FIRST, LET’S TALK ABOUT the former hospital property and what’s going to happen there. Then we’ll get to the hot dogs.
The future of the hospital property came into a little better focus this week as the NMU Foundation announced the development firm they have selected to handle the project. And, drum roll please… it’s Veridea Group.
If you follow the various developments around Marquette, you’re probably familiar with Veridea Group. You’re at least familiar with their work. That includes such projects as the Liberty Way complex on West Washington at the bottom of the Lincoln Street hill, the Kaufman Block redevelopment downtown, retail commercial centers like the WJMN-TV Plaza and the Flagstar Retail Plaza, and numerous others around town.
So, Veridea Group will be handling the development of the 23 acres spread across four blocks, adjacent to the NMU campus. If you’re like most residents, you’re glad that something is going to happen there and that the property won’t sit idle and neglected for the next 30 years, like we saw with the old orphanage.
Also, if you’re like many city residents, you wonder how it happened that a firm whose CEO is also on the NMU Board of Trustees was the only firm, after a nationwide appeal, to submit the documentation required to satisfy the Request for Qualifications written by the foundation. That’s right. The foundation received one submission. One.
Other concerns about the process have also been floating around, often shared with city commissioners, as a few of them indicated during the special meeting held this past Monday.
Commissioner Jenn Hill used the word “trust” when talking about what she has heard from her constituents. It seems a lot of folks don’t “trust” the process and want to know “who decides and who benefits.” That’s a good question, which we’ll get to in a minute, but the issue of trust is one which hovers over just about any project in the city these days. That’s due in part to a perception that we’ve been misled in other recent ventures.
The “who decides and who benefits” is the 166 million dollar question. (That’s the amount of money estimated it will take to redevelop the property.) Let’s start with “who decides.”
What many people don’t understand about this project is that even though the letters ‘NMU’ are attached, the NMU Foundation is independent of the university, and with that can enter into agreements without being compelled to disclose the details, like the university would. They’re purchasing the property from UP Health System for $1, and the fact that we know that means that they’ve already told us more than they have to.
The RFQ was on their website for public view, but other than that, only city officials have been privy to most of the inner workings of the deal, like the proposal submitted by Veridea. Once the city approves the brownfield agreement, which would seem to be a fait accompli, the project becomes a private deal between the foundation and the developer. In other words, the foundation decides who gets the property for development, and the developer decides what to do with it.
By going before the city commission in public meetings… more than once, and by holding community informational sessions to let the public hear the plans and offer their thoughts, the foundation has gone above and beyond what’s required of them. But let’s be clear; your ideas and Veridea’s ideas for the future of the site might not look at all alike. And even though Veridea already has some tentative plans, as outlined in a rather rudimentary rendering shown at Monday’s meeting, their plans may change as conditions dictate.
So, who decides? They do.
Now let’s look at who benefits. First of all, probably Veridea Group. And we say “probably” because they’re going to make a multi-million dollar investment with no guarantee of return. None. Will they end up making money? Probably… otherwise there’s no reason to take on the project. From what we’ve seen of Veridea Group CEO Bob Mahaney, he seems to know what he’s doing, so financial benefit to his firm is a reasonable assumption.
Another beneficiary would be Northern Michigan University. By securing the property and having influence over its development, the NMU Foundation is abiding by its mission to “benefit the strategic goals of Northern Michigan University.” Regardless of the specifics of the development, it’s easy to see that anything would be better than rotting buildings casting shade over the university’s campus for years to come.
And finally, the community will benefit. For one thing, we won’t have to scowl at the decomposing remnants of a healthcare facility whose time has come and gone and wonder about its future. Demolition alone will be a major improvement.
Veridea’s initial plans include a variety of housing options, hopefully to the satisfaction of those calling for more affordable and attainable housing. With ‘affordable and attainable’ being hard to define, Mahaney accurately pointed out that any additional housing units built in the city will be bound to help ease the current crisis. Foundation spokesperson Dave Nyberg suggested that as many as 300 new units may be realized in the development. With that in mind, hopefully the local construction industry will see some gain, too.
So, who benefits? We do.
Project representatives also suggested that there may be “cultural amenities” included as well. Green space and a place for public art, a modest commercial element, and maybe even a performing arts center are all on the table. More community feedback sessions may also be scheduled, as a part of the process.
Ah… the process. It seems that’s where residents have seen some red flags. Develop the property? Sure. Good idea. Turn it over to a firm run by an NMU Trustee? Uh… not so sure about that. And you only received one proposal? Just one? Really? Yes, those are legitimate concerns, but even though the foundation has graciously brought the public into the process, it’s really none of the public’s business. It’s a private business deal between the NMU Foundation and Veridea Group. It just happens to be one of the most consequential development projects in the city, and with that, has fomented a high level of public attention and scrutiny.
We might not be entirely comfortable with the way this thing has been put together, but it looks like we’re going to have to accept it as it is, and hope it doesn’t end up leaving a bad taste in our mouths.
Which brings us to hot dogs. We’ve been told that we don’t want to know how they’re made, and that’s probably true. Just accept them for what they are… and enjoy. And that’s a good way to look at this development process. Accept, and enjoy… just like a hot dog. You might like it!