East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) met on Thursday, July 22, under new leadership as a slate of new officers were elected following the unexpected resignation of Vice Chair Jim Croom. The group took on a bevy of issues, including amending the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with River Caddis Development regarding the DDA’s Evergreen Properties, giving the developers another extension to the timeline to bring a proposal, but with a new stipulation.
The DDA has a new chair, vice chair, and treasurer.
The changes to the executive positions come after the resignation of Croom on Thursday and former Chair Peter Dewan having come to the end of his term-limit last month.
The new officers are Mike Krueger (Chair), Luke Hackney (Vice Chair), and Kristin Clark (Treasurer), following unanimous approval of the DDA. City Manager George Lahanas will remain the DDA’s Secretary.
Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins announced Croom’s resignation at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting but didn’t explain Croom’s reason.
When reached by text on Thursday, Croom said there was “no particular reason” but felt it was time to give others a chance to serve. He also added that he has primarily been living up north for more than a year and the upcoming return to in-person meetings would have required a four-hour long drive. Croom said he plans to continue to stay involved where he can while saving time for “all those deferred retirement activities.”
DDA member Greg Ballein quickly nominated the three people who ended up as officers. But the approval vote came not before some debate about who should serve as officers.
After Ballein’s nominations, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, who served today as City Council’s liaison to the DDA (she will become mayor in August when Aaron Stephens’ resignation takes effect), proposed that DDA member Jeff Smith, not Hackney, serve as Vice Chair. Gregg noted that Hackney is also committed to serving on several other boards. Lahanas agreed with Gregg.
But Smith said he did not want to split a vote on who should hold the Vice Chair position. Saying he has less expertise and institutional experience than Hackney, Smith withdrew his name from consideration. He also cited the turnovers on Council and the DDA as reasons to have someone with more experience on the DDA serving as an officer now.
River Caddis gets 180 more days and automatic extensions to bring Evergreen Properties development proposal, but it’s not a totally exclusive agreement anymore.
The DDA unanimously voted to approve a request from River Caddis Development to amend the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the DDA regarding development of the Evergreen Properties. That means River Caddis gets a 180-day extension to the MOU, plus additional 180-day extensions in perpetuity, until one or both parties move to terminate the agreement.
But the approval came after considerable discussion, and the amended MOU creates an exception to the exclusivity that allows for the DDA to engage with Artspace for talks and a possible development deal on one or more of the Evergreen Properties.
Lahanas moved to approve the request and spoke in favor of the 180-day extension of the agreement and the automatic 180-day renewals. Gregg seconded his motion.
“We have a great partner with [River] Caddis,” Lahanas said, speaking to his motion. He stated that the pandemic had “derailed the efforts over the past year” but expressed belief that they are the ones to “bring the project to fruition.”
In response, Ballein questioned the automatic 180-day extensions, and said the auto-extensions are something he hasn’t seen in an exclusive contract before. He asked Scott Hogan of Foster Swift, acting at the meeting as Counsel to the DDA, whether it’s legal for the DDA to agree to such a thing.
Hogan said it is legally permissible and that automatic renewals like this aren’t uncommon. Ballein then asked specifically if auto-extensions in an exclusive contract of this sort were also common.
“Not to my knowledge, I guess, is the answer I would give,” Hogan said, after a brief pause. “But I have certainly seen it before in an exclusive option to purchase property or something along those lines.”
Referring to ELi’s reporting on Tuesday regarding this agreement, Smith asked City staff if other developers had inquired with the City about the Evergreen Properties in question.
“Are there any interests that we’re hearing or seeing or inquiries coming in about the sites? Even if it isn’t the whole site, maybe it’s individual sites. Any other interest to the City?” asked Smith.
Cummins answered there has not been outside interest that he is aware of. Lahanas and other staff members did not add anything in response.
Following additional questions from Ballein, Hogan explained that the MOU with River Caddis would not allow the City to engage in discussions with other developers who might be interested in the properties.
John McGraw of River Caddis Development was at the meeting and explained that his company hopes to work collaboratively with the City to get people downtown. The original plan for the development was office space, but the anchor tenant dropped out due to the pandemic.
Krueger asked McGraw if River Caddis would realistically be closer to some sort of deal to buy and develop the land within 180 days. McGraw said that’s the “crystal ball question,” and it depends on the rate at which workers return to offices.
He also suggested Michigan State University as being the ideal third party to this proposed development of the Evergreen Properties.
Meanwhile, Artspace is being discussed in focus groups.
ELi learned this via an email that was forwarded after ELi Founder and Executive Director Alice Dreger spoke at public comment seeking to clarify if the Evergreen Properties Advisory Committee had been meeting and asking that they follow the Open Meetings Act regardless. City staff indicated the Evergreen Advisory Committee has not met in over a year.
The email in question, sent by former DDA Chair Peter Dewan on July 16 at 3:30 p.m., carries the subject line “Artspace Meeting Confirmation – In person meeting July 22nd – Newman Lofts – 200 Albert Avenue, East Lansing, MI.”
The email recipients – City Council candidates Dan Bollman and Chuck Grigsby, Mayor Pro Tem Gregg, former DDA Vice Chair Croom, current DDA member Jacqueline Babcock, firstname.lastname@example.org, and others – were told that the group is still scheduled to meet in person at Newman Lofts on July 22 at 7 p.m.
ELi asked Gregg and Krueger what the group is, and Gregg responded that, “This group was organized by Mr. Dewan and Elenore Holbrook [sic] working with Artspace to coordinate their visit to East Lansing and as part of the study that was authorized by Council several months ago.”
Gregg said that the group had met once before about a presentation from Artspace and planning for Artspace to visit to conduct a site search.
The DDA and City Council are currently paying $30,000 for a market study to potentially partner with Artspace, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit to construct live-work spaces for artists and creatives.
On top of the discussion of the Evergreen Properties, the DDA took care of some simpler business.
They unanimously approved $15,000 for a facade improvement program that had gone unfunded the prior fiscal year due to Covid. See the guidelines and application for that program here.
Additionally, the DDA unanimously approved a funding request to assist SCENE Metrospace with utility costs for three years. According to Cummins, that will cost the DDA $6,000 maximum over the course of the three years.
A request from Bell’s Greek Pizza regarding an outdoor expansion and beautification grant application was put off, and the DDA did not vote, instead instructing the City staff to work with the business owner to come back with a tweaked application.
And finally, the DDA unanimously approved a proclamation for former DDA Chair Peter Dewan and his 11 years on the Downtown Development Authority, brought forward by staff, “acknowledging his service, his contribution to the community,” Cummins said.