ELKHART — Members of the Elkhart City Council on Monday evening tabled a vote to appropriate $350,000 for making the former Alick's property ready for construction.
The 7-2 decision to table came 10 hours before polling places opened Tuesday in the municipal election.
Earlier this year, local investors Bob Deputy, Tom Pletcher, Brian Smith and David Weaver, through their company Portage Place Development, won a bid to develop high-end condominiums on the former Alick's property in the 900 block of Jackson Boulevard. Elkhart Rowing Club, hoping to build a boathouse, bid the same amount, $100,000, but lost.
Both the commission and Portage Place Development had conditions, making the agreement tentative. Among the developers' conditions was that the land, which sits between the St. Joseph and Elkhart rivers, would be construction-ready.
After the agreement was made, soil tests on the property found enough organic material underground to make it necessary to drive helical piers, essentially very large screws, into the ground to stabilize any building foundation, officials said. Because the land is not construction-ready without the piers, the $350,000 bill would fall on Elkhart taxpayers.
Also, because the Redevelopment Commission does not have money of its own, the decision on whether the city will pay falls on the City Council, which had no say in selling the land to Portage Place Development or in forming the contract that requires the city to pay the expense.
Mayor Tim Neese's chief of staff, Bradley Tracy, said Portage Place Development had requested an opportunity to test the ground before bidding on the land, but that its request was denied by the Redevelopment Commission.
"The due diligence wasn't done properly," Tracy said of that decision.
Councilwoman Mary Olson, R-at-large, among others, was frustrated by that decision.
"We find ourselves caught in a series of situations, if you will, that none of the nine members that are sitting before you created," she said.
Olson said the council had been locked into a signed contract, forcing the city to clean up the mess. Councilman David Henke, R-3, referred to the proposed appropriation as a cleanup as well.
He said if the council would not pay for the piers, the property would never be developed since it would be left unbuildable.
Tom Shoff, treasurer of the Elkhart Rowing Club, has said that the rowing club would have paid the cost had it been allowed to buy the land.
Councilmen Richard Shively, R-1, and Dwight Fish, D-4, both criticized the Redevelopment Commission and spoke of having it dissolved.
"The Redevelopment Commission did their own thing. They didn't seem to ever want talk with council about things," Shively said. "They come up with ideas, and then, when they go bad, they come to the council and say, 'Well, you've got to pay for it.'"
Fish said it would be unreasonable to ask regular taxpayers to take on the bill when they would never see the benefit of the high-end condominiums.
"I'm at the point where I'd like to dissolve the Redevelopment Commission and take on the burden ourselves. Because this is a bad decision," Fish said.
Henke pointed out that the condominiums are expected to bring the city $120,000 in property taxes annually, meaning that there will be a return on investment. He also argued that the developers and the residents who might be interested in buying the high-end condominiums have earned the development.
"We're looking at people that brought us the Lerner — $16 million — that led the way for NIBCO Water & Ice Park," he said. "How many things have these very people trickled down to us, and we laud and applaud them then but want to blame them for wanting to stay home and pay their taxes here."
Shoff, when the public was allowed to speak, reminded the council that voters would have an easy time remembering their decision.
"It's Election Day tomorrow," he said. "Why don't you show the citizens of this community how fiscally responsible you are and vote no on this $350,000."
Not every member of the council spoke on the issue, and it was unclear which way the council would have voted before Tracy informed them that the contract with Portage Place Development has yet to be finalized and that the developers are waiting on the council's decision on this funding.
"Mr. Tracy let you off the hook tonight," Shoff said. "There has been no contract signed, so you're not bound by anything to vote yes for this."
Olson made a motion to table the discussion in order to let city staff review the contract. There was no discussion on the motion, which passed 7-2 with Council President Brian Dickerson, R-at-large, and Henke voting against it.
Following the meeting, Dickerson said he voted against tabling because he believed it would be better to take a recess for staff to find the contract and then vote that evening.
Olson said she had no plans to table the measure until the council was told that a contract had not yet been finalized.
"We were not given factual information. We were told that, in fact, we had a signed purchase agreement with the Portage Place people," she said. "Unless I have accurate information, I can't represent the taxpayers in a manner in which they expect me to represent them."
Redevelopment Commission President Sandi Schreiber was not immediately available for comment.
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