One year later

By Sam Inglot

It’s been one year since the Niowave pole barn controversy flared: Negotiations progress, but no solution and no tax abatement vote foreseen

Something happened at the Walnut Neighborhood Organization’s meeting Thursday that has never happened since Niowave Inc. celebrated the opening of a new 14,000-square-foot pole barn as part of its expansion.

Someone from Niowave showed up.

That person was Andrew Schnepp, an accelerator technician at Niowave since November. He is the first person from Niowave, which occupies the old Walnut Street School, to make an appearance at a neighborhood meeting since the pole barn controversy blew up, despite multiple invitations to company bigwigs.

Schnepp comes from an interesting perspective. He’s not only a Niowave employee — he’s also a Walnut Neighborhood resident.

One year ago today, senators, Naval officers and local politicians gathered inside the building to celebrate Niowave’s expansion. It also marked the start date of neighbors’ publicly decrying the facility’s aesthetics.

Schnepp said he sees the good and the bad in the Niowave situation. He can’t ignore the positive aspects of the particle accelerator technology being developed by Niowave and its upkeep of its headquarters. But he also understands the neighbors’ frustrations over the look of the pole barn.

“It’s hard for me to not see the good that is coming out of Niowave,” he said. “But, I’ve lived a lot of places and I know that aesthetics is a tricky word. It has a lot to do with emotions, and when you’re in a conflict, it’s even more complicated.”

Schnepp’s mixed emotions are perhaps indicative of the fact that, one year later, there is still no agreed-upon solution or timeline for the structure. There is also no foreseeable vote from the Lansing City Council on whether the company deserves a six-year tax abatement worth $550,000, which has been on the table since the ceremony.

In early April, Niowave agreed to pay $101,000 of a proposed $215,000 faade and landscaping fix with paint on the outer walls and roof, faux windows, a partial brick faade and landscaping and parking lot improvements. The other $114,000 was to be paid out of the city’s brownfield revolving loan fund, which is paid into by developers. But that wasn’t good enough for the neighborhood, which believed the fix would have looked cheap and tacky.

However, negotiations appear to be progressing. Neighborhood activist Dale Schrader, who’s been involved with the talks, said Niowave has agreed to a stucco exterior finish, based on his discussions with the Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

Niowave has taken a hands-off approach to negotiations over the past several months. The company has let LEAP negotiate with the neighborhood over the faade. Although he’s not directly involved with the conversations, Niowave Chief Financial Officer Mark Sinila said he’s been told the talks are going well.

Schrader agrees with Sinila. While Schrader said the company has agreed to the stucco — a type of siding that would hide the metal exterior — neighbors also want “architectural trim” used on the building, which would help break up its appearance. He wouldn’t go into more detail about what the solution or final cost may be.

However, LEAP President and CEO Bob Trezise wouldn’t confirm or deny the exterior agreement and chastised Schrader for bringing up negotiations between the neighborhood and LEAP.

“There’s no way I’m going to negotiate through the newspaper. I want to find a solution,” he said. “It was utterly unprofessional and inappropriate for Dale to do as such. For one party to make a statement that someone has agreed to something … I find it offensive.”

Schrader said in response that stucco is a “big deal, but it’s a broad term.”

“I just wanted to explain the situation. We’re close, but we’re not quite there yet,” Schrader said. “Bob Trezise and LEAP have been very professional throughout this whole thing. And I don’t think the negotiations would have moved off of square one without them.”

If Niowave agrees to the architectural trim and moves forward with the faade fix, then the neighborhood will support the tax abatement, Schrader said. But, he added, with the carrot also comes a stick: If Niowave doesn’t “go the extra mile” with architectural trim, then the neighbors could do several things, such as fight the tax abatement and contact the senators and Naval officers who showed up at the dedication ceremony.

“But we’re so close, they just need another kick in the ass, and this just might do it,” Schrader said. “You have the carrot and you have the stick — and it’s a big stick.”

For all of the neighbors’ public displays of frustration — including “fix the faade” signs sprinkled throughout the neighborhood and a makeshift miniature pole barn — Niowave employees have noticed, Schnepp said.

“As an employee, it’s hard not to take these public statements negatively and not feel like they’re about you. You feel under assault as an employee because your involvement is with the company and you don’t know the neighborhood,” he said. “But what do you do? Maybe you feel bad, but what do you do?”

As for the building itself, Schnepp said he has other concerns about the neighborhood, like red-tagged and vacant houses.

“I think there are other things in the neighborhood that need attention,” he said. “Niowave wouldn’t be at the top of my list, but I respect other people’s lists.”