Earlier this evening there was a public meeting on the status of the long–delayed Ypsilanti recreation center. I’m not sure what the impetus was for the meeting, or how long it had been in the works, but the whole thing, at least from my perspective, seemed to be thrown together at the last minute. The City personnel who were billed as speakers didn’t show up, and those who did show up gave the impression that they were just kind of going through the motions, waiting for the confrontation, which we all knew was inevitable once Bob Tetens, director of the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission, began explaining why, after over five years, ground has yet to be broken.
If I were cynical, I’d say that the meeting, which was called by Ronnie “I am the people’s advocate” Peterson, Ypsilanti’s representative on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, had more to do with the fact that Peterson is running for the 54th District State House seat being vacated by David Rutledge than anything else. Regardless of the motivation for calling the meeting, and even though City employees had been given the word by the Mayor not to attend, I still found it worthwhile, though.
Before I get into what was discussed, I should let you know why, in words of Ypsilanti Mayor Pro Tem Lois Richardson, both our Director of Economic Development Beth Ernat and City Manager Ralph Lange were instructed not to attend this meeting. According to Richardson, who stood up to explain their absence after Peterson said that his role was not to protect the government employees but to ensure that the citizens of this community are being served, Ernat and Lange were instructed not to attend as they’d just earlier that day found out that Peterson had added them to the agenda, and weren’t at liberty to publicly discuss certain things relative to Water Street as “negotiations” are currently underway with potential developers.
Unlike our City employees, however, Bob Tetens did not get a reprieve. He stood up at Peterson’s urging, gave a brief update on where we are today relative to the recreation center project, and then just stood there, taking the accusatory comments that were directed his way.
I should add, by they way, that I don’t think this was altogether a bad thing. I think, after over five years of not forcing the project forward, Tetens probably deserves to be held accountable. I also think, however, that he’s probably not the only one deserving of some blame.
Before I get into the comments that were directed at Tetens, here are a few of my major take-aways from his presentation.
• Even though this has taken over five years, Tetens assures us that he and the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission are “committed to Ypsilanti and the east side of the County”. He then goes on to list some of the things that the Parks and Rec Commission has done over the past 40 years to help the people of Ypsilanti, like dedicating funds to the building of the new pedestrian bridge over the Huron River and the paving of the border-to-border trail along the border of Water Street.
• Tetens walks us through the timeline, starting in October of 2011, when he first presented the idea of a downtown Ypsilanti rec center to members of City Council. He says that, since they constructed the Mary Lou Murray recreation center back in 1991, the vision has always been to open other centers on the western and eastern sides of the County. And, he said, with the possibility of a Water Street location, they thought they had an ideal location that would not only serve the recreation needs of the community, but drive economic development downtown.
• Not only, according to Tetens, did he think that it was a good idea, but they brought in Four Square Research Inc., which does national site selection work for the Y, and they confirmed there was a need for a downtown Ypsilanti rec center. They did say, however, that it might take three years before they’d have the members necessary to make such a center cash-flow positive. They also suggested that the Ypsilanti center be smaller than the Mary Lou Murray center, which is 52,000 square feet. [Square Research suggested that our facility be closer to 44,000 square feet.]
• Unlike the Mary Lou Murray center, which Tetans described as more senior focused, the Ypsi center, according to him, would be built with a younger urban demographic in mind, complete with a childcare area, space for youth programming and two pools. And this, he said, was one reason they were excited to bring the Y on as a potential manager of the space, as they have expertise when it comes to youth programming.
• And he talked about the environmental concerns. He says they did their Phase I environmental analysis in November 2014, followed by a Baseline Environmental Assessment Report in May 2015, and additional soil borings just recently. While he didn’t indicate that anything too terrible had been found as a result of these tests, he did say that these tests had shown the area was full of buried construction debris that would cost between $700,000 to $1.2 million to dispose of. [According to Tetans, they had been told that the parcel had been filled with “30 feet of clean sand”. This, however, he says, was not the case, and it would either cost them $700,000 to move and burry the material beneath what will be their parking lot, or $1.2 million to have removed altogether.]
• The problem is, the project is now significantly more expensive than when they first set out to do it. Since the project was first announced in 2011, according to Tetens, the cost of finished construction has risen from $200 a square foot to close to $300 a square foot, bringing the cost of the building alone to $13.7 million. Furthermore, there are the additional costs of dealing with the buried construction debris, and the fact that the City expects them to build the roads onto the site and bring in the utilities. [Free land isn’t always free, Tetans says, referring to the fact that they have a deal to purchase the property for just $1 from the City. He says these projected costs have likewise grown over the past five years.] When all is said and done, what had been a $10 million project, is now a $16 million project, says Tetans… and we don’t have the funds for it. While were were successful in passing the millage, he says, that’s no longer enough.
• He discussed options. He says that maybe we could forgo the pools. [Pool maintenance, Tetans says, accounts for 40% of annual expenses related to running the Mary Lou Murray center.] We could also have a smaller center, one which doesn’t have space for things like childcare. “The other option,” he says, “is to look at a nearby site that has utilities and no remediation.” That, he reminds us, would cut $2.5 million… When asked if there might be federal or corporate funds available that would allow us to keep the project downtown, Tetans says that he and his people have been working for years on identifying additional sources of funding, but they’ve been unsuccessful.
And that’s pretty much when the floodgates opened.
The most interesting response, I think, came from State Representative David Rutledge [pictured above], who, after saying that he hadn’t intended to voice his opinion publicly, said that this was “the most frustrating thing” he had ever gone through. “And that,” he said, “is coming from someone who works in Lansing.” He went on to say, “This center should have been built two years ago, minimum.” He then said that it wasn’t the contaminated land that was stopping this from going forward, but a lack of will on the part of Tetans and his organization. “If there were a will right now, and the administration said ‘get this done,’ it would get done,” said Rutledge. “We can do something for $13 million,” he added, suggesting that Tetans had the wherewithal to invest more than just $10 million. “There are all kinds of ways that this could happen now if there was the will to do it,” he said. He then he went on to remind Tetans that they’ve been collecting the millage for this for some time now. He also suggested that some of the things that had slowed the project to date, like the negotiations with the Y to manage the center, may have just been “red herrings” intend to slow the project.
And from there, the conversation just kept expanding. Lois Richardson asked how many black people currently served on the Washtenaw Parks and Rec Commission, to which Tetans replied “none.” [It was also mentioned, I believe, that only two members on the Commission were from our part of the County.] And another man, who said that he was in favor of the rec center on Water Street, added that, in his opinion, not a dime of the money earmarked for parks and recreation should be used on running utilities or remediating contamination. Then, Ronnie Peterson questioned whether or not the project would happen at all. In another two years, he said, our $10 million may just be worth $8 million. “What will we do then?”, he asked. “You owe the community an explanation,” Peterson demanded. “They supported the millage. A promise was made. And we deserve an answer (as to whether or not a rec center is going to be built).” Peterson then went on to add that Tetans and the County, if they wanted to, could make this happen, as they have both financial reserve and the ability to borrow for things such as this. In response, Tetans said that he did not have sufficient funds to make this happen, and reiterated that he was dedicated to the eastern side of the county. “If we can’t build something (on Water Street),” Tetans said, “we’re not going away.”
I don’t know that a lot was accomplished, but I found it a useful conversation. We can debate how high a priority this is for our Parks and Rec Commission and our County Commissioners, but the truth is we’ve been waiting for 5 years, and contributing our tax dollars toward this, and every day that passes the whole thing becomes a little less likely. Do I think that Tetans alone is to blame? No. But it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that no one in power, it would seem, has a burning desire to see this built in downtown Ypsilanti.
For what it’s worth, I think Sidetrack owner Linda French had a pretty good idea. Toward the end of the event, she suggested that we build something smaller on the site right now, that we can afford, but build it in such a way that it could easily be added to at a later date, when additional funds become available. For instance, we could build a rec center now, without a pool, and then add one later. Titans, when asked, said that this might work.