freighthouse first, then the arts center

A few weeks ago, I posted something here about the possibility of shifting $336,500 in grant money from Ypsilanti’s Riverside Arts Center (RAC), where it’s to be put toward the installation of an elevator, to the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, where it could be put to immediate use bringing the long-dormant community space up to code and getting it back in operation. Given the fact that the elevator project was being pursued so that people with disabilities could access the upper floors of the RAC, there was a considerable amount of back and forth in the comments section. (I’d encourage everyone interested in the subject to follow the above link and read through the comments.) Among those debating the relative merits, I should add, were two people with family members restricted to wheelchairs. I don’t know if the small group we had discussing the matter here on MM.com were representative of the larger community, but the sense that I got was that, once everything had been said, most people were in agreement that an open and accessible Freighthouse would be more valuable to the community — including those in wheelchairs — than access to the upper floors of the Riverside Arts Center, especially when taken into consideration that the elevator project could take years. (It should be pointed out that the lower, main floor of the RAC is already wheelchair accessible.)

On the face of it, it sounds terrible. How could someone suggest not pursuing a project that would make the upper floors of a community building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act? I know. But read through the thread and see if you still feel that way. The most optimistic estimate, which we heard from a RAC board member, for a completed elevator project, was $650,000. That would mean the RAC would have to raise at least another $300,000 before work could begin – not an easy task even in the best of times. Former City Council member Barry LaRue mentioned that there was a grant application presently being considered by the DTE Foundation. If it’s for $300k, and if it’s awarded, that clearly changes things, but, if it’s not, we should be open to thinking about alternatives for the funds.

At the same time, according to the “Ann Arbor News,” $365,000 is all that it would take to make the entire Freighthouse again open to all Ypsilantians. That would mean that, if the $336,500 could be moved, the Friends of the Freighthouse organization would only have to raise about $30k to see the project completed. (As I’m told they’ve already raised $18k, that means they’d only need to raise another $12k to begin work, and I bet we could do that with one good fundraiser.)

So, assuming we want to, is it possible to move the money yet again? (This money had originally been granted for work on the Water Street development, and was only moved after development plans derailed.) City Planner Richard Murphy looked into it and found the following.

…The money is (from) Michigan’s Core Communities Fund. The Freighthouse could probably qualify under the fund goal of, “Redevelop or reuse obsolete buildings or nonmarketable sites”.

That also brings up (another) reason to make the switch – the faster we can use the money, the less chance the State has to take it back to fill their own holes. (On the other hands, they might say, “If you’re not going to use it for the project we said you could, maybe we should just take it back.”)

But, certainly, this involves “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” (Or, less emotionally, there’s an opportunity cost to spending the money on the Freighthouse, in that we go from 50% to 0% of the way towards the RAC expansion.) Whatever we spend money on, there’s other stuff we’re not spending money on. (Lots and lots of other stuff – why don’t we transfer this money to the pool, or to the housing commission, or to solar panels, or to fixing up College Place, or to the first year’s Water Street bond payments, or or or or…)

But let’s assume that the Freighthouse and RAC are the only options we’re considering. What if, rather than robbing Peter, Paul sat down with him and worked out a loan? Again, I don’t know how much the Freighthouse charged in user/event fees in the past for various things, but maybe we add an Elevator Fund Surcharge to every event fee in the Freighthouse, so that the Freighthouse can pay back the loan over time? (Probably a long time, considering the amount of money involved…)

So, there you have it. It’s complicated, and I know that the powers-that-be have their hands full, what with the budget crisis and all, but I think we need to consider this. There are still a few things we need to know, like the status of the DTE grant, and whether or not the state could take the money back if we asked to change its proposed use again… I think it’s worth it, even if there’s some risk though. When I remember what a vital and beautiful place the old Freighthouse used to be and how unlike anything else it was, I feel optimistic about Ypsilanti’s chances in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time.

I don’t know that I’ve ever said it here before, but, in large part, I agreed to move back to Ypsi because of the Freighthouse and what a magical place it was on Saturday mornings, when people of all ages, colors – and abilities – would sit around the wood burning stove, sipping bad coffee and listening to their neighbors playing bluegrass while children danced with the old folks. That was the kind of thing I’d never seen anywhere else before, and, if we were lucky enough to get that kind of place back again, I think it could really help us sell our town to others who are looking for that kind of authentic community so rare these days… So, I don’t want this idea to die. I like the Riverside Arts Center and what they’re doing in the community, but I’d argue that, all things considered, having an operational Freighthouse today is of more value than accessibility to the upper floors of the RAC at some point in the future. (And, given the current economic environment in Michigan, who knows how long it could take the RAC board to raise $300,000?)

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6 Comments

  1. Zach
    Posted October 29, 2007 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I’d be happy to give some money to Friends of the Freighthouse but the website appears to be down. Can someone point me in the right direction? Thanks.

    P.S. Thanks to everyone who’s been part of the lively discussion about the city income tax. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts over the past few weeks.

  2. Posted October 29, 2007 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Mark: I don’t think there’s anything at at all wrong about prioritizing where we focus our revitalization grant money. I think what needs to be done is a principled analysis of where those dollars would best be used (which is precisely what your proposing), with a close eye toward whether a diversion like you’re suggesting could constitute discrimination against the disabled. Interestingly, since the the Freighthouse is already accessible, spending money to open it up would result in a net increase in access to City facilities from a citywide perspective.

    That said, I’m not an expert in the law in this area. Perhaps someone could apprise us of whether such a diversion would be seen as discriminatory from a legal standpoint, and if it is not, whether it would be seen a discriminatory from a community standpoint.

    My girls still ask when we will go Salsa dancing next. They really miss that.

  3. Ol' E Cross
    Posted October 29, 2007 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    I concur with all the sentiments expressed thus far.

    Word on the street is a modest fundraiser is currently being planned for the freighthouse friends. $12,000 seems a noble goal.

    (And, it’s nice to have an opportunity agree with Trusty G about something again.)

  4. Posted October 30, 2007 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    I loved going to the Freighthouse with my baby, listening to the old bluegrass music. That wasn’t so long ago. I also remember the special craft shows that used to be there. I’m up for getting involved with the next fundraiser. Zach pointed out that the website is down…is there a monthly meeting or some other way to contact the FOYF?

  5. Citizen Blogger
    Posted October 30, 2007 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Who is involved in the FOYF? Is there a business plan in place for running and maintaining the facility once it is fixed up? It would be a shame to spend that much money on the building, only to have to keep it closed because the electricity bill doesn’t get paid. The Arts Center has the advantage of an established track record where we know what we’d be investing our money in.

    Also, it seems like maybe downtown needs the shot in the arm more than depot town?

  6. Posted April 15, 2015 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Interesting.

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