Flint, MI — Flint City Council approved a brownfield redevelopment plan for a former General Motors site, known locally as Buick City, on Flint’s north side.

The vote was 5-0 with three abstentions at a council meeting on Aug. 14, 2023.

Council Vice President Ladel Lewis and Councilmembers Quincy Murphy, Judy Priestley, Candice Mushatt and Eva Worthing voted to approve the plan, while Councilmembers Jerri Winfrey-Carter, Tonya Burns and Dennis Pfeiffer abstained from the vote.

Councilman Eric Mays is currently suspended from meetings, and was therefore not included in the vote.

In council’s special affairs committee meeting, which took place right before the council meeting, council voted to amend the plan to make its acceptance conditional on third-party involvement to verify Ashley Capital’s progress before the plan’s reimbursement occurs.

Ashley Capital is the firm behind the site’s redevelopment, though it is acting under the name “Flint Commerce Center, LLC” for purposes of the plan.

All councilmembers voted yes on the amendment except for Winfrey-Carter, who abstained.

Following approval of the plan, Ashley Capital Senior Vice President Susan Harvey told Flint Beat that she was looking forward to advancing the project.

“We’re just very excited about being able to move forward with this second phase of the development in Flint,” she said.

What the plan says

The approved plan calls for Ashley Capital to fund part of the roughly $300 million redevelopment project through tax increment financing (TIF).

The development will include constructing seven industrial/distribution buildings, and up to ten buildings total, over the course of the next two decades.

Under the plan’s TIF structure, Flint Commerce Center, LLC would capture 80% of incremental taxes on the remaining, roughly 275 acres of the brownfield—meaning that 80% of the property taxes from the site will go back to Ashley Capital and 20% of the taxes will go through normal jurisdictions, like the city of Flint.

Following an Aug. 3 presentation of the plan, Ashley Capital Development Manager Mark Quimby told Flint Beat such an arrangement is unusual for projects like this, as developers tend to ask for more of the tax capture to help fund a site’s redevelopment.

“Most brownfield plans capture 100% of the new incremental taxes. 90% capture is the most common deviation from that, but is still fairly rare except in certain places,” he wrote in an email. “80% is not common at all. We are trying to give the city as much of the new tax as the project can make work.”

The plan notes the developer will capture 80% of the site’s taxes for an estimated 25 years from the beginning of the development, or until eligible costs are reimbursed.

Reimbursement can only occur for a maximum of 30 years from the beginning of the development, at which point the city receives all property taxes again.

The plan’s estimated reimbursement-eligible activities total $72.5 million in the development’s next phase. That total does not include the roughly $17 million Ashley Capital already received in state, county, and city funds for the site’s redevelopment.

Aside from adding to Flint’s tax roles, Quimby said that depending on what businesses wind up in the final development, there could also be a large amount of jobs produced.

“Jobs will be based on the tenants that ultimately occupy the site. The estimated jobs will be somewhere between 2,500 to 4,000 jobs,” he said.

What the council said

Councilmembers shared mixed opinions on the proposed brownfield plan ahead of the vote.

At their Aug. 9 committee meetings, some councilmembers had expressed concerns over contributions given to organizations that Lewis and Murphy are involved with, as well as a campaign donation given to Mays’ campaign committee.

Those concerns bled into Aug. 14, when councilmembers received a requested legal opinion on the matter.

While the opinion was confidential and council did not vote to make it public, Councilwoman Burns said she’d read the opinion and that it made the charter seem meaningless.

“That legal opinion basically is saying our charter means nothing, and I don’t believe that our charter means nothing because the residents voted on it,” she said.

Lewis shared more details, saying that the opinion did not put her or Murphy at fault.

“The legal opinion said that there was no violation of campaign finance. No violation at all. No money was given to us. Money was given exclusively to the community,” she said.

For his part, Councilman Pfeiffer shared that he supports the project, saying that he believed Flint residents had been “a basically no-win situation” with the brownfield site.

“Whatever taxes we get [through this development project] is going to be more than we’re getting today without dollars leaving taxpayers,” he said.

However, Pfeiffer also said he would abstain from the vote due to his concern over Ashley Capital’s contributions to councilmember-affiliated organizations and campaigns.

“I believe that through whatever happens to members of this council, and payments made by Ashley Capital, their CEO and PAC, to members of this council tainted this vote,” the eighth ward councilman said. “So it is my opinion that certain members should abstain from this vote . . . If my colleagues do not abstain, and they vote yes to approve this, I will abstain because I will not be part of that vote.”

Burns, who also abstained from the vote, offered a similar sentiment.

“No one should have been taking any checks on this. No donations. This process should have been completely untouched so that when you make your decision whether you got a donation or not that you’d be able to make your decision . . . not because you favor them. If someone gives you something, you tend to favor them,” she said.

Murphy said that he did not see any issues with the contributions, which included an $11,000 check to Habitat for Humanity to purchase lawnmowers — a request Murphy previously alleged he’d made in response to Ashley Capital asking how it could support the Flint community.

“If I felt like I did something behind closed doors and I tried to broker a backdoor deal . . . my conscience would be really messed up,” he said on Aug. 14.

Flint City Councilman Quincy Murphy speaks during Flint City Council’s Special Affairs Committee meeting at Flint City Hall on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Murphy went on to say that he was going to vote to approve the project because it is “important” for Flint’s north side.

“Maybe you ain’t had to live over there right down the street from a plant that’s been shuttered and shut down for the last 30 years, but I have,” he said. “I am excited as a councilperson. I’m glad to sit on the city council and be part of history seeing a redevelopment take place in our community.”

During Lewis’ speaking time in special affairs, she yielded her time to Ashley Capital Senior Vice President Susan Harvey.

Harvey said that Ashley Capital has a “long history” of charitable giving, and that the contributions given to various organizations in Flint were not to “curry favor” for votes.

For her part, Winfrey-Carter said she abstained because she thought Ashley Capital should receive less tax capture on the project.

“I would like to see, I’m just saying a 50/50, and I think . . . that our city, all that we’ve gone through, deserve that,” she said.

What the public said

The Aug. 14 council meeting also included a public hearing on the brownfield plan, as well as a host of public comments from residents ahead of the hearing.

Tom Pedroni, who introduced himself as an associate professor from Wayne State University, spoke against the project’s potential for over $70 million in TIF reimbursements.

“It’s not the responsibility of the residents of Flint to pay $72 million for the cleanup and preparation of the old GM Buick City site,” he said. “They [Ashley Capital] must figure if the state got away with poisoning 100,000 people in Flint, then certainly Ashley Capital can get away with extracting another 72 million from them.”

Other residents said the development’s financing should come from General Motors rather than tax capture or highlighted the lack of jobs promised directly to Flint residents.

“I think it’s really rare that the citizens would pay $72 million and there’s no guarantee that they can even get a job,” said ninth ward resident Jaukim Lewis.

Councilman Eric Mays, who is allowed to speak as a member of the public during his suspension, added that Lewis and Murphy were “wrong” to vote given Ashley Capital’s contributions.

“When you take illegal money and gifts, you could end up in the penitentiary, jail, prison. This need to be sent to the FBI,” he said.

Other public speakers offered their support for the development, noting that it was good for Flint’s tax revenue overall.

“Flint Commerce Center is an opportunity not only for jobs, but much-needed tax revenue in the city. I regularly hear hesitancy when it comes to large firms that are unknown to the community, but to move forward, we have to embrace change or face being left behind,” said seventh ward resident Nadia Rodriguez.

Moses Timlin, another seventh ward resident, said he views the plan as an investment in the city.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, a $300 million investment,” he said to the council. “You all care deeply about this city, and I really hope this vote really reflects that.”

During the meeting, Mark Quimby, Ashley Capital’s development manager, said the plan is to complete the majority of the demolition needed on the site’s first 150 acres through this coming winter and spring.

He said the developer then hopes to start construction in summer 2024.

Sophia is Flint Beat's City Hall reporter. She joins the team after previously reporting for the Livingston Daily and the Lansing State Journal, along with some freelance work with The New York Times....

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