Belding council talks about decision to let Electrolux tear down buildings

By Cory Smith • Last Updated 10:28 am on Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Belding Clock Tower — Daily News/Cory Smith

BELDING — Three weeks ago, the city of Belding and Electrolux Inc. came to an agreement on a consent judgement that will, when officially signed by a judge, serve as a guideline when Electrolux begins to decommission the original silk mill building, clock tower and other Gibson buildings at the corner of Bridge and Main streets — the oldest of which have stood since 1903.

During the Nov. 20 City Council meeting, after several members of the community came to the floor during public comment to voice their displeasure with the council’s decision to sign that agreement after a 4-1 vote, council members expressed their opinions on their decision for the first time on public record.

Otisco Township resident Jeff Hunter spoke to council members addressing several issues he had with the council’s decision.

“You all ought to resign tonight, because this is a joke,” Hunter said to council members regarding their decision. “The city spent $206,000 in attorney fees and you get zero back. You gave Electrolux exactly what they wanted.”

According to City Manager Randy DeBruine, the city spent $158,016.81 on legal fees pertaining to the Electrolux property and spent an additional $48,656.75 with Hydrologic Associates to assist with Environmental issues pertaining to the Electrolux property, totaling $206,673.56 after two years of battling in the court system and through legal mediation.

Councilman Jon Bunce, who initially was against voting for the consent judgement, said he finally changed his vote in favor of the judgement because Belding “has to move on as a city.”

“Yes, I’m one of the council members who changed my vote,” Bunce said. “Did I change it lightly? No Did I want to see that whole site saved? Yes I did. $200,000 of taxpayer dollars was spend that we wont get back. I wasn’t going to (let that figure) go any higher.”

According to the consent judgment, Electrolux will demolish all structures on the site at the corner of Main and Bridge streets after acquiring a permit for demolition from the city. That permit must be issued to Electrolux from the city no later than March 1, 2013.

As far as any preservation of the the buildings or objects related to the site, the consent judgment reads: “Electrolux shall use reasonable efforts to dismantle, preserve, donate and deliver to the city … the slate tile rooftop over the clock tower, the clock, the wood housing surrounding the clock and the materials immediately abutting such wooden housing … and the blocks/place-cards containing the ‘Belding Bros.’ inscription and the plaque showing the year built.”

Bunce said he is determined to see the historic clock tower rebuilt after demolition is complete.

“My main goal and what I want to make sure is going to happen is to save our clock tower,” he said. “I want it rebuilt, working and with the original pieces.”

Bunce said he disagreed with Hunter’s claim that the city received nothing in return after reaching an agreement with Electrolux and believes the involvement of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) was crucial to making the site usable for the future.

“People say we spent $200,000 on nothing,” he said. “I don’t consider it nothing because we have our clock tower and we have the (MDEQ) making sure that area is going to be cleaned up. At least there will now be grass and trees over there.”

Bunce said he will make it his No. 1 priority as a councilman to make sure the clock tower is restored.

“I’m going to work with (Randy DeBruine) on getting grants and starting a committee to get that clock tower built and back up as fast as possible.”

When decommissioning the tower, Electrolux will be required to take laser measurements of the tower, providing the city with scale measurements to use in effort to reconstruct the tower in the future.

Councilman Mike Scheid said when it came down to the final hours of decision making, the city had little choice left other than to finally reach an agreement with Electrolux.

“When this whole thing started on saving that property over there, everyone knew we had limited resources,” Scheid said. “We had a group of people (Silk City Preservation Society), as well intended as they were, that was trying to raise money and promised to give us some help, but we never received a penny.”

Scheid disagreed with Hunter’s claim that the city received nothing after spending more than $200,000 in legal fees.

“If we were getting exactly what we had in the first place, the fence would be moved just behind the sidewalk and that would be the end of it,” he said. “We would have all of that concrete sticking up there with some sand poured in there so if somebody got in there they wouldn’t get hurt.”

Had the city continued to press the issue with Electrolux, Scheid said the likely fate of the city would have been bankruptcy.

“I’m sorry folks, this would have bankrupt us if we had kept going,” he said. “We got as good of an agreement as we were going to get and this is something that the judge will honor.”

Scheid added that though he is nervous about Electrolux’s faith in keeping with its agreement to properly remediate the property clean of environmental contamination in accordance with the MDEQ, he is glad the city was able to have it in writing to be signed by a judge.

“I am nervous about it because Electrolux has never proved to be real reliable with their word, but there is a judgment on this that will be signed by the judge,” he said. “I wanted the contamination cleaned up. That’s all I ever wanted. If we could have saved the building(s), that would have been a bonus.”

Councilwoman Andrea Belding said the council’s decision was not an easy one, but added she believed it was the right one.

“You come to a point where you realize the continuation of spending that money and the battles that are ahead of you are not worth it,” she said. “When you have a company like Electrolux that has bottomless pockets and they throw everything at you, there is absolutely no way you can get through anything.”

Belding said the past two years took council members and the city through uncharted waters, but by the end of it, she felt the agreement between the city and Electrolux was acceptable and worth the legal fees spent to attain it.

“I’m sad to see the buildings go, but I do think the $200,000 plus was very much worth it,” she said. “Yes, we’re not getting our money back, but we’re getting a lot more than our neighbors to the north (Greenville) received and we’re getting to the point where we’ve achieved something that a lot of other communities have never embarked on.”

Belding added that the community will continue to have a historic district despite the loss of the original silk mill buildings.

“We still have a historic district and we are protecting buildings that should have been protected a long time ago,” she said. “If we would have thought about that 20 years ago we wouldn’t be in the position that we are in today.”

Mayor Ron Gunderson, who casts the lone opposing vote against the consent judgment, spoke briefly at the council meeting adding that until the consent judgment is signed by a judge, he’d rather not elaborate in great detail.

“It has not been an easy road,” he said “A lot of things have been a struggle with this consent judgment. Hopefully Electrolux will follow their guideline.”

Councilman Joe Feuerstein chose not to speak on the issue, but has long been in favor of seeing the buildings torn down, having voiced that opinion since he was first elected in November of 2011.

According to DeBruine, Electrolux is waiting for a draft of the easement agreement between the city and Electrolux, which will give the city “surface rights” to use the property as a park, to be included in the consent judgment before it is signed by a judge.

However, DeBruine added that he believes the agreement “is a done deal” and expects the judgment to be signed soon.

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