Feud leaves $1M Customs facility gathering dust

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News
  • A politically connected caterer uses $1M facility to store chairs
  • Problem is latest for a $22 million Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority riverfront building
  • Customs says rules are rules

Detroit — A never-used $1 million state-of-the-art-facility along the Detroit River designed to handle U.S. customs operations is now being used to store chairs.

Two years after completion, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have never used the 4,000 square feet of offices, holding cells and labs built for the agency inside the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority Public Dock and Terminal at Atwater and Bates.

The $22 million facility that opened to great fanfare in 2011 was designed to accommodate cruise ships and attract ferry service and water taxis.

The facility includes a floor designed so that Customs could process cruise ship passengers. The agency says the facility doesn’t meet standards; port authority officials say they can’t afford $170,000 computer and camera upgrades to make it suitable.

So the waterfront offices, next to the Renaissance Center, are crammed with chairs, linens, tables and signs owned by a catering company that hosts weddings and corporate events on the second floor of the building.

The situation is an absurd case of government run amok, said authority vice chairman Jonathan Kinloch.

“Sometimes, when you are dealing with bureaucracy, the dog is chasing the tail,” Kinloch said.

“At some point, you’d hope the dog would stop going in circles ... but right now, it doesn’t make any damn sense.”

Most of the key players who guided the project for the authority no longer work for the agency, so Kinloch and others are trying to figure out what went wrong.

The problem is the latest for a $22 million facility that opened to great fanfare in 2011. The public terminal was championed by retired U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, as a way to accommodate cruise ships and attract ferry service and water taxis. Federal and state funds paid for most of the construction.

Facility operates at a loss

One cruise ship has stopped once in Detroit in the past two years, though, and the terminal is used mostly by Continental Services and Catering, a Troy-based company with deep ties to the Democratic Party.

It hosts parties and weddings that start at $18,500, storing its equipment one floor below in the unused Customs space. The authority last year made $140,000 in commissions from the arrangement, about $60,000 less than the annual cost of heating and maintaining the building.

The Detroit News recently toured the empty Customs facility that was funded through a Homeland Security grant. Port officials wouldn’t allow photos of the center, which includes rows and rows of stainless steel counters and queues, X-ray machines, offices encased in bulletproof glass and a laboratory that documents say is for “testing and disposal of illegal agriculture items.”

This is a schematic drawing of a facility for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority’s public dock. It has never been used. Port authority officials would not allow photographs within the facility.

Customs spokesman Kris Grogan said what’s missing is most important: Required IT equipment and other security measures. He wouldn’t offer specifics, citing security concerns.

“The biggest issue is there’s a security aspect to everything we do. If we compromise those standards once, it’s just going to snowball. You just can’t make shortcuts.”

The News reviewed correspondence between port authority and Customs officials over the facility acquired through a request by the Freedom of Information Act. The files reveal a two-year tug-of-war over issues large and small.

In January 2013, for instance, Customs objected that cells built to house immigration suspects lacked security glass, alarm buzzers and even deadbolt locks.

The same report noted that exit signs weren’t at proper angles and a Panasonic DVR player that the port bought for the offices “will not work for Customs and Border Protection operations.”

John Loftus, who became director of the port authority last summer, said most major issues have been resolved but Customs won’t budge on other issues.

“If we put in screens and they needed bullet proof glass, that would be something,” he said. “But when you are haggling over minor issues, are you really compromising homeland security?”

The standoff has made it hard to expand business, said Loftus, whose $1 million budget consists mostly of federal grants and subsidies from the state, city and Wayne County.

Great Lakes cruise ships now stop in Windsor because Customs won’t commit to processing passengers in Detroit, Loftus said. Nor will the agency commit to using the facility if the authority makes the improvements, Loftus said, so he’s reluctant to invest more money in technology that could become obsolete.

Four companies now offer 26 cruises per year around the Great Lakes that cost $3,000 to $9,000 per passenger.

Five cruises have stopped in Windsor this year. Chris Conlin, founder of Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Cruise Co., said ships tend to schedule cruises to avoid border crossings that would necessitate lengthy Customs inspections.

The ships bus their passengers into Detroit for excursions, he said.

“The simple reason for us sailing into Windsor is so that our passengers do not have to go through customs process an additional time,” said Nicole Sturgess, spokeswoman of Pearl Sea Cruises, a Connecticut-based company that offers Great Lakes cruises.

Grogan, the Customs spokesman, said the agency has never refused to process cruise passengers in Detroit.

Customs doesn’t negotiate

Gregg Ward, who operates a truck ferry on the Detroit River, said port officials should know Customs doesn’t compromise.

“Any port of entry into the U.S. must meet the safety and security requirements of Customs. It is not up for negotiation,” said Ward, whose business includes Customs inspections.

“The rules are the rule are the rules. If Customs wants it, you have to provide it.”

The issue is one of several surrounding the building. Contracts reviewed by The News indicate its construction costs increased to $16.7 million in 2011 from $7.5 million in 2009.

The increase included $6 million to drive pilings into the Detroit River for the unused dock, records show. None of the records reviewed explained how the costs rose another $5 million by the time it opened.

Nor do the available records indicate how the scope of the project tripled in four years. Loftus, the third port authority director in five years, said he hasn’t received a good answer either in the year he’s been on the job.

He succeeded John Jamian, who said the issues predate his appointment in 2011 and funding for the project simply ran out.

Authority member Alisha Bell said she’s confident problems with the building and Customs will be resolved.

“The people who built this building had great foresight and vision,” said Bell, a Wayne County commissioner from Detroit.

“It was well designed and has great potential, but that vision needs more time to become reality.”


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