Traverse City News and Events

Who Will Run The County's Brownfield?

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 14, 2018

Leadership turnover in Grand Traverse County is prompting both county and city officials to grapple with who will take the helm of the region’s brownfield and economic development programs.

Interim County Administrator Jean Derenzy – who has long served as staff support for both programs – is set to leave the county to begin a new job as CEO of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) effective March 1. Derenzy’s departure poses a looming administrative gap that is particularly urgent for the Grand Traverse County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA), which juggles numerous active brownfield projects within both the city and county.

In order to ensure there’s no “lapse” in oversight at the BRA, according to Derenzy, brownfield board members recently solicited bids from outside consultants to help manage the program when Derenzy leaves. Six firms submitted bids, including AKT Peerless, ECT/GRT, Diffin-Umlor, Otwell Mawby, GEI (Inland Seas Engineering), and ATC. A committee of BRA members will start interviewing firms this week and make a recommendation to the full board at a February 28 meeting, at which time Derenzy predicts a firm will be hired to take over administrative functions for the BRA.

“At this point it’s important to ensure projects are maintained during an interim period as we figure out if we’ll be (overseeing the BRA) in-house or working with consultants on implementing the brownfield (long-term),” says Derenzy.

A consultant could serve as a stopgap while a longer-term solution is debated by city and county commissioners. County commissioners are set to discuss options for the program at their 5:30pm meeting tonight (Wednesday) at the Governmental Center. Derenzy is seeking feedback from the board on whether they want to have a consultant permanently oversee the brownfield or else strike a partnership with the City of Traverse City – a proposal floated by former County Administrator Vicki Uppal and City Manager Marty Colburn.  

Colburn brought a proposed agreement to city commissioners at their February 5 meeting for the city to take over management of the BRA and also the day-to-day oversight of the county’s economic development corporation (EDC). A new city position – along with an assistant position – would be created to manage those responsibilities, and would also work on community development and city corridor projects. Colburn had previously proposed and received commission approval for creating a community development position; he’s now recommending modifying the job description for that role to include brownfield oversight. “It changed because the county asked me to change it,” Colburn explains, saying Uppal approached him to negotiate on having the city take over BRA responsibilities.

In exchange for the city taking over management of both programs, the county would pay the city up to $165,000 each year for brownfield services – funds it now collects through the BRA to cover its own administrative expenses – and $10,000 for economic development services. The DDA would chip in another $10,000 to also receive economic development support from the city.

Colburn explains the agreement is essentially flip-flopping how the county and the city have done business in the past. Even though 85 percent of brownfield projects are within city limits, county staff – ie Derenzy – have traditionally provided the administrative oversight for the BRA. The new agreement would instead have the city take the lead in administration, with both county and city commissioners retaining joint approval of any brownfield projects.

City commissioners voted 4-2 to support the proposal, but the vote fell short of the necessary five affirmative votes required to approve the contract. Commissioner Michele Howard abstained from voting because her husband, Scott Howard, works as an attorney for the BRA, while Commissioners Richard Lewis and Brian McGillivary wanted more information about the contract before approving it. McGillivary said he hoped to see a more detailed breakdown of city staff time and costs required by the new roles and responsibilities to ensure “$185,000 is going to cover that.”

“I see an advantage of this (agreement) for the city,” McGillivary said. “My concern is…economic development is a regional operation, and that really belongs more with the county. Now the county seems not to want to do that right now, but my concern is putting a burden on city taxpayers to pick up an obligation that should belong to a different governmental entity.” McGillivary, who voted against the proposal, said he’d be willing to reconsider supporting the agreement if Colburn returned to the board with a more detailed analysis of cost and time requirements for the new positions.

Colburn told The Ticker he couldn’t say when the contract would return to commissioners for more discussion, but that he believed it was “important to move (the agreement) forward in short order so we can start focusing on hiring a person who has the skillsets and understanding to work on business and economic development and making this a healthy environment for those want to invest in our community.”

While some have questioned whether the county should surrender its leadership role in economic development and brownfield operations – particularly following discussions of additionally outsourcing the county’s planning responsibilities – Derenzy stresses the county would still play a strategic and decision-making role in all of the above programs. With a shortage of department heads, the county is looking primarily for help with administration and staffing oversight, she says.

“The county’s not going to give up any of the control of approving brownfield plans, nor will the city nor the townships,” she says. “It’s the same approval process, it’s just about how (the administrative functions) are packaged. The county will always have a big role in any projects…I don’t think they’re giving up control at all."

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