Mayor demands vote on downtown project

Council members say questions about financing, legal issues must be answered

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published September 20, 2021

 Photo by Brian Louwers Warren Mayor Jim Fouts

Photo by Brian Louwers Warren Mayor Jim Fouts

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WARREN — Will it be yea or nay? Will the question even be asked?

On Sept. 8, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts formally requested a City Council vote on the proposed “Warren Towne Center” project. But before it can be considered, the council’s leadership said questions about financial and legal issues must be answered.

Stay tuned. That all could happen at the Sept. 28 meeting, or not.

With the blessing of the council, the city would invest an initial $30 million in gap funding through the sale of bonds to be repaid with new business tax dollars from developers captured in the city’s Downtown Development Authority district. In return, proponents of the plan said the money would leverage another $140 million in investments from those developers, who would transform the Civic Center along Van Dyke Avenue north of 12 Mile Road, between City Hall and the General Motors Technical Center, into a thriving mixed-use downtown area.

Plans call for an “upscale” grocery store as part of 60,000 square feet of commercial space, an initial phase of 250 one-, two- and three-bedroom residential units with rent ranging from $1,100 to $2,250 a month, and a 210-room Marriott “Tribute” hotel with a 5,000-square-foot ballroom, a reflecting pool, a restaurant with outdoor dining and a rooftop bar.

Accompanied by proposed developers, the architect and financial advisors, administration officials presented the plan to the City Council in July. But so far, there’s been no movement by the council to formally consider the proposal.

Fouts now says the council’s leadership is trying to “delay it to death.”

“I’m real excited about this. This thing is going to be the best thing that has happened to Warren since before I was mayor,” Fouts said on Sept. 16. “This is going to be a game changer, with what it will do.”

While the council has thus far taken no action to approve the administration’s request to give its collective blessing to the project, Fouts said two council members, Ron Papandrea and Angela Rogensues, had agreed to request placement of the item on the City Council’s agenda for the Sept. 28 meeting. If it is not put on the agenda beforehand, he said the council members could add it at the table the night of the meeting.

Many people addressed the council during audience participation at the Sept. 14 meeting. Some spoke in favor of the plan, while others spoke against it.

Fouts maintained that a poll of 1,000 people showed about two-thirds were in favor of downtown development. He said the plan would result in a total private investment of $250 million and an influx of $2.4 million in new taxes. He said projections show the development would create 500-600 commercial jobs and more than 1,000 construction jobs.

The mayor said it would all come at no additional cost to residential taxpayers.

Council Secretary Mindy Moore, Council President Pat Green and Council member Garry Watts have said there are many questions that have yet to be answered before the matter can be put on the agenda for consideration.

During the council’s announcements on Sept. 14, Moore said she had communicated that to the mayor.

“I indicated at that time what my concerns were, that the city can’t give away property. We’re not allowed to,” Moore said. “We’ve not received answers to any of those questions. We’ve gotten no legal feedback at all, no analysis, no expert on DDA.

“There are lots of questions that we have and before we are going to vote yes or no on an item of this magnitude, we have to have those questions answered. We all have different questions about the financing and other things. It’s a lot of money,” Moore said.

Papandrea spoke after Moore and called for a vote on the question at the council’s next regular session on Sept. 28.

“We’ll have the administration here. We’ll have everybody answering questions,” Papandrea said. “This responsibility of the council cannot be put off on the mayor. This is the most important decision we’re making since 1957 when we were created as a city. Are we going to be a real city with a real downtown, or are we going to be some kind of village?”

Green later said his questions about financing have also gone unanswered, to the point where he believes the administration is trying to derail the process.

“They want to sell something to us, but they don’t want to come to us and say what do you need,” Green said. “It comes across as they don’t want this to pass. They want it to be an issue.”

He said the council majority would like to “find a way to work with the developer” but that key questions about financing and the legality of the real estate transfer need to be answered.

“If we’re now the ones who have to ultimately approve this for the long run, we’re going to be critical of it,” Green said.

Fouts and members of the administration said the public-private team put in place to design, develop and finance the downtown took five years to assemble and that the time is now to do it, while interest rates remain low and before inflation makes the cost of development too high.

During the presentation in July, Fouts said the vision of a downtown Warren was one the city’s founders had 55 years ago.

“I’m willing to stick my reputation out on this because I think it’s something that’s going to benefit everybody, north and south,” Fouts said. “Because of development, new money coming in, new taxes, that will ease the burden if Warren has a financial crisis.

“Why not aim to have something better than what the city currently has now? Why do we have to aim downward? Why can’t we aim upwards? It is the last chance. It will never happen again,” Fouts said.

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