Van Buren Township, Michigan
Buzzing with industry & recreation
Business View Magazine interviews representatives of Van Buren Township, Michigan, for our focus on Sustainability in U.S. Cities
Van Buren Township, Michigan is a thriving community enhanced by its homes, schools, churches, shopping centers, and industrial parks. Home to nearly 30,000 people, the Township is conveniently located in Wayne County near two airports and two major expressways and, as a result, several new residential and industrial developments are under construction. Beautiful Belleville Lake, now with hundreds of homes along its shoreline, continues to be a prime recreational site in the heart of the Township. Being smackdab in the middle between Detroit and Ann Arbor means urban amenities are near at hand, and commuting distance for Township residents is a breeze.
Jennifer Zaenglein, Township Recreation Director, shares, “Van Buren Township really is a small community with a big heart. It surrounds the City of Belleville and has just about everything you could want. Close to different larger communities – we’re connected by water, by highways – yet so many people grow up here and decide to stay and raise their families here. It’s a place where everyone feels like friends and neighbors.”
The Township also has Wayne County’s second largest airport, Willow Run, which houses the Yankee Air Museum and historical sites where, for instance, Rosie the Riveter was working. All this fascinating past history is intertwined with today’s industrial growth in the American Center for Mobility, which is next to the airport and has a huge campus that includes the manufacturing of electric vehicles.
Van Buren has a very diverse housing stock in development, thanks to a master plan that was created in 1989 and updated in November 2020. The bones of the original plan were kept, where the top third of the Township is left as an industrial area, another third is for residential housing, and the bottom third is reserved for ‘the lake life’ that has some homes but is also the rural community. Farmers live and work the land in that lower third, raise horses, etc. So, while the Township is divided, that’s really a draw for people to live and do business.
It’s no secret that Parks and Recreation is a key driver for Van Buren Township’s future and at the top of the community’s wish list. According to Zaenglein, “It’s a great time for us. Right now we’re in the planning phases for a new community center. We’re also in phase one of renovations at our French Landing park – there’s been a lot of upgrades to walkways and a new pavilion that screams ‘family party, come out and have fun!’ Phase two will have a boardwalk/dock for fishing, we’re also hoping for a kayak and canoe launch. The renovations are very important to draw more people to French Landing for all types of recreation, rather than just fishing.”
All of the Township parks will receive new signage to draw visitors in from the highway and guide them throughout the parks. A new master plan is also in the works for Van Buren Park in 2022, which will see two of the three pavilions demolished and replaced.
Elizabeth Renaud, Director of Community Services, reports, “There is a shift in the Township Board’s priorities for capital improvements and our capital improvement line item in the budget (not including the community center) more than tripled for this year. So they’re really reaffirming their interest in investing in our parks, bringing out the community to them, just completely revamping a lot of them.”
The Iron Belle Trail is a statewide hiking and bicycling trail system from Ironwood, Michigan, in the upper peninsula, down to Belle Isle Park near Detroit. Zaenglein explains, “It goes right through Van Buren Township, but there are spaces (six to seven miles) missing from west to east and we’re trying to connect those pieces. Thanks to a grant, this past summer we were able to complete a big chunk of the trail in the park that we call The Saddle (of Van Buren Park). It was a major project for us because it had to be completely reconstructed – culverts were failing, a lot of erosion was happening because it’s right along the lake. Once each section is connected, the project will finish the Van Buren Township link of the Iron Belle Trail. This will allow people to travel safely from east to west, on the trail, throughout the Township and have full trail access to many of our lovely parks for our citizens and visitors.”
Van Buren Township Community Center
Born out of the needs of the community in Van Buren Township, there was a lot of due diligence and research done over the past couple years about building a Township Community Center. The project really started to develop a strong footing when the Board of Trustees approved a Feasibility Study to be completed.
A powerhouse team of consultants, including Plante Moran Cresa, Neumann Smith, EPIC MRA, and Russell Design, were hired to bring the feasibility study to fruition. The Project was developed and molded through an extensive public outreach and community engagement process. Multiple “Town Halls” and public comment periods were held during public meetings to assess the community’s senior and recreational needs.
A community telephone survey showed some very positive results. Over 83% of respondents were in favor of building a new Community Center in the Township, and over 66% of respondents noted that the new center should be located at the existing Township Hall site. “The support for that location was great for several reasons: construction costs would be much lower than working off a site with no existing infrastructure, and it created a centralized hub or “one-stop shop” for community members,” stated Kevin McNamara, Township Supervisor. “Residents will be able to pay their water bill, register to vote, and jump it to group Zumba class all within the same facility”
The Township’s existing recreation and senior space is very limited, as is the programming potential. After COVID-19, the challenges only grew because of the need for social distancing. The demand for recreational activities for youth, adults, and seniors is ever growing. “This Community Center will truly revitalize and transform the current Van Buren Township Parks & Rec program space and Senior Center into a new, exclusive, and accessible community hub for all ages!” expressed Renaud.
The project is a partial renovation of existing spaces, as well as expanding the footprint of the current structure to allow for the construction of new community spaces. The renovation is approximately 14,000 sq ft and the addition is approximately 16,000 sq ft. The Center will provide necessary areas for community activities and services including recreational opportunities, senior programs, mental & physical health services, and more. It will serve not only the community’s cultural and recreational needs but allow for multipurpose spaces that can be programmed for the benefit of public health, such as an emergency relief center (E.g. cooling/warming shelter, disaster relief, food distribution).
Program spaces include a senior multipurpose room; a rehab to the senior craft room, lounge, and gift shop; two party and meeting rooms available for rent to community members and local businesses; a black box theater, teen center, locker shower and bathrooms; community services offices that house recreation and senior offices; an elevated track, open fitness area with cardio and strength training machines, a fitness studio for group fitness classes, a full gym, an outdoor fitness patio, and an outdoor plaza programming space.
In the preconstruction phase, Plante Moran Cresa was selected as the Owner’s Representative and Neumann Smith was selected as the Project Architect based on the feasibility study. Preconstruction services were then formally bid out and Frank Rewold & Sons was selected as the Project’s Construction Manager.
Given recent struggles with the estimated construction budget because of the state of the construction market, the Township is looking at different revenue sources to help bridge the funding gap. Two community organizations have put forth generous contributions to the project: VBT Downtown Development Authority has committed $1.137 million to fund the Black Box Theater portion of the project, and the Van Buren Township Civic Fund has committed $1 million to help fund the teen center area and outdoor amenity space.
The Community Center & Senior Center Improvements project will be formally bid out under the construction manager. Frank Rewold & Sons utilizes a proactive bidding approach and their construction expertise to identify specific areas within the documents where trade alternates might benefit the project, and write them into the work scopes. The project is currently in the design development phase with bidding slated to be out in March and April. “Hopefully, shovels will be in the ground by May, as long the funding gap is sorted out,” remarked McNamara.
With so much exciting development news going on, it’s no wonder that Van Buren Township is catching the attention of people of all ages who are seeking a special place to call home. The new year certainly holds massive potential for this charming and progressive community.
AT A GLANCE
Van Buren Township, Michigan
WHAT: Historic charter township, population approx. 30,000
WHERE: Wayne County, Michigan