A crowd of Ferndale residents, business owners and city officials attended a community meeting regarding a proposed project on Nine Mile Road to bring a downtown Baker College campus to the city.

A crowd of Ferndale residents, business owners and city officials attended a community meeting regarding a proposed project on Nine Mile Road to bring a downtown Baker College campus to the city.

Photo by Mike Koury

Baker, city officials questioned on proposed downtown Ferndale college campus

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published March 26, 2019


FERNDALE — The discussion of a downtown Baker College campus in Ferndale continued with a community meeting where people could ask questions of city staff and college officials.

The meeting, held March 21 at Incubizo, 1938 Burdette St., featured presentations from Ferndale Community and Economic Development Director Jordan Twardy and Baker College Chief Operating Officer Jacqui Spicer.

Baker is hoping to build a college campus with classrooms, street-level activation and administrative offices at the northwest corner of East Nine Mile Road and Bermuda Street, and on a parking lot near Como’s Restaurant. The college also is looking to develop a six-story, 441-space parking structure on the parking lot between City Hall and the Ferndale Area District Library that would also hold retail and housing space.

Residents had some pointed questions: Does Baker have a backup plan if the project falls through? Would it look for another location in Ferndale? If approved, would the campus be constructed and opened before the parking structure is built?

Twardy said city officials would look at whatever proposal Baker lays in front of them, but Ferndale is looking for the campus not to open before the parking structure. Spicer said constructing the parking structure first is a discussion they’re willing to have with the city, as well as pushing back the August 2020 start date the college hopes to achieve.

On a backup plan if the project is denied, Spicer said, “That’s something we need to have a conversation about internally, and with our leadership team we’ve already started having those conversations. Just a contingency plan, if it doesn’t work out at the end of the ENRA (exclusive negotiating rights agreement), we’ll have to really determine what’s our plan B. At this point, we’re not ready to share our plan B because, again, before we share that, we want to make sure that our students and faculty, they’re certainly aware of what our plan was.”

Jim McLuckie, a 12-year resident of Ferndale, said that before the meeting, he was “generally” against the project being right downtown on Nine Mile.

“I don’t think highly of Baker as an institution much,” he said. “I think they’re kind of leaning towards like a predatory institution, but if they wanted to come to Ferndale, like anywhere else off to the side on Hilton, Livernois, Eight Mile even, just coming right there downtown right in the epicenter of Ferndale, that’s like high-desired property, and it just doesn’t make sense to me to cram it in there.”

After the meeting and conversation with college and city staff, McLuckie said he’s “cooled off a little bit” on his rejection of the project, but he still is against it being located on Nine Mile.

“I think it sounds like they have a sort of promising future for themselves, but I’m still kind of in the same spot of I don’t think it belongs (on Nine Mile) in Ferndale.”

Resident Carly Leasia said she went into the meeting apprehensive of the project, but curious to hear Baker’s point of view.

“I was coming here with my main question being, why is this good for Ferndale?” she said. “What is the pro here, ’cause I haven’t heard that before, and I’m still not really convinced.”

Leasia said she still has negative feelings about the development, but she was happy she went to the meeting and heard from Baker.

“I think a lot of good points were brought up,” she said. “I’m still against the project. I just don’t think it’s a good fit for Ferndale.”

A unique perspective on the project came from resident Darlene Johnson-Bignotti, who works as a faculty librarian at Oakland Community College in Royal Oak, another educational institution located in a neighboring city’s downtown.

She said her concern is how a lot of the businesses are hearing that Ferndale is going to get an increase of foot traffic with Baker and bring students that will hang out and bring money and business into the city.

Johnson-Bignotti said this isn’t something she has seen in the similar situation in Royal Oak.

“Students are pretty much the same demographic,” she said. “They are working students. They’re a little older than traditional, and they’re … financially challenged. Downtown Royal Oak is a lot like Ferndale: expensive, trendy restaurants, boutiques, and those are not the kinds of places that our students can afford. They take classes, and a lot of our students are on financial aid, so they take classes and they go home, and I see the same thing happening here, and I’m just concerned businesses that are counting on Baker infusing the community with all this economic benefit isn’t going to happen and they’re going to be disappointed.”

Johnson-Bignotti said she’s neutral as far as the project is concerned, especially as someone who works for a college herself.

“I’m not here to diss them or anything like that, but my concern is basically the supposed economic benefit and whether or not that will actually come to fruition,” she said.

On how the meeting went, Spicer said the process is working — Baker wants to be a part of the city, and it’s important for college officials to listen to the residents.

“We’ve already made adjustments and arrangements to our planning, as well as to our drawings and our renderings,” she said. “We’ve listened to the business community. We’ll continue to listen to the residents. So from my perspective, the process is working, and it’s something that we also embrace.”

The claim that Baker is a “predatory institution” has been said by more than one resident. Spicer said Baker is not a predatory institution

“Being predatory, I don’t think that’s the way in which we operate,” she said. “That doesn’t jive in my opinion, and on the flip side of that, if we were predatory and we had practices that were perhaps unethical, we wouldn’t have made this announcement well in advance for our students to understand that we’re making this change. We care about our students. We always put our students first, and I think it’s just disappointing people think that we’re predatory, because we really do have the students — they’re top of mind for us.”

The next city meeting where the project will be discussed will be before the Planning Commission on Wednesday, April 3. Twardy said it will focus on design elements, but all comments are welcome. He also said city officials talking internally about holding additional community conversations like the March 21 gathering.