Fire prevention aids downtown's Renaissance

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

KALAMAZOO, Mich.--City Fire Marshal Marty Myers believes there's a connection between fire prevention and economic development, and he says that a sprinkler project in this city proves it.
In the last two years, 18 historic downtown buildings have been retrofitted with sprinklers thanks to a program organized by Myers.
The program is part of a massive revitalization project in a downtown that was devastated in the 1980s when five paper companies and other businesses left.
In 2004, $100,000 was spent on sprinkler installations in eight buildings. Based on the additional investment by building owners and the resulting higher value of the buildings, Myers said that the $100,000 investment led to $5 million in economic development.
Last year, the program spent $160,000 to sprinkler eight more buildings. "These buildings were bigger and have higher value than the other ones, so [the economic development figure] should be even higher for last year," he said.
The sprinkler incentive program, which combines city utility incentives, donated sprinkler heads from the Viking Corp. of Hastings, Mich., and part of a $390,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant.
The Viking Corp.'s donation of 1,000 sprinkler heads was a way to "build awareness that when you renovate a structure, you can make it more appealing, not just from an architectural perspective, but also from a safety perspective, by retrofitting with sprinklers," said Tom Groof, chief executive officer of the Viking Group, the parent company of Viking Corp.
Myers has applied for another grant for this year and expects to hear this month.
"The first year we had to seek out buildings to retrofit; the second year, after people heard about the partnership, they started approaching us and we have more businesses that are interested this year," Myers said.
Ron Smilanich is the owner of Bimbo's Pizza, a flagship restaurant in Kalamazoo's downtown district since his father opened it in 1959.
Smilanich received funds to help install sprinklers in his 125-year-old three-story brick building. The cost for sprinkling the basement and first floor was about $40,000. The city grant cut costs "roughly in half," he said.
Smilanich is converting the upper two floors of his building into condos, something that other businesses are doing as well. Kalamazoo is home to three colleges and close to 30,000 students.
There is a growing demand for downtown housing, but converting upper floors into housing requires the installation of sprinklers.
Smilinach credits Myers' sprinklers program, the active downtown revitalization group called Downtown Kalamazoo Incorporated, and economic boosts from local philanthropists for the newly vibrant downtown and invigorated local school system.
In recent years, downtown has changed, he said. "There used to be a lot of real estate available, but I don't think you could buy a building downtown today."