Fight brews on former Novi Expo site

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Novi communications director Sheryl Walsh-Molloy's name.

Novi — A yet-unveiled plan to develop 22 vacant acres near Novi and Grand River roads into a multimillion-dollar collection of hotels and businesses is creating quite a buzz in Novi, driven by a recent mail campaign alleging city officials are holding up the project.

The property owner, Kevin Adell — whose other business interests include The Word religious programming network based in Southfield, the WADL television channel and Radio Superstation 910 — said he sent out more than 23,000 postcards to every Novi homeowner “out of frustration.”

“I’ve already done the hard part, locating potential businesses and selling them on it,” said Adell, who likened himself to a modern-day P.T. Barnum, the legendary showman and promoter.

“I drove (business representatives) out there in my Rolls Royce, and all they had to see was the empty site, the 180,000 vehicles that pass it every day and they want to be here,” he said. “I have purchase agreements for two hotels, restaurants, a fitness gym, an indoor sky-diving facility and an auto purchasing business. All I need now is the cooperation of the city.”

Novi Mayor Bob Gatt did not return a call or email for comment. City manager Peter Auger asked Sheryl Walsh-Molloy, the city’s communications director, to respond to The News.

“The applicant dropped off materials, and our planning team is in the process of reviewing the materials for completeness,” Walsh-Molloy said. “Once that is finalized, there will be other steps, including a public hearing on the plans.”

The property, the former site of Mohawk Liquors, was purchased for $150,000 in 1965 by Adell’s late father, Franklin, who held patents on auto parts. It was last the site of the Novi Expo Center, which moved in 2008. The sprawling building was razed in 2012.

The younger Adell put $200,000 into the water tower on the site; the tower was erected when the city was building out and didn’t have sufficient water systems to fight fires in the area.

Adell predicts he will eventually reap $1 million an acre from the property, a sizeable profit that he said “would make my father proud.”

“I went into broadcasting because the auto industry had too many ups and downs,” he said. “I had the patience and time to sit on the property but feel the time is right now to develop it.”

Adell said he wasn’t seeking tax incentives or any special financial consideration from Novi, but at one point, the city told him he would first have to build a $6 million road for his project.

“I told them I’m not paying a farthing,” he said, adding the businesses he envisions to bring in would enrich Novi with $3 million annually in tax receipts, which could be used for a variety of purposes, like “teachers, education, public safety and road repairs,” he said. “Or for redevelopment of existing nearby businesses.”

“I have an idea on what the land can look like and have gone out to find buyers ready to come to Novi, but officials are telling me it might take two years, including possible rezoning because it is currently zoned ‘expo,’ ” Adell said.

“No one is going to wait that long. They will go elsewhere. I decided to send these mailers out in hopes of fast-tracking the process.”

Adell said his efforts have already been partly successful.

“I was recently told it might only take six months,” he said. “I think that’s progress.”

The 6-inch-by-9-inch cards feature a color aerial photo of the flat, empty site near Interstate 96, centered by the white “ADELL” water tower, with the headline “Why Have This?” with an inset drawing of several multistory buildings accompanied by the headline “You Can Have This.”

The card also contains the request “Ask your city officials to change the zoning” and on the flip side asks, “What’s Holding This Up,” below the names of the city manager, city attorney, mayor and all six council members with phone numbers and email addresses.

It was enough to prompt Novi resident Don Savona to ring up City Hall.

“I was surprised the city didn’t own the property,” said Savona, who moved to Novi six years ago from Allen Park. “I was also curious why it isn’t being developed if it could mean tax dollars for my community. I didn’t talk with anyone but left a message supporting a plan. I would like to know more about it and will be attending any future meetings to learn more.”

Several city officials named on the card did not return calls to The News for comment. Others said they were surprised by Adell’s extraordinary effort but feel it wasn’t completely “above board” since the City Council has not been involved in any discussions yet. And they are protective of what at least one described as “the gateway to Novi.”

“Nothing has been filed with the city,” Councilman Wayne Wrobel said. “It’s a whole lot of to-do about nothing. We don’t want to just put anything up there, but show us something.”

Over the years, Wrobel said Adell has floated proposed developments for the site ranging from a waterpark to his corporate headquarters; neither ever materialized.

“The only thing that bothered me (about the card) is why didn’t he put his phone number on for people to call with questions about the project?” Wrobel said. “When you put something like that out, I think you should at least identify yourself.”

Adell has previously battled Novi in court over the site.

When the city condemned an acre of Adell’s land for a new road in the 1990s, he filed a lawsuit to put the brakes on the process and eventually gained a state Supreme Court victory and settlement that paid him more than $1 million.

Councilwoman Kelly Breen said she has never met Adell but is “looking forward to seeing what he has to say.”

“I think we all felt blindsided by the postcard campaign but we are open to looking at any project brought to us, providing it goes through the proper channels,” Breen said.

Breen said she and others on the council had received phone calls and emails regarding the still-to-come Adell proposal for the land.

“You can’t exactly respond to something with limited information,” Breen said. “That’s all I can tell people for now.”

Citizens and officials will likely want to know what impact the envisioned businesses will have on already-crowded roadways near the property, said Walsh-Molloy, the communications director.

“It’s a great site in a very busy area of the city,” she said. “We have had a few calls from citizens, mainly curious about what might go there and how it could affect them. It’s something everyone naturally wants to know.

“In a time when shopping malls are closing and businesses like Toys R Us are going under, people are wary of development.”

Adell said if plans can’t be approved and if he doesn’t get the land rezoned, he is prepared to take the city back to court.

“I have put them on notice,” Adell said. “If I’m blocked from developing my property, who can?”

“I think they (officials) are coming around and seeing what I am proposing will be good for Novi,” he said. “I mean, it’s not like I’m talking about building a smelting plant here.”