The 'Mystery' Remains In City Hall

March 5, 2007
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The headline in this issue regarding a proposed development by Grand Rapids Development Corp. reads, “Mystery Solved,” but in fact many mysteries remain.

Little more than one year ago, the Business Journal broke the news that an unnamed developer from outside the area had employed Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce to solicit and obtain options on property along the downtown riverbank. Such activity is not unusual, but the number of property options equaled almost 40 acres of property. It also is not unusual that the property owners signed confidentiality agreements, but it was extraordinary that the Grand Rapids mayor signed such an agreement in regard to the project, more so because the city was preparing to request bids for a 15.8-acre parcel of its own in the same area.

Those were — and are — the reasons the Business Journal broke the story on page 1 last year, and that is why it will continue to be cited in the future.

As more details regarding the “mystery” project became known, the Business Journal also broke the news that Walker city officials were reviewing plans to reshape 240 acres into a retail/commercial/housing complex, including plans and negotiations for a Cabella’s store. The Cabela’s investment in the area had been rumored but not verified. Walker elected officials and staff had not signed confidentiality agreements but assigned project discussions to the appropriate staff members and used the prescribed city procedure prior to the project’s public review. What is amazing about the Walker project is that the Michigan Department of Transportation bumped road crews into action to revamp the I-96 freeway and Walker on/off ramps as that project was discussed in Walker’s back room.

It has been suggested that Grand Rapids Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong reacted in part to the “media frenzy” that accompanied the riverfront development story. In fact, it was not the media that caused the city’s reaction, but genuine public interest and excitement in so vast a project on the riverfront. One must ask whether such is responsible behavior by professional staff. The question of accountability lingers, and that must be assigned to DeLong, who took responsibility for shepherding discussions among developers, staff and a city-appointed task force.

The city staff and commission must have some discussion of proper procedure, including that of the mayor’s office in signing confidentiality agreements, and must hold staff and elected or appointed city officials accountable for following those procedures.

The viability of any one project in the downtown “land of the crane” is not the story or the issue. That some in the city have suggested they had no confidence in the project but felt compelled by “the media” to create a process requesting letters of intent and then requests for proposals was, and is, a tremendous waste of city time and money. Further, it served only to shield questionable actions by city hall.

The mystery now is whether Grand Rapids officials will take the appropriate actions to forestall any future breach of public trust or business confidence.    

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