Officials Propose Liberty Square As Site For Convention Center
Officials propose Liberty Square as site for convention center
By MICHAEL KERSMARKI
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Liberty Square is again being pushed as a possible downtown Ann Arbor convention center, but the University of Michigan — which would have to be a key player — isn’t leaping at the idea.
About a dozen officials representing downtown interests met Wednesday to discuss a proposal to convert the vacant Liberty Square retail space into a convention center that would include banquet and meeting space capable of hosting conventions of 1,200 to 1,500 people.
Other downtown convention proposals have died in recent years for lack of city or private financial support. That includes a $43.7 million hotel and convention center proposed in 1989 by Liberty Square owners Joseph F. Slavik and Melvin B. Rosenhaus of Farmington Hills.
The latest proposal is a smaller, $7.7 million project that differs from the 1989 proposal in that it would not have an attached hotel and does not seek significant public funding.
Supporters say special assessment taxes on hotels, restaurants and Liberty/State merchants and a leasing arrangement with the university would cover much of the estimated $1.1 million annual debt service and operating costs.
“The beneficiaries have got to agree that it’s good for their business and be willing to pay for it,” says Peter Allen, who represents owners of the now-closed Liberty Square retail center. “We can’t ask the taxpayers in Ann Arbor to subsidize it. It’s not fair and they won’t do it.”
But the U-M — which recently has been advocating city/university joint ventures — says it needs more time to finish its own study of convention business before even talking about Liberty Square.
None of the seven invited university executives attended the Wednesday meeting to discuss the proposal. Others who did attend included Allen, City Councilman Joe Borda, R-5th Ward, Downtown Development Authority Chairman Jim Hart and Jacobson’s store manager Jon Gordon, who also is on the DDA. They hope to meet again Feb. 27.
But even if the university and merchants believe there would be enough convention business to justify their support for the project — which observers say is far from a sure thing — other hurdles still need to be crossed:
■ Exactly how much money would be generated by new convention business? A previous study estimated more than $22 million a year, but that included revenue generated by a new hotel.
■ Can existing long-term parking contracts at the adjacent Liberty Square parking ramp with Great Lakes Bancorp, The Ann Arbor News and other businesses be shifted to free up more than 300 parking spaces for convention traffic?
■ Would convention business be deterred by lack of an on-site hotel, especially during Ann Arbor winters, and would a continuous bus loop between downtown hotels be acceptable to conventioneers?
■ Will a recently signed sales agreement culminate in a completed deal to re-open the former Ann Arbor Inn — which convention supporters say is essential for a downtown convention center.
“The biggest difficulty is that this does not have an attached hotel. That’s a real problem,” says architect Dan Jacobs, who had headed an effort for a downtown convention center and hotel that was abandoned last year. Jacobs attended Wednesday’s meeting.
Allen says Slavik and Rosenhaus have lowered their asking price to $3 million for the dormant retail center — which Allen says is less than half the money they have invested in the two-story complex.
The price has been cut because the two developers are paying debt service of more than $80,000 a month on the empty center and want to get out from under it. The sagging economy has killed a plan to convert Liberty Square into a sports mall.
For now, the university doesn’t feel the time is right to “engage in any substantive discussion,” though that shouldn’t close the door on U-M participation, says U-M spokesman Walter Harrison.
Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority
J. L. Jacobson Co.
Great Lakes Bancorp
Ann Arbor Inn
Ann Arbor News
515 E Liberty St