With a potential buyer interested, and hoping to avoid being saddled with a huge liability, Tuscola County officials want to stop their own foreclosure proceedings involving the former Vassar foundry.
Attorneys for Tuscola County Treasurer Patricia Donovan-Gray plan to ask Tuscola County Circuit Court Judge Amy Grace Gierhart for a special order to temporarily halt the foreclosure process. Gierhart is scheduled to hear the matter on March 27.
That’s just four days before the 71-acre site is set to become property of Tuscola County through forfeiture via foreclosure, and barring payment of three years’ worth of unpaid taxes totaling about $120,000. The county would then sell the property in May to recoup the unpaid taxes and any related fees.
The fear is that the (currently unknown) costs to clean up the site will scare away potential buyers and the county will be stuck with the property — and any associated liabilities.
“The clock’s ticking,” said Mike Hoagland, controller, Tuscola County, during Thursday’s county board meeting. “We’re battling time.”
With just a few days between the appearance before Gierhart and the date of forfeiture, the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners has scheduled a special meeting for March 22 to discuss the foundry situation. (Update: On Monday, March 20, the March 22 meeting was cancelled and has not been rescheduled.)
Though on the agenda this past Thursday, Hoagland said there were just too many unknowns to discuss potential outcomes and/or actions related to the former foundry and pending foreclosure.
Tuscola County Commissioner Craig Kirkpatrick said he could see the March 22 meeting being “a long discussion.”
“I have questions coming to mind left and right, right now, that I’d like to ask the treasurer,” he said, adding that his questions pertain to options other than foreclosure.
The Metavation L.L.C. foundry — known in decades past as the Eaton Manufacturing foundry — shut down in 2013. Metavation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy that year, abandoning the foundry parcel that has a for-sale sign in front of it advising would-be buyers to contact Troy-based real estate agency L. Mason Capitani Inc. The property is listed for $750,000.
Those familiar with the property likely recognize the building — east of downtown Vassar along East Huron Avenue — by the water tower with the big “G” on it from when it was owned by Milwaukee-based Grede Foundries Inc. from 1986 until it was sold in 2009.
However, there are another 44 acres beyond the 257,000 square feet of factory space (10,000 square feet of office space). A railroad spur separates the land with the buildings and the vacant acreage.
Officials have said benefits of the site include the railroad access, which allows for loading and unloading large amounts of material for transport via train, and relatively close proximity to north and south I-75.
During Thursday’s county board meeting, other benefits discussed included access to sewer and water, along with other infrastructure already in place.
The main problem, however, is that no one knows the extent of contamination at the site of heavy industrial operations for decades.
Steve Erickson, executive director, Tuscola County Economic Development Corp., said three days of testing took place around March 8. Costs of about $5,000 were split between the city of Vassar and Tuscola County.
Erickson said both the potential buyer and the foreclosure process have accelerated efforts to determine the site’s level of contamination.
“When it comes to possible purchasers, time is money,” he said. “Purchasers, when they’re looking at a site, don’t have a lot of time to wait.”
Several vehicles — including a corporate bus with tinted windows — were seen at the site on March 8.
As The Advertiser reported Jan. 28, Erickson told the county board that week that an out-of-state company is eyeing the site for a $13 million plant.
On Thursday, Erickson said two companies had been interested in possibly buying the site, but one backed out because the extent of contamination is unknown and the company had to move on.
Knowing contamination levels is important because remediation costs will be a factor in moving forward with redevelopment of the site.
The information also can be important to securing grants, Erickson said, such as those available for sites identified as brownfields.
“But everybody’s worried about the liability,” he said.
In addition to the recent on-site testing, Erickson said the Tuscola County Economic Development Corp. is working with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to get any reports that have been done about previous tests.
“Hopefully, within the next couple of weeks we’ll have some test results,” Erickson said, adding that results will then be shared with officials in Vassar and at the county level.
As of today, and per the normal annual process for properties foreclosed upon, the foundry site is set to be owned by the county within two weeks due to the forfeiture via foreclosure.
Typically, forfeited properties are sold via auction, with a starting bid set at the amount of money owed on the taxes (about $120,000 in this case).
In this case, however, Hoagland said the foreclosure could end up costing the public a lot more than the lost tax revenue.
“Again, we need to have these experts in here before we draw any conclusions — but as I understand it, if it goes through foreclosure, and nobody buys it and the county owns it, you are liable,” Hoagland told the county board Thursday.
The Advertiser reached out to Donovan-Gray for comment, and if factors such as contamination are ever considered in other instances involving foreclosed property.
She provided a written response that said, “All I can say right now is that the county’s attorney and my attorney are working on this.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org