Deals with Amazon, Renaissance Global Logistics and Fiat Chrysler are powering demand for industrial space, pushing prices up and available space down - and prompting hopes that the activity will extend north along the I-75 corridor to Genesee County.
"We hear across the Detroit metro area that it's a challenge to find available acreage at a freeway (interchange)," said Janice Karcher, vice president of economic development at the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce. "Here, you can find it."
Lear Corporation recently formalized a deal to build a 150,000-square-foot assembly plant for its auto components in Flint. It is buying a portion of the property that once held General Motors' sprawling Buick City factory complex, which was demolished and listed for sale during GM's bankruptcy.
That deal is expected to generate 435 jobs, and signals the potential for the Flint area's other high-profile vacancies, Karcher said. All have seen, over the past 18 months, "strong interest not only from businesses in the auto industry, but from other sectors that can benefit from our unique workforce and infrastructure."
Those vacancies include:
Nearly 400 remaining acres at Buick City in Flint.
Additional acreage across the county, including Burton and Grand Blanc Township, that also is former GM property.
A parcel along I-75 that formerly was a Meijer store.
Land at Saginaw and Baldwin roads along I-75 and near north Oakland County.
A former Delphi plant that offers 550,000 square feet of manufacturing space - including access to rail, clear height of 18-42 feet and 17 truck wells - on 77 acres for an asking price of $3.6 million.
Those properties are available within 60 minutes of Detroit while the southeast Michigan market sees growth in construction of both build-to-suit project and speculative industrial buildings, too.
Two years ago, the Metro Detroit area saw just over 1 million square feet of new industrial construction. Today, that's up to just over 4 million, while the leasing rate climbed 20 percent.
The average vacancy rate, according to CBRE, was 2.4 percent - holding at below 3 percent for a full year, and setting an all-time low for the market.
The region, according to a second-quarter study by CBRE Research, "continue(s) to indicate signs of a healthy market with the lack of available supply being outpace by occupier demand."
That's prompting some larger construction projects, notably in the Romulus area near Detroit Metropolitan Airport, as auto supplier, logistics and tech companies seek larger-scale space.
In Flint, the market velocity is decidedly slower, according to CBRE, but "market fundamentals are improving."
Helping that along is the recent expansion of the General Motors Flint Assembly plant, which has received $2.8 billion in investment since 2009 - and which produces some of the company's top products, like the Chevrolet Silverado.
"GM is a magnet for its entire supply base," said Lauren Scarpace, a commercial broker in areas north of Detroit for CBRE. "Same with Nexteer or Dow."
CBRE data shows that active listings total 19 in the Flint area, down from 30 a year ago. And sales prices are up about 65 percent.
Now, as occupancy picks up, it's time for the Flint area to consider its building inventory, said one business leader attending a Homecoming event in August. That event, sponsored by the chamber, brought together Flint natives and leaders to encourage new business activity.
Some raise questions about whether it's time for some speculative industrial construction to pay off north of Metro Detroit.
"We do not have enough turnkey industrial facilities," said Bob Schaffer, CEO of C3 Ventures, at the homecoming event.
That contrasts to growing industrial markets, including China, that can quickly turn business interest into a deal, he said.
"We've got a lot of land, old buildings; we've got a lot of cool things to work on," Schaffer told the crowd of a few hundred. "If I can bring one message back from China: They had turnkey facilities ready to go for entrepreneurs or business people.
"Some people can't wait that six months or a year for facilities to be built."
It's something that his company is weighing, he added, since he has an estimated half-dozen existing tenants who want to expand and recognizes likelihood that more will follow.
Opportunities are coming to both areas, Scarpace said, as companies start to turn to the market.
What they find in the Flint and Saginaw markets might surprise site selection experts who focus exclusive in Metro Detroit, he said.
"Operating costs, labor costs and real estate costs are significantly lower up there," Scarpace said. "That can start telling the story about why companies should further consider going to those markets."
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