By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — After five nearly-deal-busting stalemates, two years of negotiations — and in the midst of a crippling recession — two of the city’s biggest names in health care are set to break ground on a new medical office facility in the city’s East End Wednesday.
Oakwood Healthcare System and Midwest Health will be the primary tenants in the roughly 168,000-square-foot complex that will focus on specialized care. Southfield-based developer REDICO is the contractor on the project, which is expected to be completed in December 2010.
The complex will be at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Schaefer, across the street from City Hall, and will mark the end of eight years of uncertainty for the marquee location. Since 2001, the site was home to the vacant and decaying Montgomery Ward department store.
In that time, the building has changed ownership three times, going from Jamal Beydoun in 2001, to a partnership of fugitive Talal Chahine, an alleged tax evader, and partner Kayed Bazzi in 2002, until 2005, when the city purchased the property out of dissatisfaction with the project ideas brought forth to that point.
And as many times as the property has changed hands in the past decade, it has had more proposals for its use. Just a few of the ideas brought forward that eventually were dismissed because of viability questions include a new Dearborn public school, a minor league baseball park and a banquet center.
The project comes at a time in the state where numerous similar projects have been mothballed because of the tight credit market and an ongoing, nationwide economic recession.
“The fact that they were able to get this project financed in this credit market is truly remarkable and really speaks to what kind of reputable businesses these are,” said Barry Murray, the city’s head of economic and community development.
Prelease rates are already at 83 percent occupancy. Most of the unleased space is intended for retail suites on the complex’s main floor and on the ground floor of a 530-space parking deck to the south. City officials believe the relatively high level of occupancy was key to getting the project off the ground.
“Eighty-three percent prelease rates are almost unheard of,” Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. has said previously. “The banks simply won’t finance speculative building projects right now and probably won’t for a long time, so this high occupancy was very important.”
And in a county where unemployment levels are hovering just below 15 percent and likely headed upward with further automaker job cuts, the facility is expected to finally bring some positive employment news to the area.
Midwest Health, which currently operates from 5050 Schaefer about a block north, will move its 300 employees down the road. Oakwood is expected to create 200 new positions when the facility opens.
And in the short term, 30 construction jobs will be filled immediately, with that number more than doubling in coming months as progress picks up. The likely increase in foot traffic is a welcome change for business owners.
“Since we moved in here we’ve had to deal with the Michigan Avenue construction, and now this economy. It’s been tough. So is this good? Yeah, absolutely,” said Dan Merritt, owner of Green Brain Comics a block to the east.
The optimism isn’t limited to the business community, though. Nearby residents also are excited about the project.
“I hope this brings more people down here. (The businesses) need it. We need it,” said Yves LeBlanc, who lives in the neighborhood west of City Hall.
Even though the project stood out against a backdrop of idled projects across the state, it didn’t escape the jaws of recession completely unscathed. Originally included in REDICO’s bid was a 100-unit independent senior living facility, but that has been nixed until the battered housing market starts to recover.
By J. PATRICK PEPPER