How Marquette County Land Bank took on property at an abandoned air force base

Posted on

Downtown - Marquette, MI - Credit Payton Heins for the Center for Community Progress - 2014

Downtown – Marquette, MI – Credit Payton Heins for the Center for Community Progress – 2014

Land banks can be useful in communities of all sizes.

While land banking has been established as an important tool in the urban revitalization toolbox, our new report, Take it to the Bank: How Land Banks Are Strengthening America’s Neighborhoods, also shows how land banking works in more rural areas.

Marquette County is located in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula. With a 4% vacancy rate and an abundance of vacation homes, it is hardly a postcard community for ‘blight.’ However, after the closure of the enormous K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in 1995, a major economic anchor in the county, the community was facing vacancy and abandonment on an unprecedented scale.

K.I. Sawyer was located on a 5,200 acre site and consisted of housing, medical facilities, air facilities, and other structures. Over time, as the property sat vacant, it became a major public safety hazard and a haven for criminal activity. What’s worse, vacant K.I. Sawyer buildings were immediately adjacent to a functioning local elementary school, creating an unsafe (and unsightly) environment for children.

So, in 2013, the land bank secured funds to demolish nearly 40 buildings near the school, with plans to transfer the land to the school for recreation space. To learn more about this project and its impact we interviewed Anne Giroux, Marquette County Treasurer and Executive Director of the Marquette County Land Bank. Here’s what she had to say:

How did the scale of vacancy created with the closure of the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base compare to what Marquette County was accustomed to dealing with?

County Treasurer Anne Giroux: The scale of vacancy created with the closure of the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base was like nothing Marquette County had ever experienced before. The population of Marquette County as a whole declined by an estimated 12 percent and with that came hundreds of vacated housing units and commercial buildings.

When and how did the idea come up to transfer some of the base property to the Marquette County Land Bank?

AG: Some of the privately owned, vacant, blighted property was nearing foreclosure for nonpayment of property taxes. The County Treasurer was able to convince the owner of the property to agree to allow the property to be foreclosed on and subsequently transferred to the Land Bank. This commitment from the owner allowed the Land Bank to apply for blight funding. With that commitment and the funding in hand, the Land Bank was able to eliminate some of the worst vacated housing stock left at the former base.

Many of the residential units in the worst condition at K. I. Sawyer are next door to an elementary school. How did the land bank partner with the school when planning for the future of the property?

AG: The Land Bank met with both the school and the Sawyer Community Alliance and it was determined that demolition was the best option for dealing with these particular properties. It was also known that there was limited reuse potential for the site, so it made sense to simply transfer the vacant land to the school district post-demolition.

Around the country, more than 350 military bases have closed, some of them located in states that, like Michigan, have land banks. What advice would you give to those communities — or others facing large abandoned compounds, military or otherwise — about the role a land bank can play in addressing unusually large vacant properties?

AG: Land bank authorities certainly have a lot of experience with, and are set up to efficiently deal with, vacant properties. Many times they are poised to obtain funding for demolition and/or rehabilitation. They are also often in a good position to collaborate with multiple partners and interested parties in creatively determining appropriate end-use strategies.

Curious to know more about the Marquette County Land Bank’s story — as well as the stories of other land banks in the U.S.? Download Take it to the Bank: How Land Banks Are Strengthening America’s Neighborhoods here.