The Ferndale City Council, seen here at a March meeting, discussed Baker College’s withdrawal from conversations on building a downtown campus at the council’s April 22 meeting.

The Ferndale City Council, seen here at a March meeting, discussed Baker College’s withdrawal from conversations on building a downtown campus at the council’s April 22 meeting.

File photo by Sean Work

Ferndale council speaks on Baker College negotiation withdrawal

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published April 30, 2019


FERNDALE — Several days after Baker College announced that it was withdrawing from conversations with the city of Ferndale on a downtown college campus, City Council members shared their final thoughts on the project.

At its April 22 meeting, each of the council members talked about the last four months of conversations that the city had with Baker as part of the exclusive negotiating rights agreement, or ENRA, to potentially purchase land and build a campus and parking deck. Baker pulled out of negotiations, citing parking as the main concern.

Councilwoman Raylon Leaks-May thanked the community for getting involved, as well as the city staff, regarding the negotiation process.

“I think it was very transparent,” she said. “I thought people got a chance to voice their opinions. I want to thank the community members that reached out to me personally and wanted to express their thoughts regarding the project and come up with clear, concise reasons as to what their concerns were or what their concerns weren’t. I think things happen for a reason, and I think that I just appreciate your efforts and the process and looking forward to moving on.”

Councilman Dan Martin also said he appreciated the public comment on the project, especially as, at times, it seemed there was a perception that the council didn’t want to hear them.

“That was exactly the opposite,” he said. “We very much want them engaged, and we as a council, I’m very proud to say, encourage engagement, and we should continue to do that and embrace that.”

In response to a question a resident posed on why the council voted to enter the ENRA process in the first place, Martin spoke for himself to say that the project had some potential and possibilities, and the council owed it to itself and constituents to explore it.

“That’s what the ENRA allowed us to do,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of confusion of what the ENRA does and what the ENRA does not do. The ENRA does not commit us to the project long term. The ENRA does not mean it’s a done deal or anything else, but gives us an opportunity to collect data and collect information, explore the public benefits, and look at things like parking mitigation and how we get around those things.

“I voted to support the ENRA because I thought it was worth taking a breath and exploring those things and looking into, and I don’t regret doing that. I think if someone shows an interest in that level in the city … we should take the time to explore that better.”

Mayor Pro Tem Greg Pawlica said he believes there was a misconception about the ENRA in that people thought it was a process to protect the city, when in fact it’s a process to protect the developer, as the developer is coming to the city requesting a contract to protect its interest, though there is a level of protecting the city’s own interests as well.

That’s why Pawlica has a concern about going with a community benefits ordinance, as one resident suggested, instead of an ENRA. A CBO is a law that requires developers to proactively engage with the community to identify community benefits and address potential negative impacts of certain development projects, according to the city of Detroit’s website.

“Ordinances are restrictive,” he said. “It doesn’t allow opportunity to be variable. There’s no variables within an ordinance. So I would be worried that we would then treat every project the same, and no two projects are the same.”

Pawlica said he’d like to see, at the end of an information-finding process, the city have something like a 30-day period of community engagement.

“I think there was a misunderstanding that once the ENRA ended, that we were just going to vote on that day. … That wasn’t really the situation, but it wasn’t clear, so we’ve learned a lot through this process and I’m glad that we did,” he said.

Councilwoman Melanie Piana said she felt “muffled” about giving her opinion about the project over the past couple of months as, because of the ENRA agreement, if council members share opinions along the way, it undermines the staff’s ability to deliver on the negotiation on behalf of the city and the residents.

“We also put the legal agreement at risk when we do that,” she said. “I found that process somewhat a little restrictive myself as a councilwoman, and so reflecting back onto what I heard from the residents, they felt that was somewhat restrictive as well.”

Mayor Dave Coulter said that at the end of the day, he thinks the process worked and that he agreed with Martin in that there might be ways to tighten up the ENRA process or modify it so community engagement happens earlier.

“The ENRA is not something we do frequently,” he said. “We’ve done maybe three of them, I think, and we do it when we think a project merits a deeper dive. We do it when the project is interesting and the partner appears viable, and by viable, I mean financially viable. They’re reputable; they’re financially viable; they have the ability to bring their dream to fruition if we can do that sort of investigation.”

The mayor said he still thinks the ENRA process is an important development tool to help vet projects that come before the city. And while people can argue whether the council should have gone as far as it did with Baker, Coulter thought it was a different and interesting enough project than the kinds that developers have proposed before.

“We could have easily given that property or sold that property to someone that wanted to build high-end condos or a restaurant or something else, but this was a different kind of project that I still maintain merited debate and investigation,” he said. “We also knew upfront this one was going to be challenging because their timeline was tight; we knew that from the front, and the people that have raised that (concern), I agree with you. So it was going to be a tight timeline, and we said from the beginning that parking was going to be a big deal for us, given The dot (the Development on Troy mixed-use parking structure). So they knew those constraints going in.

“I had reached a decision that I wasn’t supportive of this project, at least with the information that I had,” Coulter further stated. “And that’s OK because, to me, that’s not a criticism of Baker, and to me, it’s not a criticism of the fact that we explored it, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know back in January. … But what I know today is this isn’t a project that I would pursue, and that’s good knowledge to know going forward when we look at other projects.”