Muskegon smokestacks demolition signals change for lakeshore

Sappi Paper Mill
The smokestacks at the old Sappi Paper Mill that will be demolished. (July 6, 2017)

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Muskegon’s skyline is about to undergo a major face lift as the huge smokestacks that dotted the lakeshore are slated to come down.

The smaller smokestack at Lakeside Drive could come down as soon as next week, further signaling the end of the Sappi Fine Paper Mill that was one of the main drivers of Muskegon’s economy for nearly a century.

Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson said crews will attempt to take down the Sappi stack on July 18.

Sappi Paper Mill, Muskegon
An undated photo of the now-demolished Sappi Paper Mill. (Courtesy Pure Muskegon)

Thursday, 24 Hour News 8 talked with a 92-year-old woman who retired from the plant after 40 years of employment about her memories of the mill and what she hopes comes next.

“The paper mill was very good to Muskegon, even though at first people complained about the smell of the paper mill, but that was money,” said Ellouise Hieftje.

Hieftje started working at the paper plant just after World War II and retired in the late 1980s. She said she walked to work and was able to come home at lunch.

“A lot of your neighbors worked there, it was almost like a family thing,” Hieftje said.

Now at an impressively spry 92 years old, she lives on her own and serves as president of the Muskegon Lakeside Neighborhood Association. She attends city meeting and is fully informed on all that’s happening at the plant that closed in 2009. The empty factory was imploded in 2013.

“I hated to see the mill close down, it meant a lot of jobs, a lot of activity for the people, but I’m sure whatever Melching does will be good,” Hieftje said.

The property is owned by the consortium Pure Muskegon, but is being cleaned up by Melching Incorporated — which previously owned the Muskegon Lake property.

The smokestacks are coated with asbestos lined paint which is being removed, but one of the stacks is too unstable for workers and must be knocked down first. That could happen as soon as next week.

“But I think the environmental issue will be watched very closely, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over it,” Hieftje said.

Muskegon, Windward Pointe
A file aerial shot of the old Sappi Paper Mill site that will become the new Windward Pointe. (Undated photo courtesy Pure Muskegon)

Meanwhile, Ellouise is looking forward to a new shoreline.

“We’ve got the water and let’s utilize it, let’s really zero in on it,” Hieftje said “I’d like to see another marina. Look at Charlevoix, look at Traverse City, these places where they have all the marinas.”

As soon as Wednesday — if everything goes as planned — the shorter of the two smokestacks could come down.

“Yeah, exactly, it’s going to blow up,” said Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson.

The demolition of both of the structures has been planned, but the timeframe on the shorter stack has been changed. The stacks, built as long as 100 years ago, were coated with paint that contained the known carcinogen asbestos. The demolition company is removing the paint with ultra-high pressure washers but discovered problems with the smaller stack.

“The top portion of the just would not, it was in bad shape it wouldn’t hold the scaffolding, it wasn’t safe for people to be up there,” Peterson said.

As a result, the stack will come down without asbestos removal meaning all of the debris will have to be treated as hazardous material and disposed of in special landfills.

A Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson said they are still awaiting specifics on the plan and will not allow the $1 million in grant money to be used until they do. The plan is essentially to knock the stack over on July 12.

“So, they’ll weaken the bottom of the structure, but some legs underneath it, so to speak, then they’ll blow out the legs and tip it over,” Peterson said.

Wes Eklund, owner and president and CEO of Fleet Engineers, is part of a consortium of business leaders called Pure Muskegon, which purchased the land and is revitalizing the property. He said the plan is to take the other stack down by the end of August and hopefully have it ready for development to begin next year.

“Essentially, the waterfront in Muskegon was industrial for 100 plus years,” Peterson said.

The former B.C. Cobb power plant across town will see its stacks taken down by usual demolition methods, but there is no time set for that yet.

Consumers Energy’s B.C. Cobb Generating Plant off Muskegon Lake.

“We think there are opportunities there for the right kinds of residential and tourist type things, but also job creation that utilizes the waterfront,” Peterson said. “We’re not just a tourist community, we’re a working community and we need to have jobs and economic growth.”

Muskegon residents can expect many public hearings and presentations over the next few years where they will be able to see and comment on how this city’s shoreline will emerge.

“I’d say we probably have 300 or maybe even 400 acres of redevelopable land along our shoreline right now and you would be hard pressed to find a community in Michigan that has that kind of redevelopment opportunity,” Peterson said.