SW Michigan: 'Best of both worlds'

Beaches, festivals and farms are luring Marian Cioe from the streets of Chicago to Michigan's southwestern shore. Forty-five years after first visiting Southwest Michigan on a business trip, the 66-year-old nurse plans to “live happily ever after” in the Great Lakes State.

Cioe is just part of a real estate trend that has set Southwest Michigan apart from the rest of the state, where home sales and property values tanked in the last four years. Cioe, who plans to retire in about two years, is in the process of closing on a home near the lake in Southwest Michigan. Cioe plans to phase out of her five-bedroom Chicago home and into a two-bedroom Union Pier cottage gradually, visiting a couple of weekends a month.

 “I think when the market changes, a lot of the places in Michigan are going to sell again. There’s nothing wrong with the properties, it’s the market,” Cioe says. “Might as well get the best of the best while I can.”

Previous coverage

The Big Flush: $180 billion vanishes from Michigan

Nest eggs go bad in Oakland County

BRIDGE CHARTS: Michigan's plunge in property values

A beautiful lakefront and plenty of room to grow are among the advantages Southwest Michigan has used to weather Michigan's economic transition and the national recession.

Property values increased in Berrien (5 percent) and Cass (2 percent) counties from 2007 to 2011 -- at a time when the state lost 20 percent of its property value, or more than $180 billion. However, this lightly populated area, near Interstate 94, Chicago, and the Indiana Turnpike, had a low baseline of property values to begin with, W.E. Upjohn Institute regional analyst Brad Watts explained.

“When you expand and open one or two facilities, it’s going to look like a huge increase,” Watts said.

Still, the growth counts for something in the eyes of area businesses and local residents. Wendy Dant Chesser, president of the economic development group Cornerstone Alliance, said companies in the area have become stronger and those that had to lay off workers before are starting to rehire. Food processing and tool-and-die manufacturing have led the way for industrial growth, while a growing number social and entertainment attractions have helped residential growth, Dant Chesser explained.

“This area is fortunate in that Berrien County has so much lakefront property,” she said. “On top of that I have to give credit to the municipalities and investors who are working together to build recreational and entertainment amenities for the community.”

Residential property values increased in Berrien County by 4 percent between 2007 and 2011 to $6.3 billion. The hotbeds of growth were in Coloma, Bertrand and Watervliet near the Lake Michigan shore.

Cioe has family in Illinois and Indiana who will visit Union Pier with her. Cioe says she finds the area sophisticated, and that access to theaters and boutiques helped her finalize her decision to move from Chicago to Michigan.

“It’s a place that even when you live there, there are always areas to explore,” Cioe says. “It’s as private as you want and as open as you want. I’m really looking forward to the future.”

Winery owner and farmer Joe Herman says agricultural property values have increased in Southwest Michigan because of diversified use. Statewide agricultural property values increased by 1 percent to $17.9 billion between 2007 and 2011, while other types of property values decreased. Herman, president of Karma Vista Vineyard and Winery and Herman Farms, says that when land is for sale, you see more people bidding, which boosts property value.

“If the only people who are there are the farmers, the land is worth the value of the crops it can produce,” Herman said. “If other people come to the table and think it can be a golf course or a site for a home, that’s another story.”

Industrial property values in Van Buren County grew by a whopping 30.9 percent to $453.8 million from 2007 to 2011. Industrial property values inBerrienCountygrew by 13.3 percent to $844.5 million in the same span.

Watts and Herman both said the area never saw the huge increases in property value that counties in Southeast Michigan experienced when the auto industry was booming around the turn of the century. Consequently, the area didn’t feel Michigan's fall as acutely.

“It’s just a very different place in terms of what it’s like and what they do,” Watts said. “It’s just a function of the fact that these are unique, not as developed areas that are not as connected to the core industries of the state, so they’re kind of just in their own little world.”

That’s another benefit that Herman sees -- people can have the best of both worlds by owning a second home in the area, having a business in the area or touring the area.

“It’s a geographically golden place. Because we’re so close to the Chicago population, there are people who want to live the country life,” Herman said. “They may want horses, a vineyard or to be surrounded by that. It’s an awfully nice attraction that people can have one foot in both worlds."

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