State Rep. David Rutledge to Washtenaw County Parks and Rec Commission Director Bob Tetens on the long stalled Eastside Recreation Center: “There are all kinds of ways that this could happen now if there was the will to do it… There is no will to see this done”

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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 bury 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. Tetens, when asked, said that this might work.

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26 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    Can someone explain to me whey it matters that construction debris is beneath the surface of the ground where the rec center is slated to be built? I don’t understand why it would have to be moved.

  2. Picky
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    WCParks built the complex and expensive Blue Heron Bay water attraction…which is horribly ugly and marrs a formerly beautiful stretch of beach at Independence Lake Park in 1 and a half Summers…about 18 months start to finish. They can move fast and secure funding when they want to. They partnered with some private company for that one

  3. Picky
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Other note…why is the site where the UAW ballfield is…near Chiduster Place…basically a huge empty field across from the old Ford Lake Ford plant…never considered for…well…anything?

  4. Jcp2
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    The soil beneath the surface has to be moved for the foundation of the building. Since it is contaminated, it can’t be just pushed around to make landscaping or dumped at another site. It has to be moved off site to an area that can deal with contaminated soil.

  5. Billy LaLonde
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Would YOU want to deal with Ypsi officials? Sounds like they’re a pretty smart bunch, those Parks And Recreation folks…

  6. Gary Clark
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    I have always thought that the County Rec Building should go on the Water Works Park site, close to the I-94 exits, close to the township, close to the river and the Ford Lake Park, yet still easily accessible to Ypsilanti city residents. This property is already off the tax rolls, has a disc golf course and a baseball diamond, and, if the Rec Center is downsized a bit there could be a skatepark. There may be groundwater issues in this location however. Not sure about that. However, I have observed reluctance by the county to actually proceed with this project in any location from the outset. Is that just my observation?

  7. Paula Gardner
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    My opinion: Determining whether the county is actively looking for an alternative site will help define its will to build. Everything related from this meeting shows that there are doubts about Water Street. But if they’re not considering alternatives, which Bob Tetens said is an option, then it’s unlikely to move out of neutral – whether WS is the ultimate site or they find something that can serve the city as well.

  8. Houton
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    The city’s excuse for backing out sounds manufactured. My guess is that they just didn’t want to be part of a Ronnie Peterson show trial.

  9. EOS
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    There is plenty of uncontaminated free property at Rolling Hills Park. No expensive cleanup necessary. A Rec Facility has been in the Master Plan for years. Using recreation funds to build recreation facilities is a much better use of County taxpayer dollars than diverting the money to clean up contaminated property.

  10. Dan
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    According to Tetans, they had been told that the parcel had been filled with “30 feet of clean sand”.

    Who did this filling and who claimed it was done with clean sand? This is a common “scam” construction contractors pull. Clean, well compacting sand is expensive, so contractors will just say they filled a huge hole with it and charge the owner/developer for the cost of that sand. But then they will just use the scrap dirt and other crap laying around the site.

    And anonymous, as jcp alluded to, the debris and crappy dirt fill needs to be removed so that a stable foundation can be built. If the underlying soil is not stable, the building will sink. This is regardless of any potential contamination.

  11. Posted May 3, 2016 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    why is the site where the UAW ballfield is…never considered for…well…anything?

    That parcel is privately owned by a company called Angstrom, along with the rest of the Ford Plant complex. WCPARC (or someone else) could certainly make them an offer.

    The Angstrom site and Waterworks Park are both almost completely in the Huron River’s floodplain (like small portions of the water street site), which presents its own challenges for building. Certainly not insurmountable: the Ann Arbor YMCA is mostly in the Allen Creek floodplain, which is why the building is up on stilts.

  12. Andrew Clock
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I’m more annoyed that our esteemed mayor instructed city employees not to attend. Does she legitimately have that power in our weak mayor system, and more importantly, what else are they hiding?

  13. Dave Heikkinen
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    From my observations while attending. and sometimes napping …

    1) The City seems luke-warm at best over this entire project. It has never been enthusiastically embraced which resulted at one City Council meeting in a Dave Rutledge tongue-lashing at both sides. There still seems to be a disconnect though from my attendance at meetings; the Public wants the Rec Center, the City doesn’t really care and the County is dragging its feet. I am glad Dave spoke up again.
    2) There is no new news on the characteristics of the site. There just seems to be a lot of foot-dragging here. It is not a part of the recently revisited contaminated area. It just has construction debris this is buried there. Then it was stated that to dig this up and move into underneath where the parking lot would be, well this would cost $750,000.00. That seems like an awful lot for the size area that we are discussing. $750K, really????
    3) It was sad that no one from City Hall was there … though the meeting did need to be more properly set up. It did indeed have the taste of election-year politics.
    4) I don’t think anyone has any confidence at this point that a Rec Center will get built. The Las Vegas odds would have to be against it!

  14. Mr. Y
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Dave, I think that lack of enthusiasm you mention on the part of City Council in part explains why Tetans hasn’t moved faster to make this happen. From his perspective, he was doing the city a favor, investing $10 million downtown, and sparking something on Water Street. Instead of thanking him, though, Ypsi City Council debated endlessly whether or not it was worth it to give them a piece of this “prime” real estate. I think that rubbed Tetans the wrong way.

  15. No Will to Build
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Just because Ronnie had a political motivation for setting Tetans up to be a piñata doesn’t mean Tetans doesn’t deserve it. I think Tetans was strong armed into this early on and never liked the plan from the beginning. Instead of saying so, he just decided to let it die on the vine, hoping that the city would take the heat. Up until this meeting it’s been working.

  16. Zachary Jones
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    What a mess Cheryl Farmer and Paul Shreiber left us with the Water Street issue. Now their patsies, Mayor Edmonds and her camp, cannot seem to get their act together to get the place properly remediated.

    We should 1) refinance our debt as proposed through the upcoming millage proposal, 2) sell the entire property for a dollar to the developer with the best plan that will remediate the land properly and then do something with the property. Get it off our books, anything, and start collecting property taxes for the city.

  17. Andrew Clock
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Don’t worry everyone. We’re going to give H&K the only potentially valuable land for 1/3 the current asking price and they’re going to build affordable housing we don’t need (Now With Token Strip Mall!) while not giving any of the tax, location/remediation, or infrastructure gains we were originally promised to help swallow the affordable housing pill. That will fix everything.

  18. Nick Azzaro
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    My only concern is when we can start calling this Waterstreetgate. I hate missed opportunities!

  19. Demetrius
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    @ Mr. Y

    I was at the City Council meeting where Tetens originally presented this idea. As I recall, Council members asked some routine questions, and indicated they’d like to have a modest degree of say in the site plan, etc.. My impression of Tetens was that he thought he was doing Ypsilanti a huge favor by even suggesting the idea, and he seemed genuinely annoyed that anyone would dare question the project.

    I understand the benefits of a potential rec center, but following Tetens’ presentation, even I left that meeting feeling pretty lukewarm about the project. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Council members feel the same way.

  20. Janette Rook
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the report, Mark. Good on Linda, sensible idea, even if she is a bitchy neighbor (hi Linda, hahaha!) It seems a it stage-y, but I guess I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that the intent was to light a fire under the county somehow, someway. Maybe it’s naive of me, but don’t county staff take their direction on these things from our elected leaders anyway?

    It would be so great if our city council could sit down with the county commissioners and just come up with a viable downscaled plan to pull the trigger already. It would be good for both the county & our town.

    Don’t stop trying to make fetch/Waterstreetgate happen, Nick.

  21. Cheryl Farmer
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. Sorry I was unable to attend. I think it is worth pointing out that Mr. Tetans works for the County Commission, and that Ronnie Peterson has been our County Commissioner for over a dozen years. Is Commissioner Peterson just now noticing that nothing has been built – now that he has decided to run for State Representative? I’m afraid Commissioner Peterson has been ineffective on behalf of the City of Ypsilanti for a long time.

  22. Posted May 4, 2016 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    but don’t county staff take their direction on these things from our elected leaders anyway?

    Not directly in this case.

    Tetens is the (staff) Director of the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission (WCPARC), so he reports to that Commission, not to the elected Board of Commissioners (BoC). The WCPARC commissioners are appointed by the BoC, and include a couple of the elected officials, but since Commissioner Peterson is not one of the electeds who serves on WCPARC, he doesn’t have any direct-report relationship to Tetens.

    Looking at the WCPARC member list, Janice Anscheutz is the only member who lives in the City of Ypsilanti, appointed as a “general public” member.

    The County Road Commission works similarly: the BoC appoint the Road Commissioners, and then the Road Commission hires and manages staff. I think all the directly-elected countywide officials–Drain Commissioner, Sheriff, Clerk/Register, Prosecutor, etc–also hire and manage their own staff independently of the BoC.

  23. Janice Anschuetz
    Posted May 4, 2016 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I think that the director of WCPRC said it all – and sadly he seemed to have been blamed for the reasons that this has not been built by now despite all of his efforts to raise funds, modify the building and explore other options to provide an eastside county recreation building. Strangely there was no mention from the audience of the two recreation buildings that Ypsilanti owns a.d operates presently and recreation offered by after school YMCA and other programs.

  24. Janette Rook
    Posted May 4, 2016 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Murph & Cheryl, good to know :)

  25. Alan Goldsmith
    Posted May 5, 2016 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    “If I were cynical, I’d say that the meeting, which was called by Ronnie “I am the people’s advocate” Peterson…”

    Fortunately, I am cynical and am curious why this political hack gets to have his past landlord lawsuit issues with the EEOC magically disappear from the radar of MLive when he’s running for a higher political office. That would be a nice story for someone to revisit, unlike the person in the office currently who whined about criticism of his ‘wine’ tab while serving at Washtenaw Community College. Just saying.

  26. Janice Anschuetz
    Posted May 5, 2016 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    In regards to the WCPRC board. The law designates that the board be comprised of 2 county commissioners, the drain commissioner, a member of the planning commission and the road commission and only 4 “citizens at large”. They must live somewhere in this country but one lives in Ypsi. and one in Ypsi. Twsp, another in Pittsburgh Twsp and the last in Ann Arbor. So, compared to the rest of the county, Ypsi. is well served.

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