College Hunks Struggles to Locate in East Lansing

Wednesday, August 1, 2018, 7:10 am
By: 
Jessy Gregg

It’s not always easy to find a place to do business in East Lansing.

When the owners of Mid-Michigan’s operation of College Hunks Hauling Junk recently found themselves ready to expand their three-year-old franchise business, partners Bill Willbrandt and Clark Burkle cast their eyes towards East Lansing. After all, connection to their own community was one of the reasons they decided to run a local College Hunks Hauling Junk franchise in the first place.

Willbrandt and Burkle are old friends who went into business together when each one’s circumstance dictated a career change. Burkle had worked for thirty years as a funeral director, and was ready for something new. Willbrandt has epilepsy and his health concerns meant he had to give up his travel heavy schedule as an attorney.

Willbrandt and Burkle wanted to do something entrepreneurial that would help them give back to the community. They selected College Hunks Hauling Junk as their franchise of choice.

Willbrandt told ELi that he liked the service aspect of the work, as well as the focus on employment for college students. The business can be hired for residential and commercial moving and will also come and pick up unwanted items for disposal or for donation to charitable groups.

College Hunks Hauling Junk is currently operating out of a warehouse on Oakland Avenue in Lansing. But the business is penned in by the landlord’s two other businesses, a marijuana grow operation on one side, and a marijuana dispensary on the other.

The parking lot is also insufficient for the company’s small fleet of trucks, plus their twenty-or-so employees’ personal vehicles. They would like to expand, to take on additional staff and expand their fleet from two to six vehicles. Since they are already working with limited space, expansion also means a move.

Burkle told ELi that they were almost ready to close on a property in Meridian Township before being told that the Township would not approve their business use on their chosen site. In addition to parking for their vehicles, College Hunks requires a warehouse where collected items can be sorted for recycling and donation and, in some cases, stored when area donation centers are swamped and unable to accept large items such as furniture.

Burkle stressed that although “junk” is in the company’s name, most of what comes back to the warehouse is actually useful items. Willbrandt told ELi that they have a good relationship with area charities like Volunteers of America and the City Rescue Mission, donating “junk” collected to organizations who can benefit from it.

Burkle and Willbrandt looked to East Lansing for potential business sites zoned OIP (“office industrial park”), which is what their business would require. When they first contacted East Lansing’s Community and Economic Development Administrator Tom Fehrenbach, they were told that all the available OIP sites in town are either too small or owned by someone who isn’t looking to develop.

Willbrandt and Burkle had thought that East Lansing’s Northern Tier would be a natural spot for them to put an expanded operation. The region has large undeveloped areas and some semi-industrial businesses already operating there.

Surprised at what felt like a brush-off by City staff when he was looking to bring business to East Lansing, Willbrandt, a Glencairn neighborhood resident, contacted East Lansing Info (ELi) to share his frustration.

ELi reached out to the East Lansing staff to confirm that there were no suitable places in East Lansing for a light industrial company to operate. In an email, Fehrenbach responded, “Unfortunately the City has very limited industrial space, and our initial search did not indicate that any is currently available.”

In a follow up email, Fehrenbach explained that East Lansing’s new master plan, The Bigger Picture, includes a future land use category, C3, which would allow for warehousing and light industrial applications. But East Lansing’s zoning code has not been updated to include the C3 category yet.

“We do anticipate creating a new zoning district for the C3 category. A viable proposal would certainly initiate that process,” Ferhenbach told ELi in a follow up email.

And a viable proposal could be in the works, since shortly after being contacted by ELi, Fehrenbach reconnected with Willbrandt about a possible site for College Hunks – namely a property owned by the City.

In 2005, East Lansing voters gave City Council approval to sell a parcel of land, just south of the new Department of Public Works’ site, on the northwest side of town. ELi has asked but not received an answer to the question of why that property wasn’t sold after the voter approval (and why it hasn’t been mentioned during City budget conversations).

The available piece is only 3.37 acres, however, and that might still be too small for Willbrandt and Burkle, who were hoping for at least 5 acres. It’s also currently zoned as “C” for “Community Facilities,” so it would need to be rezoned before CHHJ could call it home.

Willbrandt plans now to meet with City staff to discuss the viability of the project.