BELDING — In its current state, the parking lot adjacent to Central Riverside Park in Belding is in severe disrepair, and has been for some time.
The future of that parking lot, used by parents driving children to soccer games, families meeting in the park for reunions and other various activities throughout the park, may very well be determined by a potential grant that was discussed in heavy detail during a work session at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) is currently awarding $3 million to communities which are listed by Michigan as low-to-moderate income communities, of which Belding qualifies.
Belding City Manager Randy DeBruine presented council members with a brief presentation, stating that he would like the city to apply for a $750,000 Downtown Infrastructure Grant to be used to repair the Central Riverside Park parking lot, restoring it into a park trailhead for the Rails to Trails and Silk City Nature trails.
DeBruine’s request led to nearly an hour of discussion.
“This could potentially be the last time that the MEDC gives out this kind of money,” DeBruine said. “Federal money is drying up due to federal issues in Washington, D.C.”
DeBruine said the grant application must be submitted by Dec. 31, in accordance with the MEDC’s allotted 30-day time period, leaving council members in a position to make a decision no later than their next council meeting on Dec. 18.
According to DeBruine, the grant would pay for the construction of a park trailhead, which would include parking spaces, islands of trees and grass and roadside and decorative lighting. A preliminary cost estimate drafted in 2009 estimated the total cost of construction at $719,737.56.
However, two issues kept council members from immediately making a decision on accepting to draft a grant application or not.
The first issue was possible contamination underneath the current parking lot, which Councilman Joe Feuerstein brought to the table.
“Is there any pollution over there?” Feuerstein asked.
“In talking to the environmental attorneys and the environmental engineers, they suggest that we cap that parking lot,” DeBruine responded. “We can’t just let that parking lot sit for 50 years without putting an asphalt cap on it.”
Not satisfied with DeBruine’s response, Feuerstein pushed further on the issue.
“You want to cap it because it’s polluted and you’re covering something up,” he said. “Don’t beat around the bush on this, either there are environmental problems there or there are not.”
Feuerstein asked again, “Is there contamination or not?”
“Yes,” DeBruine answered. “But the environmental engineers and attorneys have recommended that we put another layer of asphalt over (the pollution) to seal it. It is a good method to use for this situation.”
Feuerstein said he wasn’t comfortable voting on anything related to the grant unless he had confirmation as to what type of pollutants and contamination may be below the surface of the parking lot.
According to DeBruine, the site was previously used as a town dump for some time in the early to middle of the previous century. He could not verify when it was turned into a parking lot, but estimated it was sometime in the 1960s
“We’re not covering anything up,” DeBruine said. “I don’t like the word ‘cover-up.’ We know it’s contaminated and we’re doing what the environmental engineers and attorneys have recommended that we do. You’re making us feel guilty on that issue, and we’re not.”
Department of Public Works Director Ernie Thomas described the situation as a “double-edged sword.”
“I don’t think you want to know what’s down there,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword and I personally think we do need to cap that lot with something. I think anyone who has been here long enough realizes there is contamination down there. As to what and how much, we don’t know exactly.”
Thomas said the consequences of doing nothing could outweigh the consequences of only capping the pollution.
“If we don’t do something with that lot and it gives way, it’s only going to materialize what’s down there quicker than if we don’t do something,” he said. “I’m not sold that by putting a blacktop cap on it that you’re not going to have the sinkholes develop again, but unfortunately you’re probably not going to be able to stop that.”
Thomas estimated that if the city were to property remediate the contamination, the costs would rise “several millions of dollars.”
“That would bankrupt the city,” DeBruine said.
Mayor Ron Gunderson said he understood Feuerstein’s point of view, but didn’t know if there was an alternative solution that the city could afford.
“I know what Joe’s concern is, everybody in the city knows,” he said. “If there’s contamination there, then this (situation) is questionable. But if we allow (the parking lot) to deteriorate, what’s going to happen? We’ll have a serious issue with (pollution) leaking into the river.”
Councilman Mike Scheid said he was worried that capping the lot would only offer a temporary solution.
“It would be nice to do it, to make it safe around here,” he said. “However, aren’t we just throwing good money on top of bad (money)?”
The second issue discussed was the cost of the project, the city’s required 10 percent match for the grant and the inclusion of the reconstruction of the Silk Mill Clock Tower within the grant application.
According to DeBruine, city officials reached out to the Meijer Foundation asking for a donation of $420,000. A portion of that donation would fund the 10 percent match of $75,000 for the grant. The rest of the donation would aid in the reconstruction of the clock tower somewhere in Central Riverside Park if the current Electrolux site is eventually ruled an unfit location for the tower.
DeBruine added that no city money would be spent to fund the grant, and if no donation came through, the city would likely decline the grant if the city had to pay for the $75,000 match.
Councilwoman Andrea Belding said she believes the city is asking for too much and suggested the project be scaled down.
“I think we are combining too much,” she said. “I think this is two separate projects with one that needs a lot more conversation and exploration.”
Belding said she believes the clock tower portion of the grant application could be withdrawn and dealt with after Electrolux demolishes the Gibson buildings and remediates that property.
“This was originally deemed more of a trailhead than a parking lot,” she said. “That’s how this needs to be looked at. How do we best spend these dollars to make this a viable spot in our downtown instead of a sea of asphalt?”
DeBruine agreed and said he would discuss the matter further with the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) during their meeting, scheduled to take place today.
Belding added that she felt the DDA could provide a portion of the funding for the city’s $75,000 match out of the DDA’s $35,000 fund balance.
“We’re talking downtown development and a potential $75,000 that the city has to pay,” she said. “(The DDA’s) goal is to help with infrastructure and downtown improvements. They need to do something within the downtown to help show that the DDA is actually a viable entity.”
The council will likely vote on an whether to officially apply for the grant at the Dec. 18 meeting, however, because Jon Bunce resigned from the council at Tuesday’s meeting, the vote will only be conducted by four council members and could result in a 2-2 tie.
Despite not having a vote, Bunce still offered his input on the matter.
“This is state tax dollars coming back to the city of Belding to reconstruct the parking lot,” he said. “We know there’s contamination, there is no cover-up about the contamination. To continue to let the parking lot deteriorate and not even be safe to drive on or be safe for kids to walk on, that’s out of the question.”
At the end of the meeting, council members agreed that the parking lot is in need of repair.
“We have a really (terrible) parking lot that a bunch of families use, there’s a lot of things that go on at (Central Riverside Park),” Belding said. “Regardless of contamination, we have an issue where something needs to be fixed.”