No backbone without a policy

December 16, 2008
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Should developers attempt to determine the method and policies of economic development in Grand Rapids, they would first and foremost be stymied for lack thereof, and second for the confusing assortment and sordid commentary that accompanies public discussion of projects.

The expertise required for valuable insight and recommendation is unfortunately not the purview of the city commission, and rarely of city staff, whose experience is limited to shepherding the ideas and projects created by businesses — hence, the importance of city boards and commissions composed of individuals who offer such expertise, and who commissioners have run over in the belief their opinions matter more than fact.

The situation increasingly is becoming a political stew by which none will benefit.

The most recent stumble was that afforded by the commission’s review of Renaissance Zone extensions. It is a process by which the city had the obligation — or rather honor — to recommend to a board of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. continuance of tax abatements for the zones, on behalf of three property developers planning new projects.

All three projects provide stimulation in near-downtown neighborhoods (often the most difficult to areas to stimulate or formulate return on investment). The abatement extensions were approved for True North’s renovation of a two-story, 15,177-square-foot building on Dewey Avenue, and for Via Design’s proposal to renovate a 4,000-square-foot building on Grandville Avenue. Neither business owns the buildings, though both have options to buy.

The third property is not leased; it was purchased in August 2007 by Wealthy Street Historical Development, which proposed an investment of $1.2 million for ground-floor retail development and upper-level condominiums. On Nov. 25, the commission agreed to allow abatement of taxes only for the lower half of the development. Last week, it lost the project altogether.

A “half” abatement makes no sense, especially considering that the commission had alternatives, such as an abatement lasting less than the maximum 12 years. The proposal is four-times the investment of Via Design. So, why?

Why indeed. Commissioner David LaGrand has determined that Wealthy Street no longer needs the economic stimulus. Commissioner LaGrand owns Wealthy Street Bakery in the same neighborhood. He clearly should have abstained from even voting, let alone proffering some excuse for bad judgment or as an “authority,” one who clearly has a conflict of interest. LaGrand didn’t stop there. He opined that the abatement might give WSHD an “unfair advantage” in selling the condos, most specifically worrying aloud about another development with two apartments … though both apartments are rented by family members of the developer.

The developer certainly can’t be blamed for pulling out of the process altogether, while explaining to the commission that “the numbers won’t work” for such a renovation without the tax break.

Déjà vu: It is no less appalling than the breech of integrity shown when Commissioners Robert Dean and Rick Tormala allowed police and fire unions to throw them fundraiser parties after they took office.

The city must use its mental muscle, with the help of the expertise of its boards and commissions, to create a clear and comprehensive policy, unimpeded by the whims of the moment of any specific person or political interest.

The Wealthy Street property will remain vacant, especially given the banking and credit crisis choking businesses across the country, but most especially in Michigan.

And that serves no one.

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