Lowell City Council met for 50 minutes on Monday night to discuss five pieces of business, including the sale of a former Lowell Light & Power line shack building on Riverside Drive and a request from the Kent County Youth Fair for a one-year extension on their lease of Recreation Park. All councilmembers were present for the meeting.
Line Shack Sale Voted Down – Again
Lowell Light & Power has been trying for years to divest itself of a former line shack building located at 115 Riverside Drive. Conversations about its sale date back to 2017, but LLP needs the city’s assistance to get the property off its books. While considered a utility asset – LLP maintains the liability and insurance for the property – the city actually owns it and must approve any sale.
The LLP Board has made the property’s sale a priority and warns that if they can’t unload the building by the new year, that could result in an increase in the annual rate adjustment for utility customers. The board also unanimously recommended that Lowell City Council accept a $150,000 cash offer from Greg Canfield who has proposed using the site to expand the Main Street Inn.
However, sale of the property failed on a 3-1-1 vote during Monday’s meeting. Mayor Mike DeVore, Councilmember Jim Salzwedel and Councilmember Marty Chambers all voted yes. Councilmember Leah Groves voted no.
Asked after the meeting why she voted no, Groves told Lowell’s First Look that she was not comfortable with Canfield’s proposal and preferred a bid from The Edge Co to construct a mixed-use building on the site. She was also unhappy about the sales process in general.
“My issue is the process in its entirety,” she said. “I feel like we were not prepared.”
Councilmember Cliff Yankovich abstained from the vote, noting that during a special meeting, Canfield outlined his various business and philanthropic activities in the city, including a gift card giveaway he had organized during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yankovich had apparently been hired to market that campaign, and his business received gift cards during the promotion. Therefore, he felt it would not look appropriate for him to vote yes on the sale of the building to Canfield.
City Attorney Jessica Wood appeared surprised by Yankovich’s comments. “It’s always good to know about conflicts before the meeting,” she said. She asked the council to move the agenda item to the end of the meeting so she could research whether an abstention would change the number of votes needed to sell the property.
Once other business had been considered, council returned to the subject of the line shack sale.
“Cliff, I truly don’t think you have a conflict of interest here,” Wood said. She noted that conflicts typically came into play if someone would benefit directly from their vote. In smaller communities, it is not unusual for people to be connected in various ways through jobs and business transactions, and those are not necessarily conflicts.
“You have a duty to vote,” she said but also added that no one could make someone vote if they felt uncomfortable
“Due to my uncomfortableness, I am going to abstain,” Yankovich replied.
Wood confirmed that the sale still required four votes even with an abstention so the motion failed.
Then, Salzwedel made a motion to accept the bid from Todd Schaal for $130,000. That is the next highest bid, and Schaal has proposed building a multi-family residential property on the site. Groves, DeVore, Salzwedel and Chambers voted yes on the motion. Yankovich voted no.
“I live across the street from a project that isn’t done,” Yankovich said, referencing RiverView Flats condominiums that Schaal co-owns. “Why would be give him another?”
A resolution to sell the property to Schaal will be drafted, and Lowell City Council must vote again in December to approve the resolution before the sale goes through.
Extension of Fair Lease Denied
The Kent County Youth Fair expects to hold its 2023 event at its new fairgrounds in Lowell Charter Township, but it was hoping to extend its lease for the city’s fairgrounds through the end of 2024.
Bill Zaske, president of the fair, was present and told council that it could take some time to determine what buildings on the fairgrounds belong to the fair and then dismantle and move those structures.
“We can’t figure out the logistics in 14 months?” DeVore asked, noting that the current lease doesn’t expire until the end of 2023.
Apparently, records regarding who owns various buildings at the fairgrounds are spotty, and fair officials say they also need to contend with issues such as electrical and water lines.
“I would think 14 months is plenty of time,” Yankovich said. “We certainly should be able to figure out whose building is [whose] in 14 months.”
Chambers felt that extending the lease would mean the fair could use the city property as a fallback if things don’t work on their new property. “I kinda feel like we’re a safety blanket,” Chambers said. “I think we need to kick you out of the nest.”
Perry Beachum, a city resident and former chair of the Parks & Recreation Commission, urged that any extended lease be re-written to only apply to the removal of buildings and other assets. “They have full control down there,” he said, noting that if any organization wants to use Recreation Park at any time during the year, they need the fair’s permission.
DeVore seconded that concern, saying: “We have not had use of a city park for how long?”
By consensus, councilmembers declined to extend the lease but requested an inventory of fairground property be completed by the end of the year. They mentioned they would revisit the issue of a lease extension next year if needed.
Other Council Activity
Other action during Monday’s meeting included the following:
- Unanimous approval of a resolution pertaining to the city’s switch to the West Michigan Health Insurance Pool for employee health insurance coverage.
- An update from the first meeting of the joint water advisory committee with Lowell Charter Township. The city’s water system needs to be expanded due to growth in the township. City Manager Mike Burns said an expansion would take 5-6 years to complete and could cost as much as $6 million. The city’s goal is that the cost would not be passed onto city ratepayers but paid by the township instead. Burns also expects there will be summertime watering restrictions every year until the plant is expanded.
- Unanimous approval of $36,622 for a new John Deere Gator for the Department of Public Works. The city budget includes $40,000 for the purchase.
The meeting adjourned at 7:49pm, and the next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will take place on Monday, November 21, at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.