Big bucks (and free beer) in Birmingham bond campaign

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Birmingham — An effort to reach voters on a $57.4 million bond for a parking facility has been backed not only with big bucks but free beer.

The proposed project's developer has spent more than $120,000 on flashy mailers, digital ads and door-to-door canvassing, according to pre-election finance reports reviewed by The Detroit News.

The parking garage at 333 North Old Woodward in Birmingham.

Over the weekend, Birmingham Yes supporters were pouring out free suds — one per visitor — at an information rally hosted by a local business at Dick O’Dows, a popular Irish bar in the city’s business district.

Voters in the Aug. 6 primary election will decide the 30-year bond issue, which would fund replacement of a 53-year-old, 745-space parking facility on nearly 4 acres west of North Old Woodward near the city’s business district with a newer, bigger facility — three underground levels and six floors above ground — with 1,157 spaces.

City officials and the developer also envision a public plaza and a mixed-use development of offices, businesses and residences next door, including a Restoration Hardware gallery store.

The free beer event at Dick O’Dow’s was hosted by Seeds Marketing + Design, one of several Birmingham businesses that park in the North Old Woodward structure and support the project.

 Dan Zwolak, principal/executive creative director at Seeds Marketing + Design said about 100 people attended the "Beer and Now" event from noon-4 p.m. Saturday.

“We weren’t trying to buy a vote with a beer but we thought it would be nice to get people together to go beyond the rhetoric and discuss the issues over a beer,” Zwolak said. “We don’t want to be in the middle of any political fight but the project is important and think every voter should have an idea what they are voting for or against. There is a lot of confusion right now.”

Opponents say the project would be too costly and that, once parking spaces are allotted to the new tenants, there would be no net gain of spaces for visitors.

Birmingham has selected a developer, Woodward Bates Partners, for the project, which the city insists will not cost taxpayers but instead be paid off by parking fees and special assessments to businesses.

Woodward Bates's four partners are Ron Boji of the Lansing-based Boji Group; Architect Victor Saroki, founder of Saroki Architecture; John Rakolta III, CEO of Waldbridge Construction, and Paul Robertson, chairman of Robertson Bros. homebuilders.

Pre-election campaign finance reports reviewed by The News indicate that Woodward Bates has contributed $180,000 to a fund to promote the ballot issue and declared more than $120,000 in expenditures, including print and digital advertising.

Several companies have been paid $10,000 or more to provide research and media consulting services. A San Diego company, In Field Strategies, was paid $49,999 for door-to-door services, presumably canvassing and dropping off literature on the proposal.

In contrast, David Bloom of the Birmingham Citizens for Responsible Government said his organization and another anti-bond organization, Balance 4 Birmingham, collectively have spent about $15,000 in mailing efforts to influence voters.

Despite being heavily outspent by supporters of the bond issue, Bloom said he doesn't see the campaign as a David vs. Goliath story.

“I don’t think any reference to ‘David vs. Goliath’ is even appropriate here — how big was Goliath anyway?” asked Bloom. “But with what they’re spending on advertising and mailing to residents, no question we’re being outmatched about 20 to 1.”

Bloom and Clinton Baller of Balance for Birmingham filed a federal lawsuit last week alleging the city violated their free speech rights and the state's Open Meetings Act when officials stopped them from addressing the city commission this month about the bond issue.

The city won a legal victory Monday when U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts dismissed a federal lawsuit filed by TIR Equities, which alleged favoritism in Birmingham's selection of Woodward Bates as developer. Roberts concluded TIR did not state what relief should be granted and did not have standing for the lawsuit, Birmingham City Manager Joseph Valentine said.

“The city was confident from the outset that there would be a favorable outcome in this matter,” Mayor Patricia Bordman said in a statement. “In fact, the court’s dismissal of every aspect of this lawsuit shows that the city of Birmingham engaged in no wrongdoing, whatsoever.”

Valentine said the city can now move forward and added it “has always run a fair and transparent bidding process.” Woodward Bates spokesman John Truscott also interpreted Roberts’ ruling as confirming “the process was transparent and fair.”

Another developer, Morningside Equities of Chicago, told The News Monday they walked away from the parking development project after spending $20,000 on studies because city officials refused to meet with them to answer questions from company planners and an architect.

“Yet we know they (city) had multiple sessions with an architect who worked on the city’s concept model and became an equity partner with one of our competitors,” said David Strosberg, Morningside’s CEO. “I don’t care at what point his private meetings occurred or if they had already had made a decision. It was pretty clear they had a leg up in the process.”

Strosberg, whose company has done various projects in Royal Oak and Ann Arbor, said he found it frustrating that city planners wouldn’t meet with Morningside.

"In 26 years of responding to request for proposals, I’ve never seen that,” Strosberg said. “They might have wanted to do it in a public meeting and we have seen that but written questions are not sufficient in a project this size. The bottom line is we needed answers to move forward and they weren’t ready to meet and offered no alternatives.”

Valentine said Birmingham’s policy is to have no private meetings with developers during the selection process “and they are all aware of that.”

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