A $10 billion investment was floated Friday to revive the city of Highland Park and wipe out the financially-troubled city’s water debts.
But the team behind the proposal shared few details about the opaque project’s so-called billionaire funder, while city leaders and the water authority owed millions from the city acknowledged they hadn’t been aware of the plan, nor had they been engaged in any discussions about it.
The group behind the plan convened on Ford Street at the historic site of the former Highland Park NAACP headquarters to tout the proposal they said would get underway with the $127 million redevelopment of the building.
Kenneth Hogan, president of Redford Township-based Manna Development Corp., said his firm would facilitate the initiative with funding from an investor that organizers of the announcement said was a “global billionaire,” but declined to name ahead of a groundbreaking contingent on whether the plan advanced.
Hogan said the group planned to submit a “letter of intent” to the office of Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp about erasing the water debt and the proposed public-private partnership that would be carried out over a series of years.
He said the team was seeking an “emergency meeting” of Highland Park’s City Council ahead of its scheduled Nov. 21 meeting, to consider the proposal.
“We’re not coming in to take Highland Park,” he said. “We’re coming in to rebuild.”
Among those in attendance for the announcement were Yopp, who is retiring at the end of the year and said he’d not seen anything in writing about settling the city’s burdensome water debt, nor “anything to confirm that there’s $10 billion for this city.”
“I need a confirmation. I don’t have that,” he told reporters. “I’d love to have $10 billion in the city. I would love to have that. That’s a lot of money. Is that coming from Iran? Is it coming from Russia? Is it coming from my Uncle Ron? What I mean is, we need to know who’s financing this show.”
Highland Park Council President Carlton Clyburn Jr. said Friday, when called upon in the crowd during the news conference, that what he heard sounded good, but “as City Council president, this is the first time I am hearing about it.”
“I am interested in learning more,” he told attendees of the unanticipated announcement.
City officials, he said, want to bring Highland Park back, but “we have to do it the right way” and “can’t be taken advantage of as in the past.”
“I look forward to seeing the facts,” Clyburn, who is running as a write-in candidate for mayor on Nov. 8, said of the newly unveiled investment plan.
Afterward, he told BridgeDetroit: “I don’t really buy it. $10 billion, that’s a stretch.”
For the mayor not to have seen anything and nothing that’s coming to council or anything we’re like, ‘where’s the money?,’” Clyburn said. “These situations hit Highland Park a lot. And this is one of the reasons why we ended up in the condition we’re in because people come in, they make empty promises, get everybody excited, then that drops us down even more when they don’t follow through.”
But District 2 Councilman Kendrich Bates, who also is running for reelection, called the plan “welcome news” for the city following 80 years of disinvestment. The development group, he said, deserves to have its proposal vetted and heard.
“I’m more than happy to hear of someone who is taking ownership and providing us an opportunity to improve our residents, our city and improve our quality of life,” he said. “I hope that we all will give them a chance to see if this is something that will definitely help us out because Highland Park deserves a second chance.”
In August, the Michigan Court of Appeals reinstated a lower court’s ruling that Highland Park must pay $21 million in back debt to the Great Lakes Water Authority.
Highland Park began accruing debt from its water and sewer service more than a decade ago. In 2014, the city was sued over the issue. Since then, debate ensued about who is responsible. Meanwhile, the debt accrued interest and, this summer, stood at $21 million.
GLWA has said that the court decisions in its favor have reinforced the position that the city had been obligated to pay and that they would continue with efforts to seek payment. But Highland Park leaders have maintained that the city was overcharged by GLWA, and shouldn’t be on the line for the debt.
On Friday, GLWA told BridgeDetroit in a statement that the authority was not aware of the new development opportunity for Highland Park.
“However, the authority is pleased to hear about it, and looks forward to further information about the proposed development and is generally supportive of this and any other efforts that could lead to a resolution of the debt owed to the regional authority,” the statement reads.
GLWA said there hasn’t been anything brought to the authority for review or consideration, and the proposal “is in no way” related to the ongoing litigation between Highland Park and GLWA.
Pertaining to the legal cases regarding the water debt, the state Court of Appeals denied the city’s motion to have the ruling that the city owed the debts reconsidered. In a separate action, Wayne County’s Circuit Court has ordered both parties to engage in confidential mediation, GLWA noted.
Hogan said Friday that he grew up five blocks south of Highland Park and always had a great love for the city that he’s “grown up with and appreciated.”
He said that the proposal, which members of the team said Friday has been under discussion for at least five to six years, includes an engineering firm and architect to take Highland Park’s existing master plan and expand it, in partnership with the city.
He said the intention is to bring the city new “heavy and light industrial” manufacturing facilities to connect with worldwide markets, new education systems and revitalization that will lead to better access to food and medical care. Further details weren’t provided Friday to reporters.
The $10 billion investment fund, Hogan said, would go toward a public-private partnership with Highland Park. The agreement would call for a workforce first built with residents, followed by neighboring towns, he said.
He also discussed plans for a new city center development to be named “UpTown Highland Park,” to “resurrect Black Wall Street and modern manufacturing.”
That project, he said, would be a 90-unit, seven-story mixed-use development that will replace the former Sears retail store demolished in 2007.
“The investors are not coming in to get abatements, they are coming in to build a tax base,” he said.
The state began reviewing Highland Park’s finances in the 1990s and moved the city into emergency financial management from 2001 to 2009.
News of the investment plan comes ahead of the Nov. 8 general election in which the city will elect a new mayor and when council candidates, including Clyburn and Bates, are running to retain their seats.
Denzel McCampbell, a spokesman for Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said staff from Tlaib’s office was informed of the announcement late Thursday evening and attended to learn more.
“Our office sent a member of our staff to learn more about the project – we hope that those involved will be transparent with Highland Park residents and forthcoming with concrete details,” he said in a statement to BridgeDetroit.
Maurice Turner, a write-in candidate for mayor, was also in attendance Friday in addition to Christopher Ford, who handles outreach for the Oakland County Democratic Party as well as Janet Spight White, who is running for a new term on the city’s school board.
Turner didn’t say Friday whether he supported the plan, but told the crowd that the city has to be purposeful and take care of its residents. Glenda McDonald, the only mayoral candidate listed on the ballot, declined to comment when reached by phone, saying “Unfortunately, I wasn’t there and I didn’t hear anything (about the proposal).”
Alicia Jones of Uptown Detroit LLC, who said she would head up the mixed-use development within the overall project plan, called for unity in the city, saying cooperation is needed.
“Put your differences aside and look around you and see what we’re bringing,” she argued. “Ten billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at, people.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Highland Park City Council President Carlton Clyburn is running as a write-in candidate for mayor on Nov. 8.