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Jan 18

Elevators: Lifting Ypsilanti Out Of Financial Insolvency

Comments (0) 12:00 AM posted by admin |

Sometimes even when Ypsilanti City Council meetings are short and timely there’s enough mind-blowing stuff to, well, blow your mind.

If you’d ask the Mayor and members of City Council what is more important to the long-term success of Ypsilanti, Water Street or adding an elevator to the Riverside Arts Center, the answer you would have received tonight would have been adding an elevator to RAC.

As an aside, I am in the process of working on t-shirts with the slogan, “Elevators: Lifting Ypsilanti Out of Financial Insolvency,” or something close to that. You’ll be able to buy them for $17.99 or so. To show that my heart is in the right place, I promise that 100% of the proceeds will go towards building an elevator in my own house, but I digress.

In case you aren’t familiar with the details of the Water Street Project, the City received somewhere in the neighborhood of $500K in Michigan Economic Development Corporation grants to create green space for the project. For those unfamiliar with grants, unlike loans, they are monies that you don’t have to pay back. In case you aren’t familiar with the details of the Water Street Project, it’s an idea to develop the underdeveloped 40 acres just east of Huron Street and just south of East Michigan Avenue. The thought is that by building 700 condominiums and / or town houses, the City can put underutilized land to work in the form of property tax revenue. While the merits of the project are not up for debate here, the project has been nothing short of a disaster with the City having spent $13M to date on purchase and clean-up. Regardless, the project is vital to Ypsilanti’s redevelopment. If Water Street fails, the City fails.

A few years back, the City of Ypsilanti also received $100K in “Cool Cities” grant money. The “Cool Cities” initiative is seed money for selected communities to attract members of the so-called Creative Class back to urban centers with things that cool kids like. Stuff like a vibrant art and music scene, inexpensive housing, and heroin ( ed. note: That is obviously tongue-in-cheek as the so-called Creative Class prefers amyl nitrate to heroin). The City of Ypsilanti applied for and won a “Cool Cities” grant with a project based on said Riverside Arts Center and turning the closed DTE building next door into retail as well as artist space. Again, the merits of the project are not up for debate here, but the only thing we have to show for being a “Cool City” is a bunch of lamp post banners proclaiming Ypsilanti as a being a cool city with the alternate moniker of Hipsilanti.

During the Town Hall meetings held this past fall, it was discovered at the DDA Town Hall that the City had petitioned the State to move $336,500 in MEDC grants for the Water Street Project into building an elevator for the RAC building. This was a pretty incredible revelation, but it went unnoticed by most residents.

At tonight’s meeting, Council passed a resolution to officially move the money. That’s not the surprising bit. Council passes everything because they think that’s making progress. The surprising bit is that no one knew the ramifications of such a move. There was some talk about Community Development Block Grants and more loans, but no one asked the right questions and the City Manager didn’t give the right answers.

After the meeting I had the good fortune of cornering two City Councilmembers on this issue. I asked the first how much of the $336,500 in MEDC grants that were moved from Water Street to the RAC project would be replaced by grants—not loans—grants. The answer was a few words strung together with the number $50K thrown in there. I forgot to mention that the City Manager did say the State was willing to convert $50K in loans into grants for the Water Street Project. But to sum things up, he didn’t know. He didn’t have a clue. He was dumbfounded. But he voted in favor of the move anyway. To his credit, he did cleverly pass me off on another Councilmember. I asked the same question to this elected official and got the same albeit more in depth answer. I rephrased my question to read like this: Looking at the big picture, the City now has $50K more in grants that it did before, but the Water Street Project has been short-changed to the tune of $286,500. Okay, it wasn’t really a question, but my patient Councilmember agreed with me.

Now the cynics out there are probably shaking their heads and saying the $336,500 in elevator improvements will enhance property values and increase tax revenue, right? Oh, sorry. The City owns the property therefore they won’t be paying any more in taxes when the elevator finally goes to the top floor.

That’s nuts. That’s absolutely nuts. Water Street is going to cost $286,500 more that it did a few hours ago, but that’s how we do business in Ypsilanti. 

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