MICHIGAN CITY – Three days after a vocal group of citizens voiced concerns over the $11 million price tag for a downtown civic plaza, Mayor Ron Meer and the project steering committee withdrew their request for the City Council to allow them to secure funding.
The issue was to be addressed in a resolution at Tuesday’s meeting of the Michigan City Common Council, a meeting that members of Organized and United Residents of Michigan City (OURMC) were encouraging residents to attend in opposition.
In a statement issued Thursday, the mayor and committee said they are "committed to making the Michigan City Plaza a reality."
But, the statement said: "Our highest priority is to ensure that the plaza will be inclusive and beneficial for ALL residents of Michigan City. We have heard concerns and points of view that need to be taken into consideration before moving forward..."
They asked for the resolution for bonding to be be withdrawn "at this time.”
Eight members of OURMC spoke out against the plaza at a Michigan City Redevelopment Commission public hearing Monday, saying they’d rather see the money spent on things like public transportation or free childcare.
Meer explained that to use redevelopment money to fund any of the suggested alternatives would be illegal; and City Planning Director Craig Phillips said he’d make sure to address plaza-specific concerns in the presentation he was preparing for the council.
RDC president Don Babcock reminded the group they’d had numerous opportunities to participate in plaza discussions during workshops and other meetings over the past year or longer.
But Amy Straka of OURMC responded, “When you invite people to come and talk about what kinds of things they want for the plaza … These meetings and workshops were meant to decide what was happening with the project. We don't want the project to happen.
"That's why we show up now, because now we actually can weigh in on whether or not this money is borrowed – and it won't be."
The mayor confirmed Thursday that Straka may be correct.
“I think there were some valid points brought up that night,” Meer said. “My administration respects the public forum. We’re going to go back and evaluate the funding sources. Are there grants out there or state funds or other sources of funding that we could utilize? Are there businesses in the private sector that could contribute?”
In a phone interview Thursday, Straka responded to the mayor’s decision.
“The people of Michigan City don’t want this plaza,” she said. “There are fewer developers, fewer investors and fewer special interests. There are more of us; and when we all show up, that’s when we have power.”
Straka said she’s glad the project has stalled, but doesn’t believe it’s because of the concerns of OURMC.
“I think the reason this resolution isn’t going forward to the City Council is because they know it won’t pass,” Straka said.
“Even if the RDC includes a bunch of special interests who are appointed, whose best interests lie in the gentrification of Michigan City, and they feel like they answer to no one, the City Council does. And council members are not going to vote in favor of a project that doesn’t benefit a majority of the residents that call Michigan City home.”
It was clarified at the request of City Council president Don Przybylinski on Monday that while the RDC would be seeking up to $8.8 million in bonds to pay for the plaza, it would cost about $11 million in repayments over 20 years.
The mayor said he intends to spend an indefinite amount of time further engaging the public and working to ensure the financial sustainability of the plaza, while seeking alternative funding sources.
Meanwhile, the property at the intersection of Franklin and 7th streets will remain a green space, where people can play Frisbee, walk their dogs, enjoy a picnic and more, he said.
“Eventually, we are going to have to move forward with something in that area, whether it’s $2 million or $8 million or whatever it will be,” Meer said. “I still believe that area needs to be utilized as a plaza, which will provide educational opportunities, enrichment opportunities and entertainment for our residents.
“We could have job fairs, health fairs, school activities, youth activities. I want to emphasize that a lot of the social issues that people were addressing that night – some could be addressed if the plaza is well-managed and people come together. Disagreeing on a couple issues shouldn’t keep us from moving forward on all other issues.”