Trying to remain optimistic about the Optimist project.

July 31, 2022

Trying to remain optimistic about the Optimist project.

By Rob Alway

Editor’s note: Rob Alway is a Scottville city commissioner and editor-in-chief/owner of Mason County Press. This article serves as an op-ed, including some opinion as an elected official.

I typically would have written this op-ed much sooner, but instead spent a planned vacation with my family this past week.  

During the regular meeting of the Scottville City Commission on Monday, July 25, Julie VanDyke of Eden Township, vice president of the Scottville Optimist Club, spoke during public comment about what she said were the club’s concerns with the former Optimist building. She talked about a tour of the building that was recently given to a representative of a local non-profit organization by “city leadership” claiming that said leadership offered the building to this organization. She stated that the “city leadership” did not have authority to be in the building and she talked about how the “city leadership” was trying to dissolve the Scottville Downtown Development Authority (DDA) in an effort to “undermine” its efforts to raise funds to renovate the building.

I would like to offer a response to her accusations and also share some of my concerns with the current project. 

Let’s begin with some background and facts of this situation. 

  • In 2016, the Scottville Optimist Club announced that it was no longer interested in owning its building, which the club — once the largest Optimist Club in Michigan — built in the mid-1970s. The club made a lot of money over 25-plus years at that hall, mostly from weekly bingo. As bingo dwindled, the club could only rely on the rental of the hall to pay the growing expenses of upkeep on an aging building. 
  • In 2017, the Scottville DDA began discussing purchasing the building. 
  • The president of the Scottville Optimist Club in 2017 and to this day is Joe Knowles, who, during that time and to this day, also serves as the chairman of the DDA. Knowles attended the July 25 meeting of the City Commission and sat next to VanDyke, however he did not speak. It was unclear whether he was representing the DDA or the Optimist Club. 
  • Julie VanDyke is not a citizen of Scottville nor does she own property or a business in the city limits of Scottville. She also serves on no official city committees. 
  • Mayor Marcy Spencer, by state statute and city ordinance, is a voting member of the DDA. City Manager Newkirk serves as the DDA’s staff. Therefore, they each had full authority to be in the building. Further, ultimately, the DDA serves as a branch of the city’s government. So, any elected city official certainly has the right, as representatives of the people of Scottville, to access any city-owned property, as does the city manager, who under the city charter is the chief administrator of the city. 
  • The DDA is an entity that serves as part of the government of the City of Scottville. Its nine board members are appointed by the City Commission. Its boundaries are basically within the downtown area of Scottville and it is mostly funded through a special tax capture, allowed by state statute. DDA’s are established by state statute. 
  • Because it is always a challenge to find nine people to serve on the DDA board (or any board), and because it has failed to follow its actual plan written over a decade ago, the city’s Personnel, Rules and Ethics Committee discussed, almost a year ago, the possibility of consolidating the DDA with the city’s Planning Commission, as is allowed by state statute. The initiation of this conversation had nothing to do with the building and park project. 
  • After three years of discussions, the DDA took out a mortgage from West Shore Bank in the spring of 2020 and purchased the building. The DDA was allowed to do this by action taken by the City Commission with a resolution that stated the City of Scottville is not responsible for the loan if it were be defaulted. The DDA uses most of its annual budget now to make the loan payments.
  • The DDA also pays the monthly utility bills for the building and pays for groundskeeping. 
  • The City pays the building’s insurance of $1,852 per year (I’m not quite sure why the city is paying for this but this may be changed in the very near future). 
  • There are no restrictions in the deed on what the building can be used for. 
  • The DDA’s plan has been to renovate the building and rent it out for special events and also for it to be used for community events. Its plan has also included updating the green space adjacent to the building, renovating the Scottville Clown Band Shell and commissioning a sculpture that will be placed on the green space. 
  • To date, it seems no state agency will provide a grant for a building that is going to be used as a rental hall.
  • Through building rentals, the DDA estimates that it will earn enough money to eventually produce an additional revenue source for itself. Refer back to the reason the Optimist Club is no longer in the hall rental business. 
  • The tour of the building was a result of the representative of the non-profit organization reaching out to myself asking about what properties may be available in the city that would suit this non-profit’s needs. This was actually a follow-up to a conversation that this person and I started over two years ago. A confidential discussion was set-up between the city manager, mayor, myself and this representative to discuss the organization’s plans in Scottville. The conversation was confidential because it was strictly a fact-finding discussion for the representative to bring back information to the organization’s board of directors.
  • After some discussion in the city manager’s office, the former Optimist building was brought up as a possibility. It was made clear that the DDA currently has a plan for the building and has been attempting to raise money. We did express concerns that the cost of the project is likely considerably higher than what has been presented by DDA Chair Knowles and that, in order to protect the taxpayers of the city, an alternative option should be ready in case the initial project is unable to succeed. 
  • We also took a tour of the building. This was the first time I had been inside the building in about a year. It’s really disturbing to see its condition deteriorate. The building’s heating and cooling system is not working. The water has been shut off. Ceiling tiles have fallen to the floor and the floor has clearly not been cleaned from the last use of the building. The ceiling tiles may seem like a minor cosmetic thing, but reflect the sad state of this building that once was a focal point for community gatherings. 
  • Following the meeting both the mayor and myself reached out to Mr. Knowles telling him about the meeting. He said he was open to hearing alternative uses of the building but preferred “plan A.” It was agreed that a meeting should be established in August to discuss the topic more. It was also established that the information was confidential for the time. 

So why does there need to be an alternative option? 

As an elected commissioner, it is my responsibility, along with the other six elected commissioners, to assure that the city uses the tax dollars wisely. This includes tax dollars utilized by the DDA. 

I was supportive of the building renovation concept from its beginning, based on the information and estimates that were provided to me by the DDA chairman. More recently, I have learned that those figures are very likely not accurate and that the actual costs of renovations are at least double. 

When this project was first discussed, in 2017, the following estimates were obtained by Knowles (based on a Nov. 22, 2017 email from Knowles to the DDA): heating and cooling, $25,000; electrical, $23,000; roof repairs, $21,000; interior remodel, $25,000, a total of $94,000. 

By 2018, according to the Nov. 8, 2018 minutes of the DDA, estimates had increased to building renovations costing $190,000., along with the creation of a sculpture at $80,000, park/green space updates at $65,000 (including moving a utility pole), band shell updates, $55,000 and parking lot repairs, $125,000 for a total of $515,000 for the entire project.

In Jan. 2021, the Scottville Optimist Club received an estimate from Hotshot Services of Free Soil, estimating building renovations at $325,000, though the Optimist Club no longer owned the building. This information was shared with the DDA by Knowles who is both the president of the Optimist Club and the chairman of the DDA. 

Jimmy Newkirk became city manager in May of 2021. Mr. Newkirk has done an excellent job scrutinizing how the City of Scottville spends money and how it earns money. He has done a lot to bring additional funds into the city, partially by reducing expenses. As part of his job, he has spent a considerable amount of time analyzing the DDA and the (former) Optimist building and park project. Over the past several months he has asked Chairman Knowles for a detailed plan for the building. He was concerned that initial estimates (that were not formal plans for the renovations) were outdated considering building costs have drastically increased in the last two years. Reviewing past minutes of the DDA, back in 2019, it took action to hire an architect, which it never followed-through on. 

Finally, Knowles provided a formal estimate by Legacy Building Group, LLC of Free Soil, dated May 20, 2022 which estimated the cost of the building renovation to be $235,527, $89,473 less than the 2021 estimate from Hotshot Services, even though building costs and inflation have risen considerably. 

Newkirk then sought out an alternative estimate of costs for the building renovations from Christman Company, a reputable commercial construction company that offered to provide the estimate at no cost, stating that it was not interested in taking on the project because of its relative small size. The company wanted to provide the estimate because it has a close relationship with Mason County Central Schools and wanted to be supportive of the community. The estimated cost of just renovating the building was $1,777,500, a difference of over $1.5 million! I have to say that I believe Christman’s quote is likely more accurate given that it is company that builds major commercial and public buildings throughout Michigan. 

 

For full disclosure, for a short time, I was on the fundraising committee of the Optimist building and park project. I also served on the DDA, as the mayor’s representative, when the decision was made to purchase the building. I resigned from the DDA and the fundraising committee (which was never formally created by the DDA) because I felt I was on too many city committees. 

I was one of the key people to start this project back in 2017 and truly believed that renovating the building and updating the park would bring a new point of pride for our community. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big supporter of my hometown and always have its best interests in anything I do, even if it means ruffling some feathers. But, five years later, I’m losing optimism over the former Optimist center (no pun intended). 

Interestingly enough, DDA Chairman Knowles has called a special meeting of the DDA for Monday, Aug. 1. The meeting will be held at 1 p.m. at the band shell. The topic of discuss is the building project. 

It includes an update from the renovation committee (though non of those committee meetings have ever been posted and minutes do not seem to exist, violations of the Open Meetings Act), a grant collaboration update; a timeline formation (after two years); and project manager update (this was a suggestion by the “city leadership”). 

The agenda will also include a DDA plan review and the formation of a committee. 

It’s not quite clear why a special meeting had be held since the DDA’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Aug. 11. Typically special meetings are called in case immediate action needs to be taken on a particular topic. But, nonetheless, it’s good to see some forward movement. 

I do wish this project success. It’s ironic that the leadership of the very organization that sold the building to the city seems to have possibly jeopardized any further success in raising funds to renovate the building. In the meantime, I will continue to work hard to help make Scottville a better place to live and visit. I believe that we have come a long way and I won’t let a minor distraction such as this keep me from fighting to make our city great again. 

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