Development booms in Romulus, as 'aerotropolis' region begins to take flight

Candice Williams, The Detroit News
·5 min read

Feb. 22—As the COVID-19 pandemic has dampened the outlook for businesses across the state, the city of Romulus is seeing a different picture: economic growth.

In the past year, the city said more than 25 new businesses have either opened or announced plans to open in the city. Among them are a 135,000-square-foot Kroger fulfillment center announced in September and Vistar, a 165,200-square-foot food distribution center set to open in May.

Overall, the recent investments are expected to bring $34 million in commercial development and $85.8 million in industrial development, according to city estimates.

"It does seem like Romulus is a bit of a hot spot for business growth at this time," said Trevor Friedeberg, director of business development for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

"Romulus, just being in a really unique position kind of on the outskirts of the Detroit area and southeast Michigan, but then also have proximity to the rest of the state and even Midwest. It's not that far away from the Ohio border, Toledo. Things like that. We've seen a surge of these logistics companies gravitating to that area."

The area's potential for development was identified as early as 2006, when business, government and educational leaders began a plan to amass and repurpose land in the vicinity of the renewed and expanded Detroit Metropolitan Airport, along with nearby Willow Run Airport, the state's fourth busiest. The efforts to develop an "aerotropolis" were hampered by scandal, political and funding issues, but may finally be gaining ground.

Romulus credits the growth to its streamlined review and planning process, which it touts as a benefit to companies large and small. Other draws are its access to freeways and the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

The MEDC has worked with the city on tax incentives for numerous large-scale projects in recent years including logistics facilities for Kroger and Vistar.

"It's all about getting the stuff to the people," Friedeberg said.

Developers are seeking out the city to tap undeveloped land at a time when experts say the demand for industrial land is high due to the increase in manufacturing and e-commerce needs.

The industrial market has stayed strong in Metro Detroit with 6.5 million square feet of mostly preleased new product under construction during fourth-quarter 2020, according to real estate advisory firm Newmark Knight Frank.

Tony Antone, an executive with Bloomfield Hills-based Kojaian Management Corp., has done business in Romulus in recent years, including developing a property on Vining Road for the Amazon fulfillment center that opened in 2018.

The most recent project Kojaian has undertaken is Vistar, which began construction last June and is set to open in May. It's an expansion from its current 95,000-square-foot facility in Van Buren Township.

The project could have been derailed as the COVID-19 hit while they were undergoing the approval process, but Antone said the city met with them through a socially distanced meeting and then virtually to keep the project on schedule, he said.

Antone declined to reveal company names, but he said Kojaian is working to lure other companies from other states to Romulus, as well.

"A couple of those have been going well as we've been able to tell the story of the city business friendly, wanting to work with companies to bring jobs to the city," he said. "Companies that we talk to all want to know that they can get their project approved. They've got a time frame that they have to be open by that they can get the approvals, build the building and get open in the time frame that they need for whatever their business need is."

The Kroger facility will sit in the aerotropolis region, development-ready land near Detroit Metro and Willow Run targeted for development.

Mayor LeRoy D. Burcroff said the city has adopted a fast-track system, which streamlines business reviews and planning and creates a business-friendly permit process. It was especially important during the past year with the pandemic, Burcroff said.

"We were able to keep these projects moving forward and not have them stall out, because the developers had enough challenge finding contractors during COVID," he said. "If they had a project that got stalled on our side, or their side or both it could be devastating."

Burcroff noted the city recently received recognition for economic development efforts through the annual eCities study conducted by researchers at iLabs, University of Michigan-Dearborn's Center for Innovation Research. It marked the third consecutive year that Romulus has received five stars.

Other significant projects are underway, as well.

Skyworks LLC, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based construction equipment rental business, is expanding with a new location in Romulus after purchasing Garden City Rental in January 2020.

And Ontario-based produce grower Mucci Farms in June announced it would open a warehouse and distribution facility in Romulus. The 66,300-square-foot site on Inkster Road will primarily service the Midwest and Northeast United States.

"This location will help us pack, repack and distribute our full lineup to the region in a timely manner," Gianni Mucci, vice president of operations, said at the time of the announcement. "Romulus is a great location for us as it allows us to avoid wait times at the border and quickly redirect product to several states."

Romulus has also been a draw for small business.

Bruce Watson held a grand opening in December for his clothing store, Swaggs Apparel on Goddard. He said he was drawn to Romulus because of the competitive rental rates.

Watson, who previously sold goods online, said that he worked with the city to register his brick-and-mortar business and for the permits needed to make changes the store's interior to accommodate his needs.

"Everyone was really welcoming from the city hall," he said. "It was a smooth process getting everything registered. They helped me out as much as they could, especially being a new business owner my first time opening up."

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN