New plan for old building promises fun for Detroit

Posted on May 23, 2012

Detroit’s east riverfront, which already draws millions of visitors a year to the RiverWalk and William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor, is about to get another major attraction.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday it anticipates as many as 1 million visitors a year coming to a planned one-of-a-kind outdoor adventure and discovery center to be built in the historic Globe Building on the riverfront.

Features will include a 60-foot climbing wall, an archery range, simulator rides demonstrating kayaking and other water sports, and classrooms to teach schoolchildren and other visitors outdoor safety and the science of natural resources and wetlands.

The details were revealed at Tuesday’s meeting of the city’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC), a quasi-public board that holds title to the Globe Building for the city.

The state department and project developers plan to draw visitors from the state park’s already-stout yearly attendance and from those eager to use facilities, such as a kayaking simulator and rock-climbing wall, largely unseen inside the city limits. The state agency has discovery centers around the state, but this project and slate of attractions will be one of a kind in the state and nation, said Vicki Anthes, chief of the agency’s planning section who spoke to the EDC board Tuesday.

“We envision that we could easily, on the low side, see a million visitors every year,” she said.

EDC board member Conrad Mallett Jr. called the plans a “fantastic opportunity” and a “great use of that building.”

Redevelopment of the Globe would mark the latest advance along the east riverfront, which over the last decade has slowly transformed from a zone of cement silos and surface parking lots into the RiverWalk and Milliken State Park. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, which operates the RiverWalk, estimates that 3 million people a year visit the riverfront promenade.

Faye Alexander Nelson, president and CEO of the conservancy, said the Globe project would complement the RiverWalk perfectly.

“It’s great news,” Nelson said Tuesday. “We’re so pleased. The DNR is such a major partner as far as our development efforts on the riverfront.”

Built in stages from the late 19th Century, the Globe was one of Detroit’s most important industrial buildings in the pre-automotive era. Henry Ford worked there before starting his car company. The building, which served as a dry dock, is a link to the city’s past as a shipping center. It has been mostly vacant for decades.

Under a deal approved Tuesday, the EDC will sell the building for $1 to a local entity created by the Roxbury Group, a Detroit-based developer. Roxbury will then develop it to the DNR’s specs with the help of a construction loan from Key Bank. Upon completion, the DNR will buy the building for $11 million provided by a grant by the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

The total project cost of $12.8 million also includes a brownfield-redevelopment tax credit approved by state and local authorities.

David DiRita, a partner in the Roxbury Group, said the $1 purchase price and the other incentives were necessary to make the deal happen in the absence of a more robust real estate investment market in the city.

“The real focus for the EDC was seeing the project developed,” he said. “These projects still need incentives.”

About half of the historic building will come down, with the rest preserved and renovated for the DNR space, adjacent to Milliken State Park and the RiverWalk.

The DNR had initially planned a smaller space inside the Globe as part of a previous deal with another developer that would have seen the building redeveloped mostly as residential housing. But that deal fell through, and the DNR changed its plans from a modest 10,000-square-foot welcome center to about 50,000 square feet of outdoor adventure exhibits, activities and classrooms, as well as office space for about 20 staffers now based in Southfield.

“It was part of the vision for Milliken (State Park) right from the get-go,” Anthes said. “We had our eye on the Globe Building.”

There are, of course, welcome centers at many state parks, but the one in the Globe will be unique, she said. “We queried other state park directors and as far as we can tell, there isn’t anything like it in the country.”

She added, “This has evolved to be a grander and really a more holistic approach to what we want our visitors to experience. We believe this is the right thing for us to do here.”

John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press