We’ve known that it was looming out there. First there were rumors. Then the prospect got mentioned at a City Council meeting. But, now it’s apparently real. According to tomorrow’s City Council packet (PDF), an official offer has been made by a Burger King franchisee… They want to own a piece of Water Street.
I know. I know. It’s a lot to swallow. But, I don’t know what can be done about it at this point. We’ve debated the hell out of it on this site, and kicked around ideas for the past year, but, the sad truth is, we’ve got bills to pay, and Burger King is the only entity out there willing to invest in Ypsilanti. As much as I’d like to fight it, at some point you have to look at the situation straight on, and acknowledge that the only thing we’ve got going for us as a community is a captive population of wheezing fast food junkies… OK, I’m being somewhat facetious, but you get my point. There comes a time when we have to give up the hope that anyone from outside is going to come in and open that green residential community / solar cell research facility that we’d all like to see.
Here, by way of background, is something I wrote a while back, when the Burger King rumor first surfaced:
…If you’ll remember, when all of this Water Street business started, we were promised a beautiful residential neighborhood along the river, full of happy, tax-paying families and the like. And, now it’s looking like what we might get instead is more fast food, and discount stores, contributing little to the economic health of the City going forward, and helping to erase what it is about Ypsi that makes it unique and beautiful in the process.
For those of you not from the area, Water Street is a 38-acre parcel in downtown Ypsilanti, right along the banks of the Huron River. It had been, until relatively recently, the home of many small manufacturing companies and the like. City leaders, looking for a way to grow the City’s limited tax base, however, saw an opportunity in the underdeveloped property, and set out to buy the individual parcels. The plan at first was to build a new residential development, perhaps with some unique retail spaces along the Michigan Avenue frontage. Work, however, stalled when it was discovered that there were environmental issues on the site that needed remediation. (We, of course, hadn’t sought out a developer with brownfield experience, even though we knew that there must be contamination issues.) The developer we’d brought on board then backed out, to be replaced by another, who would, in due time, also back out… Something about Michigan having a dropping population and the worst economy in the country… Which brings us to today, where, with only 146 days left until the next payment comes due, the City is desperate for something to happen. (I believe the City still owes some $18 million on the project which, to date, has cost in excess of $30 million.)
We’ve questioned the logic of the entire enterprise in the past. In retrospect, I think it’s safe to say that most people think the whole thing was stupid – that the City Council, regardless of its motives, shouldn’t have been playing the role of real estate developer with taxpayer money – but what’s done, as they say, is done. The fact is, we’ve got 38 acres of prime real estate, and, like it or not, something’s got to happen with it soon. And, as no one is looking to build residential homes in the City, or build anything remotely interesting, it looks like, at best, we’re talking discount stores, like the food chain Aldi, and fast food, like Burger King. Both, I suppose, would pay taxes, and employ a few people at something close to minimum wage, but is that really what we want our future to look like?
And I’m not saying that I have a better idea. (Or, more accurately, I do have a better idea, but I don’t think it would bring in the kind of tax dollars we need to pay back the bonds that are coming due.) We may not have an option at this point, though. Burger King may be the best thing we’ve got. It just depresses me to think that we’re going to be stuck with a Burger King on our most prime real estate for the next 30 years just because the economy sucks in Michigan today, and because we couldn’t make something better happen. It just seems so short-sighted… I could rant for another hour, but it’s time to call it quits for the night…
And I know it’s not likely to make you feel a whole lot better, but it is just half an acre out of a 38-acre parcel. Sure, I personally think it’s an ominous portent of bad things to come, but, then again, I have a history of overreacting and catastrophizing.
Oh, and this is just Council’s first look at the offer. No action will be taken until the next meeting. So, if you can’t make it out tomorrow night to scream, yell and throw produce at Council members, just be patient. You’ll have another chance.