Who Holds the Stakes for the Ann Arbor Library Lot?

The roll-out of the Roxbury report began with the DDA board meeting (December 1, 2010).  According to a story published by AnnArbor.com, DDA officials touted the report as saying that the Valiant conference center proposal “made sense”.   Here is a quote from that story of former DDA board chair John Splitt:

“Splitt said the Roxbury Group has concluded a need exists for a downtown conference center, and the Valiant proposal is the better of the two proposals being considered.”

Note the drift in the objectives of this discussion.  While the original RFP was clearly drawn up in order to justify the conference center, its terms were sufficiently broad that two open space proposals could legitimately be made in answer to it.  Subsequently, the RFP advisory committee did have a coherent discussion of the four development proposals (after summarily dismissing the open space proposals) in which they chose two proposals (Acquest and Valiant) for further consideration.  Now the point appears to be choosing between those two proposals without consideration of whether either meets the city’s needs or the desires of its residents for its future course.

But did the consultant’s report actually establish a need for a downtown conference center?  No, it presented no data to back up that conclusion.  What the consultant did do was to have a number of conferences with people representing institutions with an interest in a downtown conference center.  We call those “stakeholders”.

As we emphasized in our previous post, the dominant theme heard from those supporting a conference center on the Library Lot has been “consulting with stakeholders”.  But noticeably missing from the list of “stakeholders” have been any members of the public or those representing anything but big institutional interests.

Here are the interests interviewed by the Roxbury Group (in the order named in the report):

  • Ann Arbor District Library
  • Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors’ Bureau (AACVB)
  • University of Michigan
  • Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce

That’s it!  No environmental, community, or art groups.  Not a transportation representative or the AATA. Not someone with authority in urban planning (though UM’s Jim Kosteva is trained as a planner, that is not the hat he wears.) Not even any downtown merchant group.

Note the primacy of the AADL in these discussions.  As we previously reported, the Library’s Executive Director, Josie Parker, and to some extent, its board, have been strong proponents of a conference center adjacent to the downtown library.

The report summarizes a number of benefits to the AADL of having a conference center on the Library Lot.  Here is an important one: “The development of this project will create new demand, urgency, and a platform for improving and upgrading the existing Library.” but “…the development of a conference center adjacent to the Library would permit…an optimal size and configuration for their own meeting facilities, thereby avoiding unnecessary or redundant public expenditures.”

This confirmed a portent from a slightly indiscreet preview floated last March by Larry Whitworth, the outgoing President of Washtenaw Community College.  In a report on the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Whitworth said, “…WCC is considering partnering with the Ann Arbor District Library. The library board and administration are considering moving ahead with rebuilding their current downtown facilities. ..I thought to myself, if we were thinking about the future, working with the library makes all kinds of sense,” …[AADL director Josie Parker] thinks that joining forces makes it a much more doable project. We’ve got all the meeting rooms. We’ve got the conference center. We’ve got parking. The bus depot is coming in.”

So – it is evident that the AADL has been planning for many months to add the conference center to its expansion plans and to shift costs for expansion from its own budget to the city’s.

It is difficult to know exactly what the AACVB’s motivation would be.  The consultant’s report cites a number of miscellaneous findings from a report to the AACVB, few of which seem to be directly relevant (see p. 8 of the report).  Further, the plaintive letter from the Hotel and Motel Association, which says that a new hotel would “threaten the viability of our properties, which are already struggling” would be expected to dampen enthusiasm from the CVB, which supposedly exists to find business for this industry.  But perhaps a recent report by the Washtenaw County Treasurer, Catherine McClary, may shed some light. The report, prepared for the commission that oversees the Washtenaw County accommodation tax, shows a drastic drop in occupancy (as measured by tax collection) over the last year.  As the Ann Arbor Chronicle has explained,  the accommodation tax was increased by the county Board of Commissioners from 2% of room revenues to 5% in early 2009, with the county taking a nice chunk of the increase.  This caused a stress on some bed-and-breakfast places, a few of which are in arrears.  But the spreadsheet, with rates adjusted to the former 2% level for comparison purposes, shows a substantial drop (over 11%) in 2009 (numbers for 2010 look a little better).  This means decreased occupancy for the hoteliers – and a decreased tax revenue for the CVB.  Would a new downtown hotel increase income for the CVB (though subtracting from the existing hoteliers’ income)?  That would depend on many variables, but it could be a factor in the CVB’s apparent support of the idea.

While there are relatively few comments in the report that can be directly attributed to SPARK and the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce, it is clear that many of the affirmative statements in the report are based in an unfocused belief that a conference center would simply bring in more business.   As the report states, “A first-rate hotel conference center in downtown would serve as a meaningful business attraction and retention tool.”  It goes on to say, “Ann Arbor is increasingly seen as an entrepreneurial, innovation-based community. The ability to host business and technology conferences downtown would allow Ann Arbor to showcase its appeal as an attractive headquarters locations for such companies.”  What this seems to say is that the business community would appreciate some nice places to host their guests.  (Note: these statements stand alone, without any further documentation.)

Now, the UM.    The report makes a number of statements relating to the UM, but it is my personal belief that there were no commitments made by UM related to this project.  The two people interviewed were Jim Kosteva, the UM community relations spokesman, and the head of conference services, Bill Villisides.  Although I don’t have a copy of one, Kosteva has repeatedly stated in private emails to various individuals that the UM could make no commitments to use a new facility.  The UM has an extensive network of conference facilities itself.  Further, there was recently a failure of a UM-affiliated center, the Michigan Technology Center.  As reported by AnnArbor.com, some very fancy conference facilities at MTC, including videoconferencing, failed to gain enough business to pay the bills.  An appendix to the Roxbury report states that the UM has 91,667 square feet of meeting space on campus (this was the greatest in 8 comparable campuses, where the average was 38,605)(see attachment A).  The comments in the Roxbury report seem to be more related to logistics than a perceived need: “…there is no centralized function at the University responsible for marketing and managing available conference space, or establishing fixed pricing and service offerings. Rather, individual colleges and departments each establish their own availability and rules,”  Those pesky professors!

A recent article in a new publication, The Ann, did an effective job of asking whether the changes in Ann Arbor are really serving the populace.  The question is, have we agreed (as a community) on whether a conference center on the Library Lot really serves our collective vision of where Ann Arbor should be aiming for the future?  These few “stakeholders” haven’t asked us.  Do the residents of Ann Arbor hold any cards?  Do we have a stake?

Explore posts in the same categories: Business, civic finance

One Comment on “Who Holds the Stakes for the Ann Arbor Library Lot?”

  1. Al Connor Says:

    [aa better politix]
    It appears that AA City Council, with the reelection of the old united cadre is back in the business of being DDA’s waterboy. With former council member Lowenstein as Chair of DDA and council member Smith also a member of DDA It is going to be business as usual. Downtown gets whatever it wants and the rest of AA, exept for the U of M, can whistle.

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