March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Last-minute meetings between Niowave and Walnut residents give some hope for renewed negotiations. What exactly are they doing in that pole barn, anyway?

There’s cautious optimism from Walnut Neighborhood residents as they meet with key Niowave Inc. officials in the final weeks of what’s been an eight-month showdown over the appearance of a 14,000-square-foot pole barn.

The Lansing City Council is tentatively scheduled to vote on March 25 on a $550,000 personal property tax exemption for Niowave. It would last for six years.

Before and after a public hearing Monday night on the request, Niowave officials ironed out a meeting schedule with some key neighborhood activists to find a solution to the pole barn dispute. 

The day of the public hearing, Mary Elaine Kiener, a Walnut Neighborhood resident who’s been a key player in discussions between the neighborhood, the Council and Niowave, met with Terry Grimm, the company’s president. 

Kiener and Grimm wrote a joint memo addressed to the Council and Mayor Virg Bernero that outlined topics discussed at their meeting and how they plan to come to a resolution going forward. The meeting basically reopened negotiations on façade changes and Niowave’s offer of $100,000 worth of landscaping with Kiener at the wheel as liaison between the parties.

Kiener was pleased with the results of the meeting. “I felt we took some steps forward in what I thought was an open and honest talk about trying to figure out where the communication went wrong, where the misunderstanding went wrong,” she said. 

After Monday’s meeting, Niowave Chief Operating Officer Jerry Hollister approached Walnut Neighborhood resident Dale Schrader and asked to set up a meeting. Schrader said the fact that Niowave officials are opening up to meeting with residents is a “step in the right direction,” but he’s still skeptical. 

“I was shocked out of my seat basically,” Schrader said. “We’ll see what he has to say. They’re suddenly opening up at the 11th hour. I’d have to say it’s a move in the right direction compared to the last nine months. But it is kind of funny that they’re suddenly starting to talk to us two weeks before the vote on their tax abatement.”

Of 18 people who spoke Monday night, 16 either opposed the tax abatement outright or said the company shouldn’t get it until a resolution is reached with neighbors to fix the façade. The two in support were Niowave officials.

What’s going on in there?

At Monday’s public hearing, two Walnut Neighborhood residents questioned whether Niowave is manufacturing products in the controversial pole barn, which would be a violation of a special land use permit approved by the Council in 2006. Some residents have openly wondered about the safety of the surrounding neighborhood’s location to the particle accelerator company.

“We’re testing our superconducting particle accelerators. It’s a testing and demonstration facility,” Hollister said. 

On Niowave’s website, the company lists niobium, niobium cavities, electron guns and injectors, cryomodules and turnkey accelerators as “products and services.” 

“We do manufacturing, and I say that because we build the thing, but not a dozen a day. Almost all of our devices are first generation or one of a kind. We’re not doing large scale manufacturing,” Hollister said. “We’re a research and development lab, we do build things but not at any level of production.”

Mark Sinila, Niowave’s chief financial officer, said the specifics as to what goes on inside the pole barn is considered “proprietary information” and declined to comment further beyond saying it’s research for the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. 

Zach Constan, outreach coordinator at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University, said from a safety standpoint the neighbors shouldn’t be worried about the work Niowave is doing. He said it is the same kind of science studied at the FRIB, but on a much smaller scale.  

Constan explained the general use of the products. Niobium is a metal that, when cooled to extreme subzero temperatures, acts as a super conductor that can discharge particles quickly. Cryomodules are used to keep the niobium cavities or rods at cold temperatures; electron guns are a type of particle accelerator that uses the niobium cavities to speed up particles; and turnkey accelerators are basically particle accelerators designed for people who may not be engineers, but need to use the technology in their field, like in the medical profession or military. 

Constan said when it comes to public safety and accelerating particles, it’s all a matter of scale. He said Niowave is running a relatively small, yet sophisticated production. 

“There is absolutely no risk to the surrounding area,” he said. “I’m glad because my friend lives about a block away.”

Constan reinforced the idea that Niowave’s technology is cutting edge. “You can’t tell from the outside, but what they’re doing is so amazing for a neighborhood just north of the Capitol. You wouldn’t think you’d find industries like that there,” he said. “I think they should be glad an industry like that wants to be there.”

At this point for the neighbors, though, it’s not what’s on the inside that counts.