Along the banks of what once was called the world's most crooked river, a straightforward property deal closed in January in southeastern Michigan that will help keep a hometown company home and maintain a special community's home all at once. And it came out of nowhere.
La-Z-Boy Inc., founded in Monroe 85 years ago, has finalized the purchase of 120 acres (hectares) along the River Raisin from the Monroe-based Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) order, founded in the area in 1845. The land will be used to build a new world headquarters for La-Z-Boy, which is expected to house approximately 500 employees, creating some 60 new jobs.
The land purchase completion, combined with the finalization in December of a combination of Michigan state, county and local tax breaks and grants to support the project, paves the way for La-Z-Boy to begin the final design of the building and site. The company has a goal of breaking ground and beginning construction in the spring with the expectation of moving into the new headquarters in late 2014 or the first half of 2015. Contractors on the project include local firm Mannick & Smith Group, and Toledo-based Rudolph/Libbe.
The company originally announced its intent to focus on the parcel last August, as it continued to weigh alternatives that included the Greater Toledo, Ohio, region just to the south.
Danielle Conroyd, project director for IHM’s Monroe Campus Long Range Master Plan, says the Sisters still retain approximately 105 acres.
“We’re just delighted about this,” she says of the project, which IHM staff learned of when approached by La-Z-Boy’s third-party firm that was scouting locations. The IHM campus is about a mile from La-Z-Boy’s current headquarters. It was Conroyd’s impression that the possibility of IHM land being available for the company’s project seemed a low probability to the company itself. But instead, “We said, ‘Yes, we would be open to talking some more,’ ” she says.
Ultimately, Kurt L. Darrow, chairman, president and CEO of La-Z-Boy, met with IHM’s team and shared the company’s sustainability goals and desire to preserve green space, all of which was music to IHM’s ears, and right in tune with plans already in place to preserve and conserve the land.
Sustainability is a central tenet of IHM, exemplified in the renovation of the order's motherhouse, which earned plaudits from EPA's Energy Star program as well as the American Institute of Architects for such measures as a new geothermal heating and cooling system, a gray-water system that has reduced freshwater consumption by half, and the reuse and restoration of nearly 1,500 windows, door and lighting fixtures. Another manifestation of the Sisters’ sustainability mission just went into operation last month: a 518-kilowatt solar array installed in partnership with utility DTE.
La-Z-Boy's plan includes a LEED-certified building "nestled into a parcel of land across from an oak savanna," said a company release. "Many areas of the building will have beautiful views into the wooded area. Vegetated swales in the parking lots, walking trails for La-Z-Boy employees and other natural features including meadows are also part of the plan."
"When completed, this landmark facility will provide an inspiring, innovative and collaborative work environment for our employees and highlight our evolving image as a worldwide leader in our industry," said Darrow.
"Partnering with La-Z-Boy, a local enterprise committed to building a sustainable culture within their company and industry, demonstrates IHM's commitment to implement our vision in partnership with others," said Mary Jane Herb, IHM president. "I expect there will be other opportunities for synergy between IHM and La-Z-Boy, because we are both endeavoring to protect the planet and leave it a better place for future generations."
Founded with an educational ministry, IHM's ministries today encompass pastoral care, justice advocacy, spiritual and psychological counseling, sustainability, and direct service to the poor in the United States and developing nations. Among the area's major employers, with just over 200 staff, IHM's central community includes 375 vowed sisters. Approximately 200 sisters reside in the motherhouse, where the median age is 84. About 120 of those sisters require supportive healthcare.
Revenue from the agreement with La-Z-Boy, whose motto is "Live life comfortably," will enable IHM to "continue the development of their campus as a learning lab for sustainable living, as well as to sustain the mission and assist with the order's retirement needs."
Ren Zone Key to Deal
According to the December announcement from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., La-Z-Boy plans to invest between $47 million and $53 million in the project, while also preparing its current headquarters site for redevelopment. The company will see $3 million in incentives from the Michigan Strategic Fund's Michigan Business Development Program, which provides grants, loans and other economic assistance to qualified businesses that make investments or create jobs in Michigan, with preference given to businesses that need additional assistance for deal-closing and for second-stage gap financing.
The MSF also approved a Renaissance Zone and $700,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds for the project. The City of Monroe and Frenchtown Township are supporting the Renaissance Zone for nine years, with a value of approximately $9 million.
"The County of Monroe and the Monroe County Business Development Corporation are thrilled that one of our oldest and most successful companies, La-Z-Boy Incorporated, has been able to secure the necessary incentives from the MSF Board to allow them to invest in a new world class headquarters in the community in which they were founded," said Monroe County Business Development Corporation President and CEO Tim C. Lake in December. "The County of Monroe and its Board of Commissioners and staff were most helpful in working with both the City of Monroe and Frenchtown Township to make this dream a reality. Retaining La-Z-Boy in the County of Monroe is important to not only the county but to the region."
In an interview, Lake says Darrow initiated the conversation with local and state officials, as his team considered sites in southeastern Michigan, Ohio and, at one time, Indiana. The project sat dormant for a few months, and then a team from MEDC, Monroe County, City of Monroe and Frenchtown Township started putting together a package worth opening. He says the La-Z-Boy team zeroed in on the IHM property after considering half a dozen sites in Monroe.
The property, located on the north side of the River Raisin, was actively farmed as recently as last year, planted with such sustenance crops as corn, soybeans and other vegetables.
Lake says Monroe Mayor Robert Clark played a pivotal role, as the city designed the Renaissance Zone for the project. "The city council was perceptive enough to see the value in making this investment," he says.
The new MSF-designated Renaissance Zone joins a select group of only 15 other such zones around the state, targeting specific operations of such companies as Dow Chemical, Dow Kokam and Dow Corning, as well as Johnson Controls-Saft, United Solar Ovonic and Magna Mirror Systems.
It's not all La-Z-Boy in the region. Projects have alighted in the area since January 2011 from auto supplier Hanwha, Benore Logistic Systems and Plastipak Packaging. Lake says there's enough activity that the area's existing inventory of buildings is starting to run low. Meanwhile, wind turbine tower builder Ventower Industries, located at the Port of Monroe, expects to nearly triple its output this year.
Value Meets Values
The La-Z-Boy HQ site involves both the City of Monroe and Frenchtown Township, though the building itself will be in Monroe proper. Lake says road improvements to accommodate increased traffic and water and sewer infrastructure upgrades are part of the overall package that won the day in the end. But the ecosystem component is a big deal for all parties too, as the River Raisin continues its gradual recovery since the 1970s from years of industrial dumping and other environmental degradation.
According to the IHM website, every year, "southeast Michigan loses about 13 square miles of land to development. That loss includes farms, fields, wetlands and woods. One of our priorities is the preservation and enhancement of green space."
An oak savanna is a rare ecosystem where oak forests of the Eastern U.S. meets with the prairies of the Midwest. Widely spaced oak trees allow filtered sunlight to reach the ground layer of tall prairie grasses, shrubs and wildflowers. According to IHM, "at one time, there were more than 600,000 acres of oak savannas in southeast Michigan. Today, less than two percent remain, primarily due to land development and fire suppression programs."
In spring 2005, in collaboration with the River Raisin Institute and AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, IHM began the first phase of a management plan to restore the ecosystem located on 35 acres at the north end of its campus. One option going forward was the formation of a land trust, as well as the use of conservation easements.
"As we move forward in Phase II of the campus development," said the IHM, "we want to ensure that IHM values regarding the Monroe property will be honored in perpetuity. Any partnerships we may form at this time will be affirming of our core values and principles."
It appears that La-Z-Boy shares those values and principles.
"Working with IHM, the company agreed to do this lean building, and keep this property as pristine as possible," says Lake. A Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources trust fund grant designed to preserve the oak savanna was fronted by the county several years ago, but had stalled out because of the faltering economy.
"La-Z-Boy has been great about saying, 'Let's see if we can work something out,' " says Lake. "They're talking about selling back 50 or 60 acres back to the county via this DNR trust fund grant. We're in the process of working it out. La-Z-Boy has agreed to at least keep it in the same condition. They're not going to destroy the woods."
"The La-Z-Boy project will demonstrate that sustainability incorporates economic, social and environmental and spiritual values," explained Sister Janet Ryan last fall. "That is why this project is so appealing to IHM."
“We see this as an opportunity for great synergy between a for-profit and a nonprofit,” says Conroyd. “The Sisters’ campus over the past 11 or 12 years has been transformed into this learning laboratory for sustainability, with 10,000 visitors over a 10-year period. This morning we’ll have another school group come. Groups visit from all sectors of life — elementary school kids, senior citizens, architects and engineers, wastewater professionals, major universities, graduate students in historic preservation, it’s just part of their curriculum now. That’s the way IHM is continuing to educate.”
A luncheon was held last week to celebrate the new project, and part of the proceedings was a ritual commemorating the transfer of the care of the land, says Conroyd.
“We talked about the history of the land and its prior owners going back to the Potawatomi,” she says. The group gave Darrow a plaque emblazoned with the famous quote attributed to Chief Seattle about “how the earth does not belong to us, we belong to it,” as well as a book published by IHM on its concept called “nature stations” and a copy of the Earth Charter.
“We see this as the beginning of a new phase,” says Conroyd of the project, including the ongoing care of the retired Sisters. “It’s an important responsibility, balancing the need for that and the desire to be responsible stewards of the earth,” she says.
But the real full circle question remains: Are there La-Z-Boy recliners on IHM premises? Conroyd says yes, indeed there are La-Z-Boy recliners in some of the Sisters’ rooms, including new furniture both purchased and donated when IHM moved back into the motherhouse after its two-year renovation.
“The mutual benefits are rich, and sometimes things just happen that you never expect,” she says, reflecting on the unexpected deal that she calls a “win-win-win” for the company, IHM and the larger community. “It’s a mile away from their current building, and they’d never thought about it. We had never thought, either, that there could be an international headquarters on our property. Sometimes things come together that you could never predict.”