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Orion's open for business: Several indoor recreation facilities among many new ventures

January 12, 2011 - What do batteries, burgers and a 50,000-square-foot BMX park have in common?

All are examples of the goods and services produced at new Orion Township businesses.

"We've changed the impression people get from Orion. We used to be very difficult to work with, but we've developed a reputation for being a more welcoming community, and that's a huge accomplishment." --Matthew Gibb, Orion Township Supervisor
According to township supervisor Matthew Gibb, some 600-700 new jobs are coming to town in the months ahead as dozens of businesses locate or relocate in Orion.

Several new indoor recreational facilities – including a gymnastics and cheer organization, a BMX park and a volleyball training center are all among more than 50 new ventures calling Orion home, and a number of industrial businesses are also coming in, or at least taking a serious look at what the community has to offer.

So what's behind the new growth? Gibb said he attributes it to a number of things.

First, property values are bottoming out and beginning to stabilize, thus making new ventures more affordable and less risky.

Second, the township recently swept off the porch and laid out a brand-new welcome mat.

"We've changed the impression people get from Orion," Gibb said. "We used to be very difficult to work with, but we've developed a reputation for being a more welcoming community, and that's a huge accomplishment."

In years gone by, he explained, the township was known for requiring prospective business owners, developers and others to jump through a long string of administrative hoops.

Most found it difficult – and costly – to set up shop in Orion.

Word got around, and eventually, most people looking to establish or grow a business didn't even bother to stop and have a look around.

"We said 'no' a lot," said Gibb, who served as township trustee before he was elected supervisor in 2008.

In 2009, Gibb rallied the troops and generated support for a significant overhaul of the township's Master Plan.

The result, he said, is a "business-friendly" municipality.

"Sometimes it's good to say no – some types of businesses you don't want in your community – and sometimes it's not good to say no so much," he said. "But we've undone that reputation."

These days, the township offers prospective businesses incentives like expedited PUD (planned unit development) plans, broad, pre-planned industrial development districts, tax incentives and pre-application meetings that encourage entrepreneurs to informally approach the planning commission or board of trustees for feedback.

"They don't have to spend $10,000 to come in and get an answer," Gibb said. "They're not getting held up for six or 12 months."

And zoning changes now allow businesses to settle where they once could not.

For example, after fLipSpot Gymnastics and Cheer applied for and were granted special land use by the township planning commission, they got to work outfitting the building to become what they call "the premiere gymnastics and cheer facility" in the area. Located at 233 Kay Industrial Drive, near Lapeer and Silverbell, the otherwise unused industrial building has exactly what they need: High ceilings and ample floor space. They're planning grand-opening events for the last two weekends in January.

Other recreational facilities are moving into Orion, as well. Oakland Elite Volleyball, already up and running at 143 Northpointe Drive, caters to young athletes who are serious about achieving their volleyball goals.

Vert Village is a 50,000 square-foot warehouse at 4662 Joslyn Road. The facility, said owner and veteran BMXer Marc Milam, was designed specifically for BMX riders.

"The closest park like it is in Cleveland, Ohio," he said, noting some nearby skate parks allow bikes in, but only during set hours. And they're not designed for bikes.

Milam said he's currently working to get the building filled with wooden ramps and jumps for riders of all skill levels and ages. The facility will feature classes and camps, a training gym, café, an apparel and parts shop, and a spectator area.

With sights set on a March 1 opening, Milam seems to back up the township's "business-friendly" claim.

"They were very excited when I told them about my business," he said. "They said they'd help with whatever they could, and that they wanted to make it as easy as possible."

And it's not just recreation and industry coming in.

According to Alaina Campbell, executive director for the Orion Area Chamber of Commerce, some 60 businesses joined the chamber in 2010.

"Usually we're out recruiting businesses to join," said Campbell. "The last four or five months, they've been coming to us."

Not everyone who recently joined the chamber represents a new business, she pointed out. Some companies have changed hands, while others are just looking for new opportunities to promote their endeavors. Still, she said, it's a positive sign.

"Lately, I'm thinking 'Wow, things are really starting to happen," said Campbell, noting she's heard a number of people in the local business community speak positively about ordinance adjustments. "And I think the changes the township made have been a big part of that."

The township has also been able to lure businesses with tax abatement incentive packages.

Pipe Systems, Inc., a mechanical contractor located at 199 Kay Industrial Drive, was granted a personal property tax abatement, and BCG Properties received a real property abatement. Both were awarded under the industrial facilities exemption.

Other additions to the township's new industrial lineup include LEONI Engineering Products & Services, Inc., at 100 Kay Industrial Drive, and South Korea-based SB LiMotive, who announced in November it would develop lithium ion battery packs for the Fiat 500EV at an Orion facility.

The Fiat 500EV, which is being developed by Chrysler in Auburn Hills for a U.S. launch in 2012, debuts at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week.

And while General Motors is working fast and furious in its retooling process at the Orion Assembly Plant, many of the operation's necessary suppliers have not yet been identified.

Gibb said he's hoping things on that front become a little more clear in the spring.

"Parts manufacturers, all the logistic pieces, warehousing, inventory and shipping facilities," he listed. "We don't know where any of that's going to land yet; it's our job to make sure it lands in Orion."

Several new fast food restaurants are popping up in the township, as well.

A Taco Bell recently opened on Baldwin near Brown Road, a Latshaw Checkers is in the works on M-24, and Indianwood Junction is in the process of completely rebuilding to include a gas station and restaurant in the long-standing establishment located near the intersection/traffic circle at Indianwood, Baldwin and Coats.

According to Gibb, it looks like a new eatery will soon occupy the former CVS site at Baldwin and Waldon, as well, with another likely at Baldwin and Maybee.

"That will probably happen when the Census information comes in and we find out if we'll get any additional liquor licenses," he said.

---More coming soon: The township planning commission recently sent a year's worth of work -- known as the Brown Road Innovation District, or BIZ – to the board of trustees for approval. The "BIZ" could finally mean big changes for the Brown Road area between Baldwin and Joslyn. But it also leaves unanswered questions and uncertainties for the area's current residents – questions about increased taxes, or the possibility of getting surrounded stranded on a piece of land no one wants.

Lake Orion Review Editor
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