Belle Isle surged back into the spotlight in recent weeks after a Metro Detroit developer made an outlandish proposal: Sell the city park to private investors for $1 billion and secede the island from the U.S. to form a corporate utopia where taxes are near nil.
Many Detroiter’s guttural reaction to the billion dollar offer, presented by Bingham Farms developer Rodney Lockwood in the form of a futuristic fiction novel, was a granite hard “no”. Not surprising, since just months ago city council rejected a much tamer idea presented by Gov. Rick Snyder: lease Belle Isle to the state at no cost for 30 years while Detroit works to beef up its bare-bones finances.
While Lockwood’s far-fetched idea is highly unlikely to come to fruition, it makes the state’s offer seem like a very modest proposal. It also offers a peek at what could become of the island if the city plunges into bankruptcy before securing a deal with the state to maintain the island.
Despite the scathing criticism of Lockwood’s plan, $1 billion is nothing to yawn at. It’s a considerable sum for a city with an annual operating budget of $3.1 billion. It’s also the only reason the bizarre proposal is getting any airtime at all. Money is on the table. A lot of it. And when money talks, people—even opponents—listen.
That’s exactly what happened at the Detroit Athletic Club yesterday as Lockwood shared his vision for Belle Isle with a wide range of Michigan business leaders and elected officials. But not everyone, even staunch free market supporters, liked everything they heard.
The Detroit Free Press reports:
“Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, told developer Rodney Lockwood and his partners that they hadn't done enough to explain how their idea for a wealthy, virtually tax-free enclave on Belle Isle would benefit Detroit itself. ‘Having rich neighbors doesn't make you rich,’ he said, pointing to the example of upscale Grosse Pointe next to Detroit, one of the poorest cities in the nation.”
Detroit officials also doubted the plan would benefit Detroit.
George Jackson, head of the Detroit Economic Growth Council (DEGC) said that he didn’t see how the plan would boost Detroit’s development. Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown flatly stated, “It will not work.”
Such a statement raises a searingly important question: What will work?
The answer could come as early as next week.
The Detroit News spoke with city council members who confirmed the lease is likely to pass council soon: Brown told The News:
"We're still working on issues about security, but we can get it done. The votes on City Council are there — they have actually been there for a while." City Councilman James Tate said: "The majority of the issues that my colleagues and the community had are addressed in the new proposed lease…[but] it's important to me that we have a public hearing on the matter to weigh in on the issue."
Councilman James Tate said the council votes are secured:
"The majority of the issues that my colleagues and the community had are addressed in the new proposed lease," Tate said. But "it's important to me that we have a public hearing on the matter to weigh in on the issue."
The revamped lease proposal cuts the lease time down from 30 to ten years and the city could opt out after each ten-year interval. The city would retain ownership of the park while reaping the benefits of state funds to operate the 895 acre island in the Detroit river.
As for the fantastical corporate proposal for the island, it may never get far off the ground. But it does paint a picture of what could happen if naysayers keep disputing state intervention with 895-acre park without offering any alternatives.
"I have no problem selling Belle Isle," Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s Baruah told the Detroit News regarding Lockwood’s plan, "But frankly, I don't think you are making a great case for people outside the island."
When I was a kid whenever I asked my grandma for something new she always sharply reminded me that, “money doesn’t grow on trees.”
Turns out, she was wrong. Money does grow on trees. In fact, with the gift foresight and some startup funds, it can grow on just about anything.
Don’t take it from me. Just ask Warren Buffet, the third richest person in world who made his fortune based on money growing speculation. He’ll tell you something that all investors know, but perhaps haven’t fully mastered: “The lower things go, the more I buy. We are in the business of buying," Buffet told Fortune magazine in an interview. Well, here in the Tha D, “things” have pretty much bottomed out.
And unless Detroit is the one city that defies history, there’s nowhere to go but up, up, up. You don’t have to be a soothsayer to see the signs. It’s a slow, slow uptick, but it’s happening. It’s not rocket science but it’s a science of analysis: The people who make the big bucks are the ones who see them coming before they land.
John Hantz, the successful investor who plans to buy up a big swath of Detroit for cheap, is one of them. He knows that in 40 years “things”—in this case city land—won’t be dished out at fire sale prices. No. The early bird gets the worm and it’s just a rule of investing.
I ain’t mad at him. He’s a talented guy. He’s a smart investor. He didn’t get rich by leading clients of his finance-consulting firm astray or by making poor investment decisions himself. So let’s put the emotional responses to this proposed land sale aside just look at the facts here.
Hantz has pitched this proposal as a philanthropic act, claiming that he only wants to spend millions on the area surrounding his Indian Village home simply to make Detroit a better place to live; simply because Detroiters deserve better, that more research has to be done on using urban and for agricultural purposes. We can operate under the guise of philanthropy or we can just call it what it is. I prefer the latter. So let’s be real: this is a business investment.
In Detroit there is an element of class warfare, a rich v. poor battle raging on under and at the surface and often justly so presenting a grand clash of idealism and realism given the country and society we live in. Rich people can do stuff that poor people can’t. But if that’s not the oldest story in the book, then I don’t know what is. Well, maybe prostitution is but I digress.
The Hantz land proposal comes from Hantz Group subsidiary Hantz Woodlands, LLC. The company would buy 1,500 vacant city parcels for $600,000 with agriculteral tax credits. The plan is to demolish abandoned buildings and clean up the land which makes up about 140 contiguous acres and plant thousands of hardwood trees. Trees that will take about 40 years to get to the point to where they could be harvested for lumber. Right about the time land values in Detroit will be going up.
So why are we participating in this charade? We all know what the real intentions are: to invest in the land, buy low, sell high or develop and sell even higher. From an economic standpoint this is a great thing. But lets call it what it is and not insult our intelligence. If the city council approves it, approve it for what it is and not for what it’s pitched to be. History can be the guide here.
Look back to New York in the 80s, in the Alphabet City neighborhood. It was a total slum. Now? Million dollar apartments abound there. That was 30 years ago. Look at that happened in Washington DC, in Berlin, Germany. It's the history of cities.
In 30 years it will be happening in Detroit. It’s happening now. Dan Gilbert knows it, John Hantz knows it and the ones who don’t will be crusty visionless naysayers left in the dust. Detroit is coming around, shaping to be an invetor's dream. Time and money is all it takes.
When we consider this proposal we should take a moment too look around the country. This type of proposal is not unique to Detroit. The Hantz Woodlands project may be the largest land sale Detroit has seen but it certainly is not the largest city land grab in the country.
Last year city panels in St. Louis approved a much bigger city land sale to private developer Paul McKee. The St. Louis Real Estate Society reported last year:
Despite the continued legal appeals over losing out on $390 million in tax increment financing (TIF) money for infrastructure improvements, St. Louis mega-developer Paul McKee is pressing forward on his ambitious Northside Regeneration Project. Just this morning, City officials quickly approved McKee’s offer to purchase 1,233 city-owned parcels and option on the neglected Pruitt-Igoe for roughly $3.2 million. All these parcels are located on the Near Northside of St. Louis, just north of Downtown. With this expansion, McKee will now hold around 2,200 parcels, totaling over 250 acres."
Perhaps McKee took a different approach than Hantz but it’s basically the same thing. Because St. Louis has different economic circumstances, it doesn’t need a 40-year of hardwood lot to buffer the land value gap. It’s already there.
Detroit’s top development officals plaud the Hantz land sale, happy to be relieved of the cumbersome responsibility of too much land and too little tax dollars to maintian it with. Perhaps they are lacking foresight here but right now in Detorit it is what it is. Money is tight, you get it where you can.
Rob Anderson, Director of the Detroit Planning and Development Department said the project would save the city money and was all around a good thing. “What we have is an individual who is willing to clean this community and pay taxes. I don’t see the down side,” Anderson told city council members recently.
"Rodney Crim, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's top development official, said the land sale agreement was a good one. It moves more than one-tenth of all city-owned property off the books, adding $100,000 to the tax rolls and saving the cost of mowing and maintenance. Some of the $3.2 million proceeds will pay to demolish more crumbling city-owned buildings across north St. Louis, freeing up more land for redevelopment. And much of the ground has been up for sale for decades, with no credible buyers, until McKee. "The market hasn't addressed this issue," Crim said. "Now we have a developer who plans to address the whole area and is ready to move forward."
It’s one of the most important decisions on the ballot come Election Day, yet the race for Michigan Supreme Court justices has thus far been mostly ignored.
In Michigan, between the buzz surrounding the six controversial statewide ballot proposals and the presidential race, somewhere lost in the shuffle is the race for a three judicial seats in the State’s highest court.
State Supreme Court justices are powerful elected officials. They decide on the issues that shape the state’s constitution as well as settling major controversies moved up from lower courts.
The Michigan Supreme Court has sweeping managerial power over all state courts in Michigan. Some key political issues Michigan Supreme Court justices have decided in recent years are gay marriage, stem cell research and affirmative action.
This year, the Supreme Court played a major role in the allowance of statewide ballot initiatives. This summer the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that voters should decide whether Public Act 4, the law that enabled the governor to appoint financial managers to replace locally elected officials in cash strapped cities like Detroit, should be struck down or upheld. Due to the Supreme Court’s decision, this issue will appear as Proposal 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Major historic decisions rest in the hands of three people who are up for election to rule on the State’s Supreme Court this year. Two positions are for eight-year terms, and one is a two-year partial term.
Despite the importance of justices seated in the Supreme Court, historically there has been a pattern of people skipping the nonpartisan section of the ballot where the options for Michigan Supreme Court justices (along with local court justices) appear.
“Roughly 28 percent of 3.26 million voters in the 2010 general election skipped the nonpartisan portion of the ballot — which lists Supreme Court justices even though they're nominated by the Republican and Democratic parties — as did about 26 percent of 5.04 million who voted in the 2008 presidential election, according to figures from the Secretary of State's office. Yet millions are being spent to influence voters this year.”
With a flood of radio and TV adds made to persuade voters, most voters still don’t know who the candidates are let alone their political alignment.
Although the Supreme Court candidate’s names appear on the nonpartisan section (the back side of the first page of the ballot), the positions are highly politicized. Political parties nominate candidates who bring liberal or conservative views to the bench. These views are often reflected in crucial decision-making affecting every person living in or visiting Michigan.
As with any race, “nonpartisan” or no, the Michigan Supreme Court seating is a political power play between major political parties.
"The Democrats are pretty much cut out of state government right now, and this would give them a piece of the action," Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter told the Detroit News.
"If there's litigation on these ballot proposals, Democrats would dearly love to have a democratically controlled Supreme Court," he said.
But don't let the partisan tension distract from the fact that a straight ticket vote IS NOT a vote for Supreme Court Justice. If you vote a straight ticket you still have to flip the first page of the ballot to the nonpartisan section to make your Supreme Court picks.
In terms of diversity, all of the Democratic Party nominees and one Republican pick for Supreme Court are women and only one canddiate for Supreme Court, Shelia Johnson, is a racial minority.
To read up on the candidates for supreme court, click HERE. Or visit SmartVote.org to learn about some of their past decisions. Below is a FULL LIST list of candidates for Michigan Supreme Court linked to their SmartVote.org profiles:
Full term candidates (eight-year term)--You can vote for two of the following people:
Doug Dern (Natural Law Party nominee)
Connie Marie Kelly (Democratic Party nominee)
Stephen Markman (Republican Party nominee)
Bridget Mary McCormack (Democratic Party nominee)
Kerry L. Morgan (Libertarian party nominee)
Colleen O’Brien (Republican party nominee)
Bob Roddis (Libertarian Pary nominee)
Partial Term candidates (two year term)-- You can vote for only one of the following people:
Mindy Berry (U.S. Taxpayer Party nominee)
Shelia Johnson (Democratic Party nominee)
Brian Zahra (Republican Party nominee)
If President Barack Obama wins Michigan in November, it’s likely that Public Act 4 (PA4), the state’s emergency manager law-turned-ballot-proposal, will not.
How are the two related?
A new poll conducted by EPIC-MRA of Lansing for The Detroit Free Press and WXYZ-TV showed that people who support Obama are generally against the PA4 ballot proposal as it is split over party lines.
“According to the poll, Obama voters oppose the emergency manager law, 61%-29%, […]. Romney supporters are almost mirror opposite, supporting emergency managers, 60%-26%.”
The poll results showed Obama with a significant 10-point lead over Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. That’s not a good sign for the fate of PA4.
But it raises the question: When should we cast party politics aside? If the emergency manager law is really helping repair broken school systems and slashing spending for cities in crisis, then isn’t this an example of when it’s best to cross the isle?
Party politics have a way or dividing people and ideas. But just because you’re a Democrat doesn’t mean you have to vote no on PA4, or vice versa.
Politicians often brag about the times they were willing to work together with both sides to get something done.
This news may present a conundrum for Obama supporters who also strongly support PA4: does one have to choose? The ideals seem polarized.
But they don’t have to be. The problem in this election is that with all of the proposals cluttering the ballot, voters may get tired towards the end and vote along political party lines as a shortcut, or simply not vote at all.
Yes, a Republican a governor introduced PA4. It’s a law that would go hard on unions and easy on public spending. But it's one that is needed in cities and school systems tangles in a financial mess. So on Nov. 6th, we shouldn’t trap ourselves in party zones, even if it makes voting quicker and easier. Voters can work with both sides of the political isle to get things done, too.
After the Detroit City Council decided not to allow a millage proposal on the November ballot that would cost property owners hundreds of dollars a year, a twitter storm broke out.
One Detroit pastor dug into City Councilman Kenneth Cockrel Jr. after Tuesday’s vote. The twitter spat seemed ironic coming from a pastor, whose faith, above all things, commands forgiveness and non-judgment.
The background of the dispute started on Tuesday when Police Chief Ralph Godbee and the Detroit Police Commission had the city council decide whether to ask voters in November if the city should put 8 mills on property tax and that could raise enough money to put 500 police officers to the street.
For people who own houses worth $50,000 the tax would be $250 a year on top of other city taxes and millages.
Cockrel went to twitter after the council voted 7-2 to strike down the ballot proposal, saying the police department financial problems should not be on the backs of the people who are already “taxed to the max”.
Cockrel criticized Police Chief Ralph Godbee in a tweet:
"I am not convinced that our problem is a lack of manpower issue. I'm convinced that our problem is a lack of an effective management plan issue."
That’s when J.A. Williams II, senior pastor of Spirit & Truth Christian Ministries and presiding prelate of Kingdom Builders Association jumped in to defend Godbee.
The following twitter spat ensued:
Williams: @kencockreljr2, @Ralph_Godbee is a much more efficient administrator of DPD than you've been as a councilman or mayoral fill-in. #ijs
Cockrel: @BishopJawill @Ralph_Godbee Both crime stats and word on the street suggest otherwise.
Williams: @KenCockrelJr2 @ralph_godbee On the other hand sir, the City was in the black when you first took your seat.
Cockrel: @BishopJawill @ralph_godbeeUntrue. It was my admin that actually uncovered the extent to which city's budget books hadn't been maintained.
Williams didn’t stop there. He continued:
Williams:…We meant every word. We continue to pray for you, our city & other leaders - even Ken Cockrel. Lol.
Williams:Detroit City Council = cowardly. @Ralph_Godbee = courageous. I normally don't express these positions publicly but WE DESERVE SAFE STREETS!
Was Pastor Williams being fair or should he been more of a twitter diplomat?
The deed is done. The consent agreement has come alive and now it’s up to the financial board and the program management director William Andrews to wield their power over the Detroit City Council, which voted Tuesday to reject their plan to slash union income and benefits for city employees.
But under the consent agreement, it really doesn’t matter how the Council votes. This is why the consent agreement was created in the first place, no? To get rid of all the red tape and elected officials who clearly don’t know what’s good for the city?
“[The consent agreement] gives the city's program management director -- a position created by the consent agreement and appointed by the mayor from candidates agreed to by the mayor and governor -- the ability to ignore Tuesday's vote and impose the proposed cuts, thus controlling union members' salaries, benefits and work rules. The fiscal stability agreement, or consent agreement, thus makes the council's vote on union conditions largely symbolic.”
Hey, council members could see it as a good thing: they’ve got nine financial board appointees people to do their job. Vacation time, anyone?
Detroit City Council Member James Tate had a question yesterday for the Financial Advisory Board's Chief Jack Martin. The Board met with the Council yesterday to discuss their proposed cuts to city labor contracts.
"PA4 we know is up in the air right now. Potentially it will be voted down if placed on the ballot. What is your contingency plan?" He asked Martin, who is in place under PA4 (the state's emergency manager law) to manage the city's finances in crisis.
"I can’t say specifically what we may do. But no matter what happens with PA4, we’re still running out of cash. We need the hard dollar savings to get through this year. There’s a million-dollar difference in expenses and revenue between 2012 and 2013. My standpoint is we stay on the current path no matter what happens to PA4."
At yesterday's meeting the City Council did not approve the Financial Advisory Board's proposed cuts to city worker's wages and healthcare benefits. But Mayor Dave Bing and the Financial Advisory Board urged the council to act and not stall the labor cuts as the city can no longer operate in the status quo. Under PA4, the Financial Advisory board does not need the council's approval to make these cuts.
"We can talk about this for the next six months, but the bottom line is we’re running out of cash. If we don’t do it in an organized fashion there is going to be chaos and we’ll end up like some of these jurisdictions that filed bankruptcy."
Some call them election reform bills, others call them voter suppression bills. Governor Snyder called them an unsatisfactory two weeks back when he vetoed three bills that were created to curb voter fraud. Or, as critics would say, to suppress the vote.
The three bills Snyder turned down, MLive reports:
1. A bill that would have required a voter to reaffirm U.S. citizenship before receiving a ballot
2. A bill that would mandate a valid photo ID when picking up an absentee ballot from a city office
3. A bill that would have required training for people, companies and organizations participating in voter registration drives
Snyder said he vetoed the bills because he was concerned about some logistics, not because of voter suppression. He said he was concerned about how and where people would be trained for voter registration drives and he was concerned that people would be confused about verifying their citizenship before getting a ballot.
But these kinks may be worked out and Snyder is expected to take a second look at the bills when they come across his desk, and review them again. He may this time sign them into law if he feels the issues of concern were addressed.
But I can't help but wonder: How many people wouldn’t participate in a voter registration drive if they had to take a class beforehand? How many people wouldn’t vote because they had to reaffirm their citizenship, one more step to the voting process? How many wouldn’t vote because they were out of town and did not have a valid photo ID to present before picking up an absentee ballot?
Let’s hope Snyder doesn’t change his decision after the bills are tweaked. Some call it voter suppression. I call it voter discouragement.
The City of Detroit is operating like a rollercoaster. Every week is a new drama. Two weeks ago it was the state threateneing to withold revenue sharing funds if a lawsuit challenging the consent agreement wasn't dropped. Last week, a judge tossed the contoversial lawsuit and the city was able to move forward appointing the last memebers of the financial advisroy board put in place under the consent agreement. It seemed like the maybe the rollercoaster was slowing down a bit.
Then, last Friday, Bing stormed out of a meeting with city council and blasted them for holding back the city by not agreeming to remove the lawyer who brought the lawsut against the consent agreement. City Council President Charles Pugh blasted back saying the mayor needed to show better leadership. This week, Bing wants to hire is own lawyer and not use the city's top lawyer, Krystal Crittendon because of the negative effects the lawsuit she brought had on the city.
It seems that this week all niceties are out the window and now the familiar rift between the Detroit Mayor’s Office and the City Council is clearer than ever.
But was Detroit Mayor Dave Bing himself who said the city needed to move forward without distractions. So why is he causing more?
There seems to be reason beyond sinking bond ratings that Bing wants Crittendon out so bad. Is he afraid she will appeal the court’s decision to throw out her case that called the consent agreement void? Is the state privately threatening him with more cuts unless he removes the lawyer who could stand in the way? There has to be an better explaination for this one.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out: He’d already asked the Council remove Crittendon two week before when the state threatened to hold back $80 million in funding if she didn’t drop the lawsuit and they flatly refused. In addition, less than the 2/3-majority vote needed to remove Crittendon voted in support of the consent agreement in the first place.
This can be avoided. Crittendon hasn’t said she will appeal the decision to toss the lawsuit she brought, so, for now, this dramatic showdown should be over.
Does It Matter If You’re Black or White?
Michael Jackson didn’t think it mattered but when it comes to the ballot box, voters do. The question is, should it?
As the August 7 primary creeps near, here’s some bad news for Congressman Hansen Clarke: Yesterday, the Black Slate, a grassroots organization-turned-PAC that was founded in 1973 to make sure black voters are educated on which candidates are best qualified for the community, endorsed congressman Gary Peters over Clarke despite that fact that, well, Peters isn’t white and Clarke identifies himself as a black man. So what just happened?
It’s the first time the Black Slate has endorsed a white candidate running for a seat in the U.S. House. As much as we try to avoid this, in a region as segregated and steeped in racial tension as Metro Detroit, yes.
Should it matter? No. Let the most qualified candidate win. Politics without racial consideration would be a beautiful thing. And while it’s not the 60’s anymore, the way votes are divided along racial lines, it’s clear we have a long way to go before people take race out of the equation at he ballot box.
Still, it’s decisions like the Black Slate’s to back Peters that gives hope to a new kind of politics. A kind inspired by President Barack Obama’s election almost four years ago where a black man can get the white vote, and a white man can get the black vote; A country where we truly judge candidates by their political history across the board and not the color of one’s skin.
That’s what the Black Slate has done with the Peters endorsement.
"Ron Hewitt, the coordinator for the Black Slate, said race wasn’t an issue in the selection. He said Peters 'voted with President (Barack) Obama more than any other candidate in this race; helped to pass the historic healthcare legislation; and was a leader in saving the automotive industry from collapsing.'
'[Peters] record was more in keeping with what we were looking for,” Hewitt said...'"
Now that the 14th congressional district has been re-drawn into strangely shaped and sprawling space spanning over of white suburban communities as well as black urban ones, the vote along racial lines could really make the difference. How important is it that we have a black representative in Washington?
Writer Jack Lessenberry put it this way in a February article in Hour magazine:
“The 13th and 14th districts theoretically should elect black congressmen. Michigan has had two African-Americans in congress since [John] Conyers was first elected in 1964…”
This raised a question in my mind that I’m still struggling to answer: When we forget about race are we also forgetting the recent past or are we taking the struggles of the past and turning them into the future Martin Luther King dreamed of?
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