March 4, 2009 at 10:27 am

New Cobo plan quietly in works

Lawmakers tweak $288M expansion deal behind scenes as veto, court battle looms.

Two state lawmakers from Detroit are ready to introduce legislation recasting the $288 million deal to expand Cobo Center. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

DETROIT -- Amid the continued threat of a veto and court battle, behind-the-scenes efforts are afoot in Lansing and Detroit to revive the stalled $288 million Cobo Center expansion plan.

Two Detroit legislators say they are close to introducing legislation to recast the expansion. Mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr.'s staff said he's still talking to council members to address their beefs with the proposal.

But a spokesman said he's not backing off a possible veto this week of the City Council's resolution, passed 5-3, to reject the deal. The agreement would have the city hand over the facility to a regional authority.

And Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been having conversations with "the stakeholders," spokeswoman Liz Boyd said Tuesday. Boyd remained vague on with whom Granholm has spoken.

"We have to re-engage and get a deal done," said Rep. Burt Johnson, who is working on new legislation with fellow Democratic state Rep. Shanelle Jackson. "What has been most disingenuous about this whole process is the impression that there is no political will to come back to the table."

But Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said trying to recast the deal in the Legislature is "opening Pandora's box" to job preferences for Detroiters. Several Detroit council members are demanding the preferences, which Patterson opposes.

He said he's aware of an effort to rework the deal in Lansing to appease council concerns by having the city lease the facility to the regional authority, instead of a full transfer of Cobo.

But he said he believes the best route to revive the plan is for Cockrel to use his veto power.

"It's cleaner and lets us get on with business," Patterson said.

Patterson said he's had lawyers look at the issue, and he believes Cockrel's veto would stand. The council would need six votes to override the veto.

But a council attorney has disagreed, saying the law creating the authority called for the legislative body to reject the deal, and he doesn't believe Cockrel's veto would be allowed.

Cockrel spokesman Daniel Cherrin wouldn't say Tuesday when the veto was expected. Cherrin said staffers have heard about attempts in Lansing to revive the deal but said they are focused on "preserving the legislation that has passed."

Council President Monica Conyers, who led the effort to sink the Cobo proposal, said she'll go to court if necessary to fight a veto.

"If we have to go to court, that's what we will do," Conyers said.

When asked about the potential high cost of a court battle, she said: "You have to do your job at the end of the day."

Conyers said those on the council who opposed the deal still want a deal to expand Cobo. Last week, when the council killed the Cobo plan, members passed a resolution supporting the use of federal stimulus money for an expansion.

"We are not saying we don't want a Cobo Hall deal," Conyers said. "We want a Cobo Hall deal that is good for everyone."

It's not clear if federal stimulus dollars can be used for the project. Granholm's office has said the money can't, but Conyers said she's talked to several members of Congress who support her contention that the funds can be used.

She said the project could be "shovel ready" in about 90 days, if the city worked to make it happen.

The expansion plan would have created a five-member board to own and run the facility with appointees from the governor, Detroit and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

The board would require unanimous consent for any decision. Council opponents argued the plan requires Detroit to give away too much, but proponents said the facility was a money pit. Detroit would have gotten $20 million to pay off parking debt and would have shed an estimated $15-million-a-year subsidy.

Detroit News Staff Writer David Josar contributed to this report.