By DAVID GREEN
Morenci city council members did their part in a special meeting Thursday morning. Now it’s up to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to decide on what could result in a significant change in the face of Morenci.
When city council members discussed Feb. 15 an application for federal funding distributed through the state Infrastructure Capacity Enhancement program (ICE), the talk focused on improving the two city parking lots on the south side of Main Street.
The scope of the project grew through further conversation and communication with the Downtown Development Authority (DDA)—an organization of business owners that collects the growth in property tax revenue within the designated DDA area.
An application was sent Friday to Lansing in hopes of receiving a $600,000 grant to help fund a $761,000 project that goes beyond the two parking lots to include property acquisition in three areas of the downtown.
Mayor Keith Pennington led council step by step through the proposal at a special meeting Thursday morning that lasted nearly three hours. Although most segments failed to attract unanimous support, in the end council voted 6-0 to support the application. Councilor Jason Cook was unable to attend the meeting.
All decisions, Pennington reminded council, are dependent on whether or not the city obtains the grant.
ORCHARD STREET—The first step concerned widening the short section of Orchard Street north of LaGrange Street. Previous discussion pointed out that one-way traffic would likely be needed if the street were to be curbed since vehicles often drive onto the sidewalk in front of the former community center due to the narrowness of the road.
Council voted 5-1, with Art Erbskorn in opposition, to use grant money to purchase the community center and the house on the northeast corner of Orchard and LaGrange. Jeff Van Havel was willing to sell the house for $25,000.
In addition, George Dilworth, owner of the former community center/Grange building, offered to sell the structure for $14,000. He bought the building for his daughter to use as a dance studio. Roof problems and high heating costs have forced dance classes to move out of the building.
RICHARDSON PROPERTY—The 22 foot by 70 foot section of the parking lot behind the Village Inn restaurant is owned by Ken Richardson, Pennington said. The city has maintained and paved the property over the years, but it’s actually privately owned.
City treasurer Stephanie Mossing said the property is assessed at more than $15,000.
Pennington said Richardson will sell the property for $12,500.
“He has told me he would like to make a donation [to the city] in the same amount,” Pennington said.
Tracy Schell cast the only vote against adding that property to the grant since there was nothing to back up Richardson’s verbal statement.
CAR WASH—The closed car wash property remains an eyesore, Pennington said. Inquiries have been made about buying the property, but prospective owners have all backed off due to concerns about environmental liability. A gas station was on the property before the car wash was constructed.
The mayor said the city could allow it to stand vacant in hopes that it might be purchased, or it could acquire the property for demolition. County funds are available for Baseline Environmental Assessments, he said—the first step in tackling possible pollution. The assessment would remove liability for a future owner.
The property could serve as a parking area for nearby businesses and the Methodist Church, but Pennington made it clear that a parking lot is not his long-term goal.
“My focus is to build up the downtown, not to create more parking lots,” he said. “I want to protect our street frontage for business.”
Audience member Pearl Phelps asked if it was council’s intent to continue buying old buildings in need of repair. Tax revenue would be lost with each acquisition.
“It’s a valid concern any time you take property off the tax rolls,” Pennington answered, “but I would hope for a new building of even greater value.”
There’s limited building space downtown, he noted, and the property is in an excellent location.
The owner is willing to sell the property for $18,000. The assessed tax value of the business is $76,000 Mossing said.
A motion to add the property to the application passed by a 4-2 vote, with Erbskorn and Joe Varga opposed. Demolition of the car wash is not included.
DUNBAR AUCTION HOUSE—If Duane Dunbar’s property between the Observer and Johnson’s Hardware were included in the project, the DDA would contribute an additional $5,000. The group already pledged $2,000 for the main parking lot rebuild, the same figure pledged by the Morenci Area Chamber of Commerce.
Pennington said he was impressed by the DDA’s strong support, but he reiterated his position about preserving downtown frontage for commercial purposes rather than for parking.
The DDA board had expressed its interest in widening the alley next to the hardware store for better access to the parking area behind the Pizza Box. Apartment dwellers could also make better use of a larger parking area. Parking could be enlarged while maintaining a lot for future development.
Schell said she supported this facet of the project, but not in the current grant request, and councilor Leasa Slocum agreed. Erbskorn joined in opposition and the decision was locked in a 3-3 tie.
“Out of respect for the DDA, I think this is very important,” Schroeder said.
She said there have been efforts to acquire the property for several years. Dunbar agreed to accept a $40,000 offer for the property.
“You don’t know when the opportunity will arise again,” Pennington said, noting as he had earlier that the city’s cost of the project would be about 22 cents of every dollar spent.
Schell asked how this part of the project would be presented to Lansing.
Pennington said the only ingress/egress to the parking area is a 12-foot alley off a state highway that presents safety concerns. It needs to be widened in addition to increasing the parking spaces available.
In a second attempt, Slocum changed her vote and the acquisition passed by a 4-2 margin.
PARKING LOT—Pennington finally returned to the original proposal—rebuilding the two south side parking lots.
If two or three utility poles were moved, Baker Street could be widened from its 20-foot width and a one-way street would be avoided.
The proposal calls for Baker to be widened on the south side from Orchard just past the bank’s drive-in island. At that point it would veer to the north and widen into the existing parking lot.
Council voted 6-0 to add $25,000 to the total to cover the costs of moving poles and then voted 6-0 again for submission of the application.
Pennington said the details that were discussed at the Feb. 15 meeting—parking layout, islands for greenery, trash collection areas, etc.—could be decided later if the city receives the grant.
Acquisition and demolition costs total $162,500. The city would pay 22 percent of that cost, minus $9,000 from the Chamber and DDA donations, which comes out to $26,750. The city’s cost for construction and engineering totals $131,830.
Police chief Larry Weeks and Mossing both expressed concern about the city’s financial resources—a concern mentioned by Erbskorn earlier in the meeting.
Schroeder said $67,200 would come from the sewer and water fund to pay for curbing and gutters. A new water line would bring in $17,500 from the water fund. More than $47,000 would come from the city’s street fund.
A return of more than 400 percent for every dollar invested is difficult to ignore, Pennington said.
City officials worked Friday with engineer Scott Merillat to complete the application and highlight the benefits of the project to the city and to surrounding townships.
“The grant award is far from a sure thing,“ Pennington said, “but I think our application is very strong.”
The city fits the low to moderate income bracket and the project would address safety concerns for both pedestrians and vehicles.