land it sits on from the state of Michigan.

City Manager Mark Gifford explained in June the city received approval to purchase the property for $66,800; however, city officials are currently weighing the benefits against any potential problems.

Mayor Tom Hogenson said although there could be concerns associated with a project to restore the depot, the positives seem to outweigh the negatives.

“I think the positives exist in the potential,” he said. “I think it could be a nice amenity for the community.”

Gifford explained the approximately 2,000-square-foot building and roughly 3-acre parcel of land has a long history of ownership, including being passed between four different owners between 1972 to 1996, before eventually being purchased by the state.

After coming under state control, Big Rapids signed a lease with the state in January 2008 which allowed for the depot to be used as office space for a nonprofit organization, Gifford said. He added the 25-year agreement came at no cost to the city.

“The idea at that time was we were going to renovate the depot and have it be the home of the chamber of commerce and the convention and visitors bureau,” Gifford said. “After we negotiated the lease, we started to pursue opportunities for funding, and what we ran up against there is, although the lease we had in place allowed for nonprofit uses of the building, funding agencies would not fund a project that included the chamber of commerce because they considered that a collection of businesses.”

Gifford said the other potential use envisioned by city officials for the depot and land was a trail head with a functional restroom, which led to the decision to partner with Marlies Manning, of Manning Design Landscape Architecture, in July 2009.

The design Manning presented to the city included a building separate from the depot with restrooms, expanded parking, a playground and a new trail head for the Fredrick Meijer White Pine Trail; however, the estimated cost of only the trail head work was about $300,000, Gifford said. He added this cost was too great for the city to move forward with the project at the time.

Sitting adjacent to the Fredrick Meijer White Pine Trail, the old railroad depot building on Maple Street has been a long-standing staple in the Big Rapids community, and with the city considering purchasing it, many residents are offering ideas for what it could become. Among the most frequently voiced ideas are a renovated building that could be leased out to a business or a public space that could be rented by individuals for events such as reunions or weddings. (Pioneer file photo)

According to Gifford, the next substantial step forward in renovating the depot came in September 2017, when the city applied to the state to purchase the property, and again in November of the same year when the application was approved.

After state officials completed two appraisals and assigned a value to the building and land in June, city officials are now left to decide whether or not to sign the $66,800 purchase agreement.

The two problems facing the city in making the decision are funding and a cohesive and viable plan for what to do with the property.

Gifford said the initial cost to purchase the building would come from the city, but additional funding to bring the depot back to life would have to come from outside grants — most likely from Michigan Department of Natural Resources trustfunds or from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Hogenson said depending on the intended use of the building and land, the cost does not seem excessive.

“I don’t see (the cost) as daunting, but it’s not a decision to take lightly,” he said. “We don’t want to make a bad decision for the community.”

While funding remains a concern, city officials also are concerned with determining the future plan for the depot, a topic they are eager to hear feedback from the community on.

“The two major tracks that have come up the most is; one, to renovate the building and lease it out to a business. The other idea is to renovate it and have it available to rent,” said Gifford. “Those are the two most viable options we have heard.”

City officials plan to host a work session at an upcoming Big Rapids City Commission meeting to help gauge public interest in the project and attempt to form one cohesive plan for the depot before moving forward with the purchase agreement.

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