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Pontiac mayor: Tax plan could pump up Silverdome site

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan legislation that would allow developers to capture a portion of new tax revenues generated by “transformational” redevelopment projects could jump-start plans for the long-vacant Pontiac Silverdome, Mayor Deirdre Waterman said this week.

Waterman, who testified Thursday in Lansing, told The Detroit News the package would provide the Oakland County city with a new tool to tackle an old eyesore, the now-roofless behemoth that was once home to the Detroit Lions but has fallen into disrepair.

“It was once a glorious structure, but it’s over, and its day is done,” Waterman said Wednesday of the Silverdome, which she wants torn down to pave the way for new development, likely a mixed-use project, on what she believes is a prime piece of real estate off M-59 near Interstate 75.

“We need to find ways as municipalities to encourage and influence developers to tackle these more difficult projects so that we can make way for cost-effective and organized economic development,” she said.

Waterman is part of a statewide coalition rallying around a tax capture concept first pitched last year by Detroit developer and billionaire Dan Gilbert, whose Rock Ventures has said the plan could pave the way for it to move forward on $2.5 billion in major projects in Michigan’s largest city. It would include development of the old Hudson’s site on Woodward in downtown Detroit.

The modified legislation, reintroduced last week by lead sponsor Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, seeks to facilitate redevelopment at large blighted or contaminated “brownfield” sites around Michigan. Minimum investments would be required for a project to qualify, ranging from $15 million in small communities to $500 million in Detroit.

The plan would allow developers to capture up to half of the income tax revenues generated from any new jobs or residents at the completed site for up to 20 years. Project organizers would also recoup sales and income tax revenues generated on-site during the construction period.

The proposal would help fill financial gaps on big and difficult redevelopment projects, according to the MIThrive coalition, which claims the legislation could unlock $5 billion in new investments statewide.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who has usually moved the state away from tax incentives, supported a modified version of the plan last year after a series of financial caps and protections were added.

The proposal sailed through the state Senate but hit a dead end in the House, where then-Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said in December it contradicted GOP efforts to simplify Michigan’s tax code and stop picking winners and losers.

If developers like Gilbert “can’t make a deal to work without state aid, then it is not a deal worth doing, and Michigan taxpayers should not be forced to invest,” said Cotter, who has since been term-limited out of office.

New House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, has been noncommittal about the re-introduced legislation, saying he’ll take a closer look at the package if it reaches his chamber.

The latest version of the bills would limit annual income tax captures from jobs and residents to $40 million per year and $800 million overall. Total construction-period tax captures would be limited to $200 million over the life of the bill.

The Michigan Strategic Fund could approve tax captures for five “transformational brownfield plans” a year, and no more than one project could qualify per city, allowing competition across the state.

Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, sponsored one of the bills in the package, and several other Senate Democrats signed on to several measures as co-sponsors. Business Leaders for Michigan, an influential group of corporate leaders and executives, also endorsed the tax capture plan this week, calling it “a crucial component to step up the state’s economic development efforts.”

Plymouth Township Supervisor Kurt Heise is backing the package and argues it could help spur redevelopment at the site of the old Detroit House of Corrections. A former state legislator, Heise helped push for $4 million in state funding to demolish buildings on the property along Five Mile.

The former prison, originally owned by the city of Detroit and later the state, is being torn down and will require remediation before any redevelopment because it was once used as a dump.

Heise said he has personally fielded inquiries from people interested in redeveloping the property, which he believes could be used for corporate offices, high-tech industry or other purposes.

“There is a great deal of interest, but of course people recognize our environmental challenges, and the more incentives we can provide to private corporations that are looking to develop the site, the better off we all are,” he said. “I see this as the proper role of government.”

In Pontiac, Waterman said city officials have been working with Silverdome ownership to come up with a realistic plan for redevelopment. Triple Properties, a Canadian-based company run by Andreas Apostolopoulos, bought the site for $583,000 in 2009 when a state-appointed emergency financial manager put it up for auction.

Triple Properties unsuccessfully tried to sell the Silverdome for $30 million in 2015, so the company said it would tear down the building to pave way for new development.

Conceptual plans released in late 2015 touted the potential for a mix of residential, retail, corporate and light-industrial developments on the 127-acre site.

“It’s not shovel-ready because it still has a structure on it that is concrete,” said Waterman, noting the cost of tearing down the Silverdome remains an obstacle to any redevelopment plans.

Its continued deterioration is particularly painful because residents remember what the Silverdome used to be, Waterman said. The building, constructed in 1975, was home turf for both the Lions and Detroit Pistons as well as hosted a series of high-profile entertainers.

“So it’s even more of a wound in the face of a very vibrant community that is resurgent,” she said. “We certainly are eager to have this parcel developed in a way that is in harmony with the rest of Pontiac’s revitalization.”