MICHIGAN CITY – Anyone who's ever driven to Washington Park has seen it, and probably asked the same question: What is it?
The building at 111 Franklin Street – which some considered an iconic eyesore that stood empty and neglected for a decade – was generally known to locals as just "the ice cream parlor."
Rob Harte of Uppercross Development Group was one of those who drove past every day and asked that very question. But unlike most, the local real estate developer decided to take a closer look.
"Like everybody else, you drive past here and see it," he said. "I've been coming this way since 2012 and driven past, and it was a real head-scratcher in the context of the real estate. I decided to reach out and learn more."
Mike Conner, a real estate broker with New Buffalo-based @properties, had the answers.
"A top-of-the-market development group came here in 2007 or 2008 and invested a lot of money in the property," Conner said. "Then they ran out of capital."
He said over the last decade there were a lot of inquiries into the site and "a lot of failed discussions. Rob and his partner were one of the first serious investors who said this was going to be more than just a dream."
"The development got backed up at the start of the great recession – like a lot of other projects – and while it was a good plan, it got caught in a bad market," said Harte, who decided it was the right time to finish the project.
So he teamed up with Texas developer Mike Beucler of Beucler Properties, whom he met through Conner, to form Blue Harbor, a real estate development company with a focus on Michigan CIty.
"Mike Conner became a facilitator," Harte said. "He introduced me to Mike Beucler. I had looked at that building for a long time, and I asked Mike if he saw a lot of what I see. He supported and endorsed the idea, so we decided to collaborate and do something great. That's when things started moving."
And they had to move fast because the city was planning to demolish the structure for non-compliance after years of nothing happening there.
Meeting several times with the Board of Works, city Planning Department and other city officials, they "got a stay of execution," Conner said.
"It took a while for things to work out, but it's an extraordinarily high-profile project right on the city's doorstep to Washington Park," Harte said. "City officials were just as anxious as we were to get something going there."
And less than two months after the work actually started, Blue Harbor is in business, with a soft opening reception held on July 4.
"Once we had worked out the building programming with city staff, we were able to turn this around in 55 days with a great team of local contractors that wanted to see this building put to use as much as we did," Beucler said.
Harte said when they started, the building was basically a shell.
"There were no lights, no plumbing, no electric, no HVAC, no kitchen, no bathrooms" he said. "The interior was just 2-by-4s and there was no ceiling, no flooring, no dividing walls. We had to replace the windows, do the landscaping, apply new asphalt to the parking lot..."
They figured turning a project like that around in just two months to make the city's deadline would be tough, but finding contractors was not the daunting task they first imagined.
"The reality was a that a lot of local contractors felt the same way about that building as we did," Harte said. "So we went to them and said here is the timetable. It sounded kind of crazy, but once they started, they got it done in 55 days. Like us, they felt a sense of pride in getting this done.
"It's what everybody wanted," he said. "People were just tired of looking at it."
Conner was also surprised.
"People complain about the labor market here, but when we reached out with that timeline, we got several bids. We had to take some higher bids on some things to get it done so fast, but it worked out."
The final remodeling cost will end up "north of $125,000," Harte said, "but I think this building will really show well and set a standard for how we develop other projects in Michigan CIty."
Mayor Ron Meer is a fan.
"This project is the result of developers and city leadership collaborating and trusting in each other to achieve a win-win result for all," he said. "The city wins by revitalizing a former vacant building at the entrance to our beautiful lakefront; taxpayers win by getting this building back on the tax rolls; and the developers win by moving forward with their business goals and investment in our city."
He lauded the project, saying, "The Blue Harbor team has exceeded our expectations on the renovation of this nearly condemned project."
Like the original investors, Harte and Beucler are not exactly sure what the development will end up being, but they're being selective about the initial tenants.
"The original developers' concept was some kind of retail, a cafe or ice cream parlor," Harte said. "And that could still happen. There could be some type of retail establishment in front, and commercial offices in the back, with a great space in the center for events."
Conner said several interested parties have already inquired about the space.
"You just might end up with an ice cream parlor here after all," he said. "It would be a great spot for it."
It's also a space Blue Harbor will use to help "sell Michigan City," and any future projects they develop here, Harte said.
"This building is just the beginning of our larger plans for projects here," he said.
Those already include a commercial/residential development at 113 York Street, one of the former Zorn Brewery buildings; and the Lakeside Townhomes in the Canada Park waterfront district.
"Our investment and approach with this building is supportive of our long-term goals in Michigan City," Beucler said.
"We look forward to announcing additional projects soon," Harte added. "We believe in Michigan City."