BY NOW YOU MAY have heard of State Representative Sara Cambensy’s involvement in the NMU Foundation’s plan to help facilitate the redevelopment of the former hospital property. Late last week, after hearing from constituents concerned about the process, Cambensy sent a letter to Attorney General Dana Nessel requesting that the AG look into the dealings between the NMU Foundation, UP Health System, and the Veridea Group, that led to where we are now.
We wrote about this in a post published on May 20th in which we went over the “process” and the subsequent questions about how it was handled. Yes… there were questions at the time, and a few red flags, but nothing that scuttled the deal. In the end, the NMU Foundation tentatively agreed to purchase the property from UP Health System for one dollar, and then, after an open search, approved the Veridea Group as the qualified master developer, which happened to be the only firm to submit a proposal.
Cambensy’s letter to the AG requests a “full and comprehensive investigation” to look into a number of questions and concerns including:
- the “possible misuse of state and local public funds”
- the potential conflict of interest in that the Veridea CEO is also a member of the NMU Board of Control, as well as the NMU Board of Control chair also serving on the Lifepoint Hospital Board
- the subsequent termination of NMU President Fritz Erickson after he “raised significant questions about conflicts of interest”
- and a lot of other stuff, much of which has to do with insider deals and the way tax-payer funded operations, like Northern Michigan University and its related fundraising arms operate.
The entire letter can be found here.
So, having followed this since it became public a couple months ago, here are some observations from Word on the Street…
First, Representative Cambensy has every right, even an obligation, to follow up on citizen concerns, and that’s just what she’s done with her request to the AG for an investigation. No problem with that.
However, according to a spokesperson for the NMU Foundation, Cambensy didn’t contact them for comment about the accusations prior to sending the letter to the AG. They found out about the letter through the media, just like the rest of us. Seems like that might have been a good first step on her part. She may have found the answers she was looking for, without the need to request a formal investigation.
Cambensy’s letter includes the word “scheme,” more than once, when referring to the process. Use of that word, which often suggests something underhanded, appears to imply that Cambensy has already made up her mind that the deal isn’t entirely legit. If you’re going to ask the AG to investigate, don’t try to influence the investigation with loaded terminology.
Granted, a lot of the details in this process beg questions, like:
- Why was only one bid submitted for the development contract? One bid, really?
- And, how is it that the contract was awarded to an NMU Board of Control member?
- And, it sure seems odd that, during the process, Erickson was terminated without cause. How do you explain that?
- And, why is the NMU Foundation involved in something like this in the first place?
- And, who approved all the state and local money that’s going to go into the demolition of the old hospital buildings and the subsequent preparation of the property for development?
- And, what is the obligation of the developer to respond to the need for affordable and workforce housing?
- And, why did Veridea pull out of a previous deal to purchase the property and only go ahead with it after the Foundation was involved?
- And… well, you get the idea. Plenty of questions.
But, just because there are legitimate questions doesn’t mean there’s been illegitimate activity. A request for an investigation doesn’t necessarily mean malfeasance. And many of these issues were addressed by the NMU Foundation during public informational sessions held prior to finalization of the deal.
In fact, the NMU Foundation is steadfast in their contention that they have done nothing wrong, and that the entire process has been vetted and re-vetted by their attorneys and advisors, as well as city officials, and that everything has been done under the guise of “transparency.” According to a statement from them, “The NMU Foundation stands by the work done to date which has gotten the project to this point – as well as how that work has been done.”
Ah yes… the project. Lost in all the hubbub about the process is the project itself, and what it means to the community of Marquette. Provided the Attorney General doesn’t find anything serious enough to put the project in jeopardy, we can look forward to redevelopment of the property into a mixed-use complex which may include a variety of housing options as well as a commercial element, and even some green space.
In other words, it won’t sit empty and decaying for decades like the former orphanage. And, according to city officials, after the brownfield tax credit agreement has been satisfied, the property will be returned to the tax rolls and become a contributing member of society once again.
So let’s allow the Attorney General to do her thing, and reserve our judgements until a full report is released. It’s unfortunately common these days for the hoi polloi to look up at the ivory towers with disdain and distrust, whether it’s warranted or not.
If the AG finds improprieties, she’ll act accordingly and the whole deal could go down the drain. However, if she determines that the letter of the law has been followed, regardless of how people may feel it looks and smells, it should go forward.
The hope here is that we haven’t been misled, and that our appointed and elected officials have been acting in the community’s best interest, as they have contended, and we can begin to see progress on the property.
No amount of schadenfreude would be worth the value of what that property could become.