BY GLENN PUIT
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A growing company’s move to Garfield Township is breathing new life into a long-dormant commercial property, and sparked optimism about future development near LaFranier and South Airport roads.
Environmental Protection, Inc. purchased the expansive former Lear Plant complex at 1567 S. Airport Road last summer. EPI, formerly located on U.S. 131 near Mancelona, supplies plastic liners for water and waste containment to customers throughout the world.
Company President and Owner Dan Rohe said the old Lear building purchase represents a huge milestone for the business. The company is spending at least $400,000 to rehab the nearly 90,000-square-foot complex and plans to lease out roughly 25,000-square feet of warehouse space and ancillary buildings.
“There is so much innovation and technological advances in our field that by setting up here, it allows us to set up two different fabrication lines,” Rohe said. “It opens up a lot of doors for us.”
The property once was a bustling commerce center because of Lear, an auto parts manufacturer that employed nearly 1,000 people in its heyday. The plant’s closure in 2004 cost the community hundreds of jobs and led to the property’s slow decline. The Faith Reformed Church of Traverse City purchased the structure in 2008.
“The plans were to remodel and turn it into a church, and it didn’t pan out,” said Dave Anderson, associate pastor at Faith Reformed. “We are really excited to see it used by somebody, and we are also really excited to sell it because we aren’t in the business of holding real estate.”
Rohe said a group of men in Kalkaska founded EPI in 1980. The original purpose was to make pit liners to contain waste generated from oil and gas extraction. The company expanded with the assembly and installation of liners used in the Leelanau County landfill. Rohe’s father, Fred, was a general manager for the company in the 1980s and eventually bought it.
The company since expanded its product line, and offers multiple types of liners used to contain waste and water. EPI recently assembled and installed the liner for an 850-acre drinking water reservoir in Columbus, Ohio.
“We are not actually the manufacturer,” Rohe said. “We don’t actually make the plastic. What we do is, we are a converter. We take the roles of plastic, overlap them, seam them together into large panels ... and that goes out to the customer.
“We’ve sold liners all over the world, as far away as the Philippines and Kazakhstan and South America,” Rohe said. “It’s a global market but the majority of our business is east of the Mississippi in the United States.”
Rohe said he takes pride in running the company like a family business. Employees who worked at the company’s former property in Mancelona were all transferred to the Traverse City office and no one lost their jobs.
“It’s a great place to work,” said Brad DeArment, general manager at EPI. “The people we have really enjoy working here. It’s a big part of their lives.”
EPI’s property purchase has huge ramifications for the surrounding area, said Doug Luciani, president and chief executive officer of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The building was an extremely challenging one in how to re-purpose it,” Luciani said. “Having that big of a building sitting vacant and atrophying along South Airport Road was a deterrent to development. Having a tenant willing to take the building and make improvements, with the credibility of this company, should be very beneficial.
“If it’s done right there will be more development around it,” Luciani said. “Higher-end development.”