As with any year that hasn't been lived yet, a world of possibilities awaits Detroit. For instance, the Detroit Tigers could still win the 2014 World Series and Belle Isle could still become a state park.
That's right. It's not over yet.
Hopes for a State-City lease deal that would have put Detroit’s island park in the charge of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources were seemingly smashed to bits last month when governor Rick Snyder pulled the offer. Snyder says he only dropped the deal after Detroit city council failed to vote on the proposal before deadline.
But it’s not the end of a possible State lease of Belle Isle. If enough council members change their minds, or if the city falls under the reigns of a state-appointed emergency manager, the 30-year lease deal may likely resurface in 2014. At least that’s what Snyder has been hinting at recently.
Reports that the state set aside more than $4 million to spend on Belle Isle's upkeep if the deal went through were true, but now that money will dissolve back into the state’s $50.9 billion annual budget. Snyder says he's willing to nest-egg some funds for Belle Isle again, though.
Last week the Detroit News reported:
“… The governor said he's not ruled out budgeting the money for converting Belle Isle into a state park in 2014 if City Council changes its mind about the lease.
"That deadline's past, so it's not going to happen (this year)," Snyder said.”
Snyder told the Detroit Free Press editorial board the same thing: that the Belle Isle may just come back to the table.
He said he left money in the state budget for Belle Isle to show he was “dead serious” about making a deal with Detroit to maintain the 982-acre park.
The council indirectly voted against the proposal this year by stalling past deadline, something that cancels the offer for this year. But 2014 is a chance for the city to have a change of heart.
“They can say they didn’t vote, but I take it they voted ‘no’,” Snyder told the Free Press. “So we’re going to follow through in what we were going to do for 2014. I said '13 was off the table, but if somebody wants to talk '14 ... [I’m open].”
For all intents and purposes, it sounds like the offer is still an option, just delayed. And from the looks of things, Detroit will likely be in State receivership come 2014. As we all know, a lot can change in a year.
Again, it's a world of possibilities.
When Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and city recreation officials announced last week that 50 parks are on the chopping block due to budget shortfalls, the image of abandoned property that Detroiters have grown accustomed to spread.
“They will look pretty awful come about June, July,” Dick said of the city’s parks slated to close. “They will have high grass probably about waist high and it’s not just grass … it’s going to become weeds with lots of trash in it. They’re goanna look like vacant lots do.”
Just about every resident can name a park near their home that is going to flare up in weeds and trash this summer.
Unless communities organize and take ownership of the parks around them, more trash-strewn weeds will be the end result. But there is a resource here and an opportunity for residents to step up in their communities.
What if a group of neighbors got together and mowed a playground every week or two in a park that would otherwise be a tall thicket? What if that group or individual planted flowers and put up signs, anything to brighten a depressing scene? These areas can be turned into extensions of people’s yards, flower gardens and play areas if the resolve is there.
Alicia Minter, Director of Detroit’s Recreation Department, is encouraging residents to do just that.
“This is the time we can look to the community to be engaged and to assist the city,” Minter said. “Because of our limited resources [we hope] residents would adopt those parks … and have some stewardship in making sure those locations are cut and maintained because the city will not be able to do it.”
Is there a park in your neighborhood you’d like to adopt? At this point the power for change sits in resident's laps. Especially in neighborhoods that are not considered “stable” enough to be assisted through the Detroit Works Project framework.
Bing said like the idea of asking residents to help maintain public parks.
“We can’t constantly go and think that our citizens that are good, taxpaying citizens also have to take care of parks in their communities," Bing said. "We can’t think that the business community is constantly going to take care of the problem. We had a chance to take care of this ourselves and we didn’t do it."
He noted that a shortage of open parks and restricted recreation center hours would only worsen crime in the city. “We need a safe place for our young people in particular. They need a place to go. We don’t know the impact in terms of crime but we know it will be negative,” he said.
But with no other options it seems that a dedicated citizen or nonprofit interest in these closed parks is the last possibility left for a chance at keeping the city from further disrepair. Sure, it shouldn’t be up to residents who pay taxes to also do the work they are paying to have done, but there are a lot of things that shouldn't be happening in the city that are happening because this is a financial crisis. Maybe that term has lost some sting due to its overuse in recent years but that doesn't take from the fact that the city is flat out of cash.
Take a minute to step outside the emotional and passionate debate over what to do---or what not to do---with Belle Isle and imagine this:
Just imagine, you’re a foreigner who lives across a river, let’s call it Swan River, and in the middle of the river there’s an island, say, Swan Island.
To you, Swan Island is just a place on a map, a place across the river to feel good about knowing what it is if a visitor asks—it’s a public park that’s part of a neighboring country, you would say. That’s it. And they never ask.
You don’t think about Swan Island as anything more than a green spot across the rippling river water. In fact, you don’t think of Swan Island much at all.
But one day, you’re bored so you cross the river for a change of scenery. It’s a foggy day in a mid-winter thaw and you, on a whim, decide to visit Swan Island to clear your head and get some fresh air.
When you get there, you see it’s a beautiful place. Swans bob peacefully on the river's rippling waters. The island road gives an up-close stunning view of the City’s downtown area, and there’s nature everywhere, a spec of heaven in the Detroit River.
You decide to go for a jog in the bike lane to see more of the island. But the further you run the more you start to realize something: this island isn’t being taken care of like other parks you’ve been to. It seems like not many people care about the island because the trashcans are overflowing and the storm drains are so decrepit that amid the snow thaw has transformed a soccer field into a duck pond.
The flooding expands all the way into the bike lane, three inches deep. You running shoes are soaked through hand through. You have to go to the bathroom so you wade through the storm puddles in search of a restroom area, like they have in all the large parks you’ve been to.
Instead, you find an abandoned rest area and a row or port-a-potties outside of it.
With cold, soaking feet and a curious mind, you decide to ask people about the park.
You ask a couple who are taking photos of the swans: What’s going on here? Why is this beautiful place so neglected?
You are blasted with a cold response: that this place is not neglected, that it is a jewel; that you are an outsider who needs to mind your own business.
You ask more people, each shouting very different, heated and negatively themed answer.
One person rants that the city that owns the park is led by a bunch of obstructionists who always say “no” and never have a plan to counter an offer with. Another person says a there’s a Fascist ruler in the province who wants to steal Swan Island from the people and that any problems on the island can be fixed by the city, not the province. They say the city, although it is in financial trouble, has to find away to keep up the 982-acre jewel on the river without giving it up.
Another person says the leader of the province is not a tyrant at all but rather a concerned citizen who really wants to see Swan Island cleaned up and maintained properly-- something that the city cannot afford. But after all the name calling and bickering from the city, this levelheaded ruler recently abounded his effort to try to help restore the island.
Another person says they are getting a group of billionaires together to buy the island and turn it into an exclusive tax autonomous commonwealth for wealthy investors and secede it from the city, the province and possibly the country.
You feel like you just stepped into some bizarre dream where passion leads and there is no logic.
It quickly becomes obvious that it’s not that people don’t care about Swan Island but that perhaps people care too much. I mean, these people really love this place, so much so that's it paralyzing. They all seem blinded by emotion and heated debate, firing off at one group or another for being “the problem”.
Not one person you talk to has a calm, comprehensive outlook on the issue. Grown adults are pointing fingers like kids on a playground. When will that fire be squelched?
Will people ever calm down and work together?
If there is so much passion, why are there not volunteer groups picking up trash? If the province cares so much about the island, why don’t they offer a grant to help fix its drainage problem?
And if city leaders are so determined not to go through with any plans that are on the table, why don’t they create a plan of their own?
It starts to rain so you get in your car, all soggy and cold, and drive home.
One passionate bombardment of arguments is enough for one day.
Back home, across the water, Swan Island is still that green stretch in the fog.
Maybe the people in that province need to see it from your angle, you think. Just take a step back and cool off, put themselves in your soggy wet shoes for a second.
Then maybe when the fog lifts and the anger subsides, they’ll be able to roll up their sleeves and use their passion for the place (which is remarkable and in many ways admirable) to sculpt a real solution and not an elementary name calling fight.
As early as last fall when former DMC head Mike Duggan became more open about his intended run for Detroit Mayor, he started on a major task: to distance himself from current Mayor Dave Bing and Governor Rick Snyder, both of whom are widely unpopular among Detroit voters, polls and pundits and plain old word on the street have shown.
Everything Bing has supported, Duggan has pinned as a bad idea, from the Belle Isle Lease to the proposed lighting authority and the privatization of city services. the consent agreement to claiming in November that Bing and Governor Snyder were going down “the wrong road.” Duggan’s big job over the next few months will be to find ways to be relatable to Detroiters and to unravel the rumors that he is a union buster.
In an interview Monday with Angelo Henderson on WCHB-AM 1200, Duggan continued to distance himself from Bing and disputed the idea that privatization is the answer, something Bing has often turned to in his role as mayor. Over the past three years, Bing has pushed to privatize the DDOT bus system, the city lighting department, the health department and even trash collection. He has also hired a number of outside firms to perform services that the city offers. Bing has said the city’s last resort is to privatize services and that hiring outside firms is necessary to fix problems within the city.
But Duggan, when asked how he felt about privatization, said it was a result of leadership failure. He told Henderson on Monday:
“Privatization is an admission of management failure. A private company has to make a profit. The government does not. So if government can turn over to the private sector for running it cheaper, the government has to be pretty messed up in the way it was running.”
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."
Bing Put Horse Before Cart on Belle Isle Deal
Two weeks ago Governor Rick Snyder and Mayor Dave Bing made a big announcement: The two had come to an agreement on a plan to restore Belle Isle Park to its former beauty through a 30-year lease to the state.
The plan then went Detroit City Council members for a vote. But it didn’t take them long to realize that the lease was missing crucial documents: four legal exhibits that aimed to describe major aspects of the deal.
But it wasn’t just the council that got incomplete documents. Mayor Bing didn’t have them either. No one in the city had.
Deputy Mayor Kirk Lewis revealed at a City Council hearing on Tuesday that the administration had not received the complete lease from the State when Bing threw his full support behind the transfer of Belle Isle two weeks back.
“We received the documents the same time you did,” Lewis said when council members asked why it took nine days from the plan’s announcement to get a full copy of the lease.
Rodney Stokes, an urban advisor to Snyder, apologized to the Council for taking so long to get a complete lease document to the city. “I take full responsibly for that,” he said, adding that he was out of town.
“That just doesn’t work. That’s not how you do business,” said Council member Ken Cockrel, Jr.
Now that the council has the full lease, all nine members agreed that the document’s language is riddled with holes and vague ideas.
Acting as a unified team, the Council took turns pointing out flaws in the Belle Isle plan.
But they did not say they were against a lease to the state. The Council’s main complaint was that they wanted more specifics in the lease so they knew what to expect.
Council President Pro-Tem Gary Brown said any agreement with the state will have to take into consideration that Belle Isle can’t be operated like every other state park.
“I shudder to think what would happen if we bring park rangers to Belle Isle,” Brown told State and DNR officials at the hearing. “This would be the largest urban state park. You can’t treat it like the other 101 state parks.”
Every good story has a bad guy. It keeps people reading. That’s why it’s easier to dish out criticism than praise.
But there are two sides to every story.
Today, instead of criticizing the Governor Snyder or Mayor Dave Bing for not fully communicating with the Detroit City Council before holding a big shiny press conference about a floppy proposal for Belle Isle Park, I’m going to try the tricky side, the perhaps less mainstream, side of this one and support the Council members for opposing this excuse for a proposal.
Yes, the council opposes the Belle Isle deal, but it’s not for crazy, reactionary reasons like many people have assumed. It’s not because of a proposed entrance fee to the island, or because they feel that the state trying to pull some kind of enemy takeover. In fact, they want what we all want for Belle Isle: For it to be a safe, beautiful place for people to go and enjoy the outdoors and other attractions.
It’s being rejected by the Council because the proposal that they were given to vote on is not complete. It is missing large chunks of key information.
Gov. Snyder was right. This isn’t Detroit v. Michigan; it’s Detroit, Michigan.
We’re all in this together. So why hold out of information?
After reading the proposal for Belle Isle (exactly as it was presented to City Council) I understand why the Council members plan to vote it down.
In short, it’s not a proposal at all. A proposal when something is proposed. Specifics are given. Information is shared so that the people deciding on the proposal can vote whether or not it’s a good idea.
One blaring example of this comes at the very beginning where the lease document says it has five exhibits—important, key information about the agreement—attached. However of the exhibits listed on the proposal, only one is actually physically attached to the proposed lease.
“List of Exhibits. The following Exhibits are attached to and made a part of this Lease:
Exhibit A: Legal Description [of property]
Exhibit B: Identification of Roads and Bridges
Exhibit C: Memorandum of Understanding between the City and MDOT
Exhibit D: Memorandum of Understanding between the City and DNR Regarding the
Belle Isle: Greenhouses
Exhibit E: Phased Management Approach of Belle Isle dated July 2012”
On the lease, proposal A, a legal description of Belle Isle, is the only thing that is actually attached. It's the only exhibit the council would have to go by before making a major decision on whether or not to grant Belle Isle to the State of Mcihgian for 30 years (or more).
“This is no way to conduct business,” Councilman James Tate said in a meeting this week regarding the State's proposal. He said he called State officials three times this week seeking the information and had still not received those exhibits of the lease.
Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Snyder told The Detroit News: "it's premature to discuss specifics" :
"Until we have an agreement with the city, we can't do the needed and detailed analysis and structural and cost assessments of the buildings and facilities," she said.
That poses a catch 22: The council can’t, in good faith, agree blindly to something as big as Belle Isle’s management and the state won't fork over details until they have control over the Island.
It's a hot mess, but it doesn't have to be. It's set up so the Council looks they they're the bottle neck to the dealm but the Council shouldn't take the fall for this one. They're not stalling progress like some have opined, rather they are doing their job. That is, to make informed decisions on behalf of the people of Detroit.
Will Detroit grant Belle Isle to the state in a 30-year lease? Possibly. But we need to know what the plan is.
As Belle Isle floats on the brink of becoming a state park, it’s clear that there are big changes in store for the island.
One of the major changes will be a steep increase in law enforcement presence on the island not only by Detroit police and state police, but conservation officers working for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) making the island a safer place.
This reminds me of an interesting conversation I overheard between a DNR conservation officer and a man who was trying to sell roses in downtown Detroit at William G. Milliken State (the first ever urban state park in the country).
The officer was politely telling the man that he couldn’t sell stuff on state park ground without a permit. The rose vendor nodded, but before the officer turned to go he was offering flowers again, “for the pretty lady…”.
Then DNR officer firmly ordered the rose peddler out of the park. He obeyed, then asked the officer a key question: “Sir,” he said, “you’re a park ranger. You can’t tell me what to do when I’m not in that park, can you?” The conservation officer then explained the scope of his power: that he, in fact, had the same, if not more, power to enforce state laws than the state police.
“So you could arrest someone?” The rose seller asked. The officer’s answer was an unwavering “yes.”
So as Belle Isle becomes a state park, the public safety will increase just by having Michigan conservation officers on duty. Even though these DNR law enforcement officer’s primary job is to protect natural resources, they have the power to enforce all laws of the State of Michigan including laws for outdoor recreational activities such as off-road vehicle use, snowmobiling, boating, hunting and fishing according to the Michigan DNR website.
In other words, if a DNR conservation officer sees someone speeding, they can issue a traffic ticket even if you are nowhere near a state park.
Michigan Conservation Officers work with all law enforcement agencies including local police departments, sheriff’s departments, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs, U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Division.
The bottom line is that it’s important for people to know that state park rangers are law enforcement officers and deserve the same respect and obedience that a police officer does. Belle Isle will be a safer place with these law enforcers on board.
Is Mayor Dave Bing gearing up for another mayoral run? Or has Gov. Rick Snyder really crossed a line with his proposals for Detroit?
Up until now, Bing has been mostly supportive of input from the State of Michigan to support and control parts of the city that are failing under the financial crisis. He supported the consent agreement, he supported cuts proposed by the consent agreement's financial advisory board, and he condemned the city's Corporation Counsel when she tried to stall the consent agreement.
But at a meeting with Detroit NAACP members in Midtown Wednesday, Bing hotly expressed frustration with Snyder's proposals for the city using words like “hell” and “damn”, according to a report in The Detroit News.
Bing said of Governor Snyder:
“You can't come in here and think you can do any damn thing that you want.”
Bing added that he does not want the state to “impose” decision on Detroit:
"I have never in my 46 years in this city seen a governor of the state of Michigan involved in city politics like this one," he said.
But The state has been imposing a lot of things lately, so why has Bing turned on this one?
My first guess is that he’s lining up his ducks for another mayoral run and in order to get a good footing with his electorate he has to start standing up the governor.
I’m no political advisor, but I guarantee candidates who toss the term “union busting” around a few times and throw verbal zingers Snyder’s way are bound to rack up Detroit votes.
City Council President Charles Pugh, who also has expressed interest in a mayoral run, has essentially done the same thing. He supported the consent agreement up until now, when he suddenly is calling it “union busting” and blasting the state for wanting to take over Detroit.
Looks like Bing, Pugh and DMC front man Mike Duggan will be top mayoral contenders in 2013. And it’s clear that a successful run it will be a tight balancing act of who can keep in good with the State while giving Detroit voters what they want to hear.
Consent or Bankruptcy? No Easy Way Out
Last week, when the city council voted on the controversial, proposed union wage and benefit cuts under the consent agreement, Council Member Kwame Kenyatta suggested the city would be better off filing for bankruptcy.
That got people talking: What are the real consequences of municipal bankruptcy?
One Detroit News columnist, Daniel Howes, speculated on what could happen if the city went under the mercy of a federal bankruptcy judge versus the financial board that's now in place under the consent agreement.
“When a judge orders Belle Isle sold to repay creditors or demands the Detroit Institute of Art liquidate a portion of its holdings or abrogates collective bargaining agreements with the city or approves massive legal fees for legions of lawyers or renders judgment on a parade of horribles — that would be preferable?”
After reading that I wanted to find out exactly what the powers of a bankruptcy judge are and whether Howes was right: Could we potentially be forced to sell Belle Isle?
I decided to ask an expert on municipal bankruptcy. Eric Scorsone, specialist in State and Local Government at Michigan State University, says, "no":
“A bankruptcy judge cannot force the City of Detroit to sell Belle Isle or any city-owned property. That’s just not accurate,” he said.
Scorsone distinguished a key difference between a bankruptcy judge and a financial manager or board:
“A bankruptcy judge is really almost more of an arbitrator or an administrator than anything else. An EM is kind of in the driver’s seat.”
Since a bankruptcy judge tends to be more hands off, that’s part of the problem. If the city went bankrupt a judge wouldn’t have the power to change any policies or government structures that landed the city in this financial stew in the first place:
A bankruptcy judge is not gong to fix try to the city’s economy,” Scorsone told me.
But even if we weather bankruptcy, an EM, or Consent Agreement board, it looks like there’s just not easy way out of this, Detroit.
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