Council OKs plans for nature center

By: Jennie Miller | Southfield Sun | Published November 23, 2011

 The 42-acre Carpenter Lake Nature Preserve opened in 2008 and features woodlands, forested wetlands and meadows overlooking the five-acre lake, with a mile’s worth of nature trails complete with interpretive signs, benches, and fishing and viewing platforms.

The 42-acre Carpenter Lake Nature Preserve opened in 2008 and features woodlands, forested wetlands and meadows overlooking the five-acre lake, with a mile’s worth of nature trails complete with interpretive signs, benches, and fishing and viewing platforms.

File photo David Schreiber


SOUTHFIELD — A $2.1 million construction project was approved by a special vote of the Southfield City Council Nov. 14, moving forward plans that have long been in the mix for a nature center to be built on the site of the Carpenter Lake Nature Preserve.

The preserve, opened to the public in 2008 after decades of planning and $1.5 million in grant funds, is a sprawling 42 acres of woodlands, forested wetlands and meadows overlooking the five-acre lake. A mile’s worth of nature trails with interpretive signs, benches, and fishing and viewing platforms were installed.

The proposed Carpenter Lake Nature Interpretive Center would be a 10,630-square-foot environmentally friendly educational facility sitting at the foot of the preserve, spanning the ravine, according to plans previously presented by the architecture and engineering firm Harley Ellis Devereaux.

While the path toward a realized nature preserve and educational facility has been a lengthy one, City Council acted quickly Nov. 14 to push forth the plans as grant expiration dates loomed.

Approximately $1.122 million of the $2.1 million project has already been funded, but it won’t be available for long, explained Southfield City Administrator Jim Scharret. This includes a $500,000 Michigan Department of Natural Resources grant, unanimously approved by council for acceptance back in 2007 with a city commitment of $500,000 in matching funds. While the city has applied for and received two extensions on the grant, a third will be granted only if the project is completed by Aug. 1, 2012, Scharret said.

Which means the bidding process needed to begin immediately.

“It would be a very tight construction process,” Scharret said. “If the decision is to move forward, we would need to act very aggressively.”

If the city does not make the construction timeline, the funds would not be reimbursed, Scharret added.

Other available funds include a $140,000 grant provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, a $150,000 donation provided by DENSO International America Inc., and $332,000 in architect and engineering service fees already budgeted by the Southfield Parks and Recreation Department in fiscal years 2009-10 and 2010-11.

That leaves a balance of $978,000 yet to be provided, and Scharret proposed a plan to council to have the Local Improvement Revolving Fund — typically used for emergency loans — advance the funds for the project for the time being. The Parks and Recreation Department would then reimburse the LIRF with interest-only payments, at 3 percent, beginning in fiscal year 2012-13. The Parks and Recreation Department would then be responsible for the nature center operating costs, which are currently estimated at $75,000 per year, Scharret said.

This plan does not take into account any revenue earned by the center.

Scharret also suggested that the interest rate on the existing LIRF loan for the Carpenter Lake project be reduced from 6 percent to 3 percent.

“If council wants to do it now, this is the best way to do it, this is the best way to finance it — it’s cost-effective for all the funds involved,” Scharret said.

Council was torn on how to proceed. Three voted in favor, two were opposed. Two were absent. The plans were approved.

“My intuition tells me not now,” said City Councilman Sidney Lantz. “I personally don’t think we should do this and spend this money now. We just had a millage. We’re not going to spend … close to a million dollars of our own funds. … The people who just passed the millage, how are they going to feel about us spending all this money?”

City Councilwoman Joan Seymour pointed out that the grant money and donation that is on the table for the project would be lost if council didn’t act.

City Councilman Don Fracassi said that the funds for Parks and Recreation cannot be
diverted to any other project, and that it’s worth the cost to move forward.

“I for one have looked at this deep, and I said if I can justify it, I will be for it,” Fracassi said. “I can honestly say I can justify spending all this money at this time. ... It is an unbelievable thing for this community. We are down as far as activities in this city. We used to have a pool at Beech Woods: We don’t have it anymore. We don’t have tennis courts anymore. This is something the residents can use and be proud of. … We have been No. 1 in so many categories in the history of this city, and I see us going forward and building the city that everyone expects us to have.”

Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, who did not have a vote on the matter, expressed her feeling that while the nature center was a great idea when it was first proposed years ago, and that the nature preserve is a gem in the city, perhaps the city’s priorities need to be re-evaluated.

“Can we afford (this) with all of the challenges that we have?” Lawrence said. “We do not have a community center place. Our meeting rooms are extremely antiquated and embarrassing. … I literally freeze and burn every time the season changes. Our handicapped accessibility is not up to code, and that’s really unacceptable. We have a pool that literally they had a hose running because a filter stopped working so they could jerry rig it during the summer. Our locker rooms are embarrassing. Our citizens deserve to have (more) modern efficiencies in our Parks and Rec than we currently have. … If we’re going to use LIRF funds, we need to fix our existing property. I think for the council to make a decision without seeing an actual list of committed projects for Parks and Rec is unadvised. I want Parks and Rec brought up to the Southfield standard. We are falling behind dramatically.”

During the informal meeting, conducted as a committee-of-the-whole and not in council chambers or videotaped for airing on Cable 15, several residents spoke in support of the project.

“I believe in the concept of building the ‘field of dreams,’” said resident Stephanie English. “If you build it, they will come. … (And) if we don’t accept (these grants) we’ll get a reputation as a non-forward-thinking community.”

One resident expressed her frustration that the city turned down a $2 million SAFER grant that would allow for the hiring of additional firefighters, and didn’t understand how this $500,000 DNR grant could be seen as more important.

City Council members-elect Jeremy Moss and Sylvia Jordan shared their thoughts on the matter one week before taking the oath of office. Jordan expressed her approval, calling it a win-win, and saying that “we need to finish what we started.” Moss said that while he supports the plans, he, like the mayor, subscribes to the notion of “fix it first.”

City Clerk Nancy Banks, who also did not have a vote on the matter, shared her thoughts that the city’s priorities are “messed up.”

“As someone who’s lived here all my life, I’m very concerned for the future,” Banks said. “It’s not the project, it’s the timing.”

The measure passed with support from Fracassi, Seymour and Linnie Taylor, in her last council meeting after not earning re-election. Lantz and Ken Siver opposed. Myron Frasier was not present; Janna Garrison had recently left the post.