The Secret Plan for the Conference Center
The Ann Arbor downtown conference center has been the focus of a very well-oiled machine that has been functioning for well over a year, and most Ann Arbor residents haven’t even heard the sound of gears. Now we can offer a peek behind the curtain, thanks to an opportunity to look at the secret plan (made possible by an anonymous source).
As we reported earlier, the city of Ann Arbor has sold bonds slightly in excess of $49 million to fund an underground parking garage beneath the Library Lot. That project began with a DDA resolution in September 2008 and passage by council of the bond resolution in February 2009. That bond transaction is now complete, despite the lawsuit filed by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.
But while there has been some public discussion about the underground parking, little has been said about what will happen on the surface above it. Roger Fraser provided a hint in his presentation to the Council during its retreat in January 2009; as we reported earlier, he said that “a group of folks…have made some conceptual plans” “at their own risk” to place a small conference center on top of the current Library Lot, using a “partnership” with the city, the DDA, and the private sector. But that proposal has been held in secret by the City, and a FOIA request by local attorney Karen Sidney was denied. Talks were, however, already going on, and CM Sandi Smith, also a longtime DDA member, called a meeting of councilmembers as early as January to discuss plans for the top of the structure; Smith then introduced a resolution calling for an RFP that has now been released. Meanwhile, with little fanfare, the City of Ann Arbor’s Downtown Plan as amended suddenly has a section that calls for a conference center downtown.
The question of course, is: will this RFP truly be an opportunity for many competing ideas for the best use for the top of the underground parking structure? Or it is merely a vehicle for a “done deal” to put into place the secret proposal mentioned in January? My conclusion: it is “wired”. Not only were the time frames very short for another proposer to come up with a fully fleshed proposal, but this one has a great deal of firepower behind it.
The proposal states that its vision is “To aid Ann Arbor in becoming ‘the’ conference destination, particularly for a knowledge-based niche market intelligence.” The team, called Valiant Partners LLC, includes two people with strong connections to the University of Michigan: Fritz Seyferth and New York resident Bruce Zenkel, a major donor to the Ross School of Business and UM Athletics. Michael Bailkin, a dealmaker from New York who has specialized in real estate tax breaks and Keith D. Coe, the CEO of VF Hotels, are the other impressive team members.
The proposal calls for a very tall, thin hotel on the north side of the lot, over a low flat building that comes up to the streetside but allows for a public plaza behind it. At street level would be retail shops and office, with a conference center above them. The roof of the conference center would be a summer/winter garden (open to the public for outdoor events) with yes! a skating rink for winter. It would include a 8,000 square feet ballroom where 1000 people could sit for dinner.
It is evident in reading the proposal that the very general requirements of the RFP will fit it perfectly. I’ll review some of those congruences and the interesting financial aspects of the proposal in a later post.
UPDATE: In a comment on the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the editor, Dave Askins, pointed out that changes to the downtown plan to include a conference center were mentioned in a story he wrote last November. It was a mention at the end of the story without any location designated. The implementation of the plan is not yet complete and Council has postponed final consideration; the version on the website was adopted by the Planning Commission on May 19, 2009.
SECOND UPDATE: See also Ed Vielmetti’ s comment below regarding early discussions of a conference center in fall 2008. It is clear that this part of the “machinery” has been in place for some time and my description of its appearing in the A2D2 plans “suddenly” was a solipsistic response on my part.
THIRD UPDATE: AnnArbor.com, in their August 24 story on this project, interviewed one of the principals (Fritz Seyferth) and confirmed that a proposal is in preparation for submittal to the city in response to the RFP. “Representatives for a group of private investors from New York confirmed today they’ll be submitting a proposal for a hotel and conference center project, potentially costing $30 million to $50 million to build, and involving a public-private partnership. Details of the potential partnership have not been disclosed.” In the story, Seyferth is quoted as saying that he hopes the project will enhance the city as a center for high-concept, high technology discussions. Again quoting from AnnArbor.com, “We pride ourselves in the Midwest as being a hub of remarkable intelligence in Ann Arbor…We’re trying to say, ‘Why don’t we create a center here where we attract those people?’”
Concentrate, in their follow-up, also attempted to interview Seyferth but were only able to obtain a general comment by email. The Concentrate article indicated that the group of developers had leaked details about the project; however, there seemed to be no fresh material beyond what we have already posted.
FOURTH UPDATE: AnnArbor.com business reporters interviewed a number of developers in the Ann Arbor area and found them to be skeptical.
FIFTH UPDATE: For additional reports on this story, visit the Library Lot Conference Center page, where all related articles are linked.Explore posts in the same categories: Business, civic finance