LaGrange County not that empty

Article |
Guy Thompson - LaGrange News

How many industrial buildings are sitting empty in LaGrange County? Six? Ten? More than a dozen?

Since the economy fell dramatically, hitting the RV and manufactured housing industry especially hard, and when unemployment in LaGrange County was at the top of the state, manufacturers were closing up and leaving behind empty buildings.

In 2009, nearly a dozen large sites were empty around the county and available for sale or lease.

In 2012, as the economy works its way back uphill, the idea persists that there are a lot of empty, unused buildings waiting for a tenant.

The answer to the question of how many industrial buildings are sitting empty in the county and are available for new tenants is – two.

There are officially two industrial sites that remain empty. One is the former Multiplex building on SR 9 north of Howe. The second is the former Starcraft Marine facility in Topeka.

These are buildings that are actively for sale and marketed not only by the owners, but by the LaGrange County Economic Development Corporation (EDC). “There are also buildings left at the Jayco facility for lease,” noted EDC President Keith Gillenwater. However, a large portion of that building is being utilized by All That Jazz, a distributor and wholesaler. “There are some smaller office spaces and Greenfield sites to build on, too.”

Still, the idea that LaGrange County is full of empty sites persists. Some of that is because there may be little outward signs that a building is in use. Gillenwater points to the former Atwood building on US 20 east of LaGrange. From US 20, the building looks unused and unchanged. However, the back portion of the building is being utilized by Trinity Pallet and Logistic. The building has a new owner that, Gillenwater said, is leasing it out short-term as they consider moving their business into the facility as it grows.

Another visible site is the Dutch Housing location on SR 9, on the north side of LaGrange. That is still owned by Champion, the parent company of Dutch Housing. One of the buildings is currently housing a manufacturing facility for Cruiser RV. The remainder of the large facility is not on the market, as Champion hopes to continue to grow as the economy rebounds and they can reopen the facility.

One of the primary roles the EDC has is to help market the county to businesses looking for sites to move into or build on. At the moment, only the Multiplex and Starcraft sites are on the list of available buildings to market. But each of those has been difficult to sell to site selectors.

One issue Gillenwater points out in the difficulty in selling Multiplex or Starcraft is both are very large buildings and would work for a sole tenant seeking that much space. The Multiplex location has over 160,000 sq. ft., while Starcraft is nearly double that. “Not everyone needs that much space,” Gillenwater said.

Both are also older buildings, which means increased maintenance costs for any new tenants.

The age also contributes to the fact that the buildings are “chopped up” on the inside due to a series of additions to the buildings. “There are a lot of interior walls that break up the floor plan, as well as inconsistent ceiling heights and column spacing,” Gillenwater added. Gillenwater said that one possible buyer turned down the Mutiplex site primarily because of the chopped up nature of the interior. A company would need to make its manufacturing processes fit the space, which isn’t always possible.

Finally, with the Mutiplex site, there is no municipal water or sewer. That lack of utilities means more costs for the company due to water testing and other regulations.

“If people are looking for an existing site, we are limited,” Gillenwater said. The owners of Multiplex and Starcraft are looking to sell, but it will take the right business looking for that kind of building making the right offer.

Most companies looking for a new site are interested existing facilities that will meet their needs, as the current real estate market means a company can buy a building cheaper than building one.

And it’s quicker, too. Businesses expanding or relocating don’t want to spend half a year or more waiting for a new facility when they can move into an existing one that much faster.

As the EDC continues to work to bring jobs to the county, Gillenwater sees two strategies working in LaGrange County.

One is to make greenfield building sites as ready as possible to reduce the time needed to start building. One site in the Fawn River Crossing area is already certified “shovel ready.” The EDC will also continue to work on the development of additional industrial sites. Ideally, the county can get a “megasite” of over 250 acres that could be the location for a large manufacturer – such as the size of the Nestle plant near Anderson.

Long term, the EDC is still interested in getting a shell building built. A shell building would be designed to meet the “sweet spot” of what companies are looking for – in overall size, ceiling height, open floor plan, and other amenities. “It would be a nice, corporate looking building,” Gillenwater stated. The EDC looked at all of the project requests across the state to develop that ideal building in hopes of appealing to a company as quick as possible.

An earlier proposal to build a shell building in a combined public-private project was voted down earlier this year.

Meanwhile, it was announced at the end of July that Henry County has partnered with a private contractor to build a $1.4 million shell building. It was noted at the time in a news article from the New Castle Courier-Times by Henry County EDC President Bob Grewe that most businesses looking to relocate aren’t interested in building their own facility. Without a building available, Grewe told the paper, he can’t compete with other counties seeking businesses.

With only two manufacturing facilities available, LaGrange County has a lot fewer places for a business to move into than most people thought there were.

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