Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting (Aug. 17, 2010): About 30 residents attended Tuesday’s PAC meeting, many of them speaking against the city’s plan to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for the Huron Hills Golf Course. Several expressed concerns about what they see as the city’s attempt to privatize the course, which they described as a beautiful, beloved parkland asset. Some said it made no sense that Ann Arbor supported a greenbelt millage to preserve open space outside the city, while selling development rights to parkland it already owns within the city.
The issue drew two city councilmembers to the meeting – Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) – as well as former and current council candidates Sumi Kailasapathy, Jack Eaton and John Floyd. Councilmember Mike Anglin, who serves as an ex-officio member of PAC, also attended. Former planning commissioner Sandra Arlinghaus and her son William Arlinghaus both spoke to PAC, urging them to widen the scope of the RFP so that it might include more creative possibilities, like a location for cremains.
A couple of people also spoke in opposition of the Fuller Road Station project, citing similarities with the Huron Hills situation. In both cases, they said, the city is attempting to use parkland for other purposes. The Fuller Road Station is a proposed parking structure and bus depot, which might someday include a train station.
During deliberations, most commissioners voiced support for the RFP, noting that the golf course – though doing better – is still losing money. [The accounting method used to determine how the golf course is performing financially was a point of contention by some speakers during public commentary.] Several commissioners pointed out that the city is under no obligation to accept any of the proposals that might be submitted. And Colin Smith, manager of parks and recreation, emphasized that the city would retain ownership of the land – there are no plans to sell Huron Hills, he said. He also noted that the RFP calls for proposals to be golf-related.
The plan is to issue the RFP on Sept. 3, with responses due at the end of October. A selection committee will review the proposals and make a recommendation to PAC, probably in December. City council would make the final decision on whether to proceed with any of the proposals.
Huron Hills Golf Course RFP
The city owns two golf courses, Huron Hills Golf Course and Leslie Park Golf Course, covering more than 275 acres. In 2007 the city hired James Keegan, managing principal of Golf Convergence, to evaluate the performance – financial and otherwise – of the courses, and make recommendations for change. This was done in the wake of declining revenues and play at the courses, and debate over whether the land should be put to different use. In his report, Keegan projected that the courses would continue to lose money for at least six years. In May of 2008, city council approved a plan to reinvest in the courses, using funds from the park maintenance and improvement tax.
During staff and city council budget discussions in late 2009 and early 2010, the possibility of pursuing a public/private partnership for Huron Hills was discussed. Though the council never explicitly made a decision on the issue, they made an implicit determination at a budget work session, indicating that staff should develop an RFP to solicit proposals. A draft of that RFP was the topic of discussion at Tuesday’s PAC meeting. [.pdf file of Huron Hills Golf Course draft RFP]
PAC last received a detailed update on the performance of the golf courses at their November 2009 meeting, given by Doug Kelly, the city’s director of golf. But the issue has emerged more recently during public commentary – at the city council’s June 7, 2010 meeting, as well as at PAC’s June 15, 2010 meeting. Several people at those meetings spoke against the plan to issue an RFP. One of those speakers also attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Huron Hills RFP: Public Commentary
Janet Cassebaum told commissioners that they had a big responsibility – they are stewards of Ann Arbor parkland. The city is issuing an RFP that will result in commercial development between Huron River Drive and the Huron River, she said. “We are not fooled by the language in the RFP – this is commercial development.” The golf course’s “front seven” is the gateway to the city – a city that prides itself on open space and parkland. Residents call Ann Arbor “Tree Town,” she noted. But instead of open space and beautiful trees, people will see an ugly fence, lots of netting, lights at night and a large parking lot. “Do what you are charged to do – reject the RFP,” she concluded, “and preserve the parkland.”
Ted Annis asked commissioners to declare the RFP “dead on arrival.” It was ill-conceived and should never have been drafted. It amounts to a constructive sale of city parkland, he said – and it doesn’t matter what other terms they use to describe it, like “lease” or “use agreement.” It’s a constructive sale for 20 years, worded in a way that’s intended to circumvent the city’s charter amendment, which prohibits the sale of parkland unless approved by voters.
Annis then pointed to the city’s greenbelt program. Voters approved a millage used to buy development rights for properties surrounding Ann Arbor. Yet inside Ann Arbor, the city is prepared to sell development rights to its parkland, Annis said. “This should offend you the way it offends me. It’s really very disturbing.” Finally, Annis – describing himself as a businessman who’s good at cost accounting – noted that the city makes an economic argument for its approach to Huron Hills. But the cost accounting used for the golf operation is inconsistent with the financial view that the city takes of all other parks, he said. If the golf operations were treated like other parks, you’d find that they actually make a modest net contribution to the city’s general fund, he said – the economic argument if false. He urged PAC to keep the integrity of the commission and stand up for greenspace.
Ann Schriber began by saying she didn’t understand why the city council wants so badly to dismantle Huron Hills – one of the most beautiful open spaces in the city. The city hired an expensive consultant to look at its golf courses and came up with a proposal to sell part of Huron Hills for development, she said. There was a great huge hue and cry over the possibility of selling Huron Hills, and the city backed off, she said, but not for long. Now, this RFP is looking for a public/private partnership to make the golf course pay for itself. If that means a driving range, then it will result in lights, fences, nets and buildings, she said – and there goes the beautiful open land, which can’t be taken back.
Schriber said she’s not a golfer and doesn’t live next to the course, but she drives by it nearly every day and takes great pride in it. She always points it out when she gives tours to potential newcomers to the city. When Ann Arbor was named by Money magazine as one of the top small cities in the country, they mentioned specifically the golf courses, she said.
Like Annis, Schriber mentioned the greenbelt millage that voters approved, providing millions of dollars to protect open space and greenspace. She held up a 2005 clipping of a front page article in the Ann Arbor News, which reported that the city had spent $5 million to protect four farms for the greenbelt. Now the city wants to sell what it already owns, and which benefits all the citizens of Ann Arbor. “This makes no sense to me,” she said. Schriber said that a current councilmember’s wife made a statement to former councilmember Mike Reid when this issue of selling part of Huron Hills came up before, calling it a “short-sighted, lame-brained plan.” The same woman wrote to mayor John Hieftje, Schriber said, asking him to save Huron Hills for everyone who enjoys it, from golfers to walkers to sledders to those who drive down Huron Parkway.
Nancy Kaplan read a letter written by Paul Bancel, who she said couldn’t attend the meeting. He’d sent a longer version to city councilmembers, she said. The statement was directed to councilmembers Mike Anglin and Christopher Taylor, who serve as ex-officio members of PAC. [Taylor was absent from Tuesday's meeting.] If the proposal goes forward to build a commercial driving range on some of the most prime open space in Ann Arbor, “a great tragedy will occur.” Taxpayers are paying a tax to support the greenbelt outside the city, yet city officials propose to eliminate some of the most beautiful and visible greenspace within the city limits. It goes against the PROS plan (the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan) and all the efforts to beautify entrances to Ann Arbor.
The main reason given for commercializing Huron Hills is an accounting entry in the general fund, Kaplan continued. Golf operations, cash-on-cash, will contribute to the city overhead in 2011 and this contribution will continue to grow. Huron Hills is the people’s golf course, and Leslie Park is the championship course – they complement each other and depend on each other. Administrative and overhead costs in 2011 will almost equal the general fund subsidy. These costs will continue, regardless of the fate of the golf course, she said. Why have expenses been allowed to double in less than five years? Bancel served for the past two years on the golf advisory task force, and at every meeting the emphasis was on revenue. Revenues and rounds have increased substantially, but it is now time for a discussion on costs. Building a driving range is not the way to cut costs. Closing beautiful, historic Huron Hills, which has been a golf course for over 90 years, is an irreversible act and it should not happen.
James D’Amour said he wasn’t a resident of the Ann Arbor Hills neighborhood, but he feels like one. Huron Hills is probably the most beautiful golf course in Washtenaw County, he said – “and that’s saying a lot.” He said he was driving past Huron Hills recently and gnashed his teeth recalling something that PAC commissioner Tim Berla had said a couple months ago. Berla had “rather callously” said if you don’t like the charter amendment, change it, D’Amour said – in reference to Fuller Road Station, and the city charter requiring voter approval of the sale of parkland.
It’s pretty clear what the voters wanted, D’Amour said – any transfer of public parkland should come with a public vote. On this basis alone, PAC should reject any consideration of this RFP. It seems as though the city is at war with its parks system and its assets, D’Amour said. He added that he’s a strong supporter of the greenbelt but said it sends a puzzling message when the city is acquiring property in the greenbelt but selling property – “or whatever the heck we’re doing with our parklands” – in the city. It’s not right or necessary, and PAC should dismiss the RFP out of hand.
Noting that she isn’t a neighbor to the golf course either, Ethel Potts said the parks belong to all of us. She assumed that commissioners knew a lot about the RFP – that at the very least, they’d been asked to help write it. The public counts on PAC to protect the parks, she said. What benefits will this RFP bring to the public or the parks? If the city removed its administrative charges, the golf course would be even more successful. The RFP might be tempting because a proposal could bring in more money to the parks system through the lease or rental of Huron Hills– as is planned with Fuller Road Station, she said.
But Potts warned that the parks support from the city’s general fund would be reduced proportionally. She also cautioned PAC to look very carefully at the businesses that respond to the RFP – what’s their history, and how are they doing in the current economy? Potts concluded by saying that if PAC hadn’t been asked to help write the RFP, then it was a disgraceful disregard of an advisory commission.
Bill Cassebaum posed some questions about the RFP, which he said PAC could address during their discussion. On page 26 of the RFP, the business arrangement is defined as a contract to accomplish a specific purpose. Yet to him, it walks and quacks like a lease. Does this circumvent Section 14A of the city charter, which requires concurrence by at least eight members of city council? he asked. On page 12, it refers to income from driving range rentals. Does this mean that development of a commercial driving range will be acceptable?
On page 22, the RFP states that the city has the right to use the premises for conferences, meetings and so forth. Does this mean that development of a conference center is acceptable? On page 14, under assumptions, the RFP states that the contractor guarantees not to abandon or otherwise breach the contract. Cassebaum said he didn’t see any backup to the guarantee, like posting a bond. If it’s covered elsewhere in the RFP, he said he couldn’t find it. He also said he didn’t see any prohibition against assignment of the contract, or subcontracting, to third parties. On page 23, the contractor certifies that it has no personal or financial interest in the project, other than the fee it is to receive under the agreement. Will the city be financially obligated to the contractor?
William Arlinghaus said he owns a home in Ann Arbor and lives in Grand Rapids, and went to high school and college in Ann Arbor. He’s now president of Greenscape Michigan, a cemetery corporation. Cemeteries are one of the best ways to preserve greenspace in an urbanized environment, he said, and so are golf courses – the two uses can be blended fairly well. The purpose of the RFP is to generate more revenue for the city, he said, adding that he was capable of giving them a proposal that night that would preserve the golf course’s natural features, allow it to operate as an 18-hole golf course, and double its revenues without destroying any natural features.
If they must move forward with the RFP, he urged them narrow it and have it be considered only as an 18-hole course. At the same time, they should widen the scope of what’s permissible, he said, opening it up to those with experience managing large tracts of land – not just golf course or driving range managers. He said the city can solve its revenue problem with a better private/public partnership that doesn’t require an RFP, and that doesn’t give away, lease or sell the land. There are many other options available. They need to preserve the natural features that make Ann Arbor a great place. The RFP urged responders to think creatively, he noted, adding that there are lots of creative opportunities that can be explored.
Saying she supported what the previous speaker said, Sandra Arlinghaus told commissioners that she is president of Archive Memorials Online, a trust-funded nonprofit based in Ann Arbor. One possibility is the memorialization of cremains, which might be put on a golf course perimeter. Archive Memorials Online has been doing Internet memorialization since 2002 – at the time, they were the only trust-funded nonprofit doing that work in the world, she said.
As president, Arlinghaus said she was there to be helpful in any way that she could. She said she’s well known around town as being a highly creative person, and she’s willing to bring that creativity to bear on the Huron Hills issue. She ticked through a list of ways in which she’s been involved in community service, including previously serving on the city’s planning commission and environmental commission, among other groups. She’s currently chair of the technology committee for the American Contract Bridge League. The technology connection is important, she said, because that’s how memories survive. There are many creative ways to do that, she said.
Myra Larson noted that at city council’s June 7, 2010 meeting, she spoke during public commentary about the Huron Hills golf course, as did Jane Lumm and Leslie Morris. They asked council not to issue the RFP, she said – the council didn’t pay attention to them, so now she was at PAC’s meeting to address the same issue, hopefully with a more positive result. She referred to page 5, section 5 of the RFP:
Environmental and Ground Conditions. Any design or development should incorporate best practice in stormwater management, and if possible highlight other environmentally-friendly design elements. There are no other specific restrictions which impact potential design or site renovations although alternative usage should be aligned with strategies contained in the Parks and Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan. All Respondents should be prepared to address how both ground conditions and operations would be impacted during the implementation phase of their proposal.
The statement is an embarrassment, she said, in a community where education is the main industry, and where the Huron River is a main source of water. She said to keep in mind that the words used in the RFP are “should” and “if possible” – she indicated that this meant there’s nothing firmly required. And references to “land north of Huron Parkway” really refers to the Huron River, she said. Be forthright about what the impact will be on the river – it’s a very important part of this community. Any alteration of the golf course will have a negative impact on the river, she said, which needs all the tender loving care we can give it. Like several other speakers, Larson also mentioned the greenbelt millage. She asked how they could reconcile giving away parkland when the voters voted to tax themselves to acquire parkland.
Betty Richart said she was raised in South Jersey and her father always aspired to raising his family on a golf course, because he thought it would develop character and honesty. He built a course in 1929, and managed to hang on to it during the Great Depression. When she moved to Ann Arbor 45 years ago, Richart said all she wanted to do was to live near a golf course – and she found a home near Huron Hills.
Right away Richart got involved in junior golf there. Over the years she’s taught children golf and she’s taught in Sunday school, and they learn as much about life from the game of golf as they do in Sunday school, she said. Richart said she worked with the U.S. Golf Association for 30 years, and the group gave her $18,000 to bring kids from outside the city to learn to play golf. This is about more than just the little city of Ann Arbor, she said. The USGA is eager to keep parkland for golf because it’s a game that everyone can play, if they can walk.
Describing Huron Hills as a treasure, Arthur Holtz said that installing a driving range would be out of character for what the city is trying to do with its parks. It doesn’t matter if you play golf or just love the vista by the river. He appreciated that commissioners were courteous enough to listen to him and others, and he hoped they would take into consideration more than just dollars and cents. It’s the wrong place for a driving range, which would diminish the area. He hoped they would keep it as a golf course because he thinks Huron Hills can succeed as a golf course.
Wendy Carman raised her objection to issuing the RFP, saying that Huron Hills is in wonderful shape. Play is up, and the addition of golf carts is bringing in more revenues. The course serves the needs of many levels of players, she noted. To issue the RFP breaks faith with the public who voted in favor of the city charter amendment – they believed they had voted for something that would keep the parks public, she said. The golf course would probably be able to support itself financially, she said, if it weren’t saddled with administrative costs that aren’t directly tied to the course itself. Carman said she didn’t know what PAC’s abilities are with regard to stopping the RFP, but she hoped they’d consider turning it down.
Huron Hills RFP: Background
Colin Smith, the city’s manager of parks and recreation, began by saying it would be good to take a few steps back and talk about how this process started. At a December 2009 budget retreat, city council and senior staff talked about a range of “big ideas” to deal with the city’s financial situation. Many of those ideas dealt with parks, Smith said, and one related to a possible public/private partnership at Huron Hills.
From The Chronicle’s report of that retreat:
At Saturday’s retreat, [Jayne] Miller said that compared to a general fund allocated subsidy of $589,000, the golf courses had used $460,000 – so the trend was in the right direction, but the subsidy required was still substantial. Of the two courses, Leslie is showing more improvement, enhanced by receiving a liquor license from the city in 2008.
When the focus then came to rest on Huron Hills Golf Course as the less profitable of the two courses, [Ward 2 councilmember] Stephen Rapundalo lamented: “Here we go again!” It was possibly an allusion to the contentious general election Rapundalo only narrowly won against write-in challenger Ed Amonsen in 2007, when a central issue had been the question of whether the city intended to sell Huron Hills.
Miller said that closing Huron Hills for golf would not mean that it would stop losing money. Even keeping up the property at some basic level of maintenance (not as a golf course) would require a considerable ongoing expenditure, she said.
Hieftje summarized by saying, “I think we’ll have golf.”
At Tuesday’s PAC meeting, Smith said that after the budget retreat, city council next got a more detailed look at possible parks proposals at a Jan. 25, 2010 working session. At that time, he said, the council gave staff a directive to develop an RFP for Huron Hills. [Though the issue was discussed at that Jan. 25 meeting, there was no directive issued then. The topic came up again at a Feb. 8 council working session:
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) said he wanted to learn more about cost savings that could be achieved through private partnerships connected to public golf courses. He asked if the next step would be to issue an request for proposals (RFP) for Huron Hills Golf Course. Jayne Miller said she would recommend issuing an RFP – even though a private golf initiative would not be operational in time to have an impact on FY 2011, the council would get information needed to plan for FY 2012, she said. Margie Teall (Ward 4) stated that she wanted to see that happen.
Sabre Briere (Ward 1) wanted to know why Leslie Park Golf Course was not also being considered for a public-private partnership. Miller noted that Leslie represented a fairly decent chance of becoming self-sustaining and that allowing a private enterprise to take it over would essentially take money out of the city’s pocket.
Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) then introduced an analogy that flummoxed his colleagues sitting on the other side of the table: “We have the wolf by the ears with golf,” he said. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) later asked him to clarify what he meant by that. Taylor then referenced the Jeffersonian analogy to slavery in America, which compared the U.S. relationship to slavery as having a wolf by the ears.
On the question of entering a private-public partnership on the Leslie Park Golf Course, Miller explained that a consultant [Golf Convergence] – who had been hired to look at the courses in conjunction with the creation of the city’s golf task force – found that there was little interest by anyone in either of the two golf courses. Now that the Leslie course has started to show some improvement in its finances [and now enjoys a liquor license], there had been some interest in it. Rapundalo, however, said that entering a public-private partnership on Leslie would be like “giving away our crown jewel.”
The result of the discussion – which Hieftje and Fraser took care to not label as a “decision,” but rather as giving direction to the city administrator – was that city staff will start preparing an RFP for a public-private partnership on the Huron Hills Golf Course.
Huron Hills RFP: Staff Report
Smith pointed out that the RFP hadn’t been issued yet – it was still a draft. Last week it was reviewed by the city’s golf task force, and some changes were made based on that feedback. In some ways, it’s similar to the Argo Dam RFP that was recently issued, Smith said. [See Chronicle coverage: "Two Dam Options for Argo"] It’s not typical that RFPs get public input, he said, but obviously in cases where there’s a lot of public interest, it’s important to do.
Smith reviewed a timeline for the RFP process:
- Sept. 3: RFP issued
- Oct. 29: RFP response deadline
- Nov. 1: Evaluation of responses begins
- Nov. 15: Interviews begin
- Dec. 8: Golf task force review
- Dec. 21: PAC recommendation
- TBD: Selection submitted for approval by city council
- TBD: Contract begins
A selection committee will do the initial evaluation of responses, Smith said. That committee will consist of city staff, and representatives from the golf task force, PAC and city council.
Smith then went over some highlights of the RFP. The purpose is to seek creative proposals, he said. Similar to the Argo Dam RFP, he said, it’s left wide open to see what, if any, proposals come back. It might be a proposal to run the entire 18 holes as it is, or someone might propose a modified land use. But they’d have to do that within the scope of remaining golf-related, incorporating these principals:
- A commitment to growing the game of golf.
- Conduciveness to entry level golfers.
- Accessibility and affordability of recreational golf opportunities, especially for children and seniors.
- To better serve the Ann Arbor golf community.
In the section on objectives, Smith noted that the RFP calls for the respondent to provide a strategic vision for the project, to show how they’d achieve a financial return for the city, and to demonstrate financial stability and experience in similar situations. If someone proposes changing the layout of Huron Hills, the city will want assurances of their financial stability, for example. The respondents also have to address management and oversight, environmental and ground conditions, and provide a development plan.
Smith noted that if a proposal called for changes on the grounds – building or removing things – it would be subject to review by the planning commission, and they’d have to follow city ordinances, like the natural features ordinance. Instead of delving into great detail, he said, the RFP mentions more generally the areas that the proposals need to deal with.
Each proposal will be evaluated with points assigned to different categories: professional qualifications (15 points); proposed work plan – benefits to users (30 points); proposed work plan – financial benefit to the city (40 points); and interview/presentation (15 points).
Smith said it was important to point out that the RFP explicitly states that the city will continue to own the Huron Hills property, and that it will continue to operate as part of the parks system as a fully public recreational facility. The respondent would be an independent contractor, operating under a negotiated agreement with the city. It speaks to the fact that in theory, the selected respondent could be a private operator of golf courses, or it could be a more creative proposal.
The RFP includes mention of a 20-year agreement, but it doesn’t have to be 20 years, Smith said. If American Golf, for example, said they’d like to manage the course, Smith said he doubted they’d want more than a three- or four-year agreement.
Smith also highlighted the section on the proposal’s scope of service, which outlines the tasks that a proposal would need to address. Tasks include an assessment of the current golf course, a proposal of services and a description of how those services would be provided, a staffing plan and a marketing plan. In evaluating proposals, Smith said, it will be important to know that if someone is providing a service for less cost, how do they plan to do that? At that lower cost, is the value good?
There are three pages of “assumptions” that respondents must consider in their proposal. Smith pointed out that the first assumption is that the city will remain owner of the property. Another important one to note, he said, is that if Huron Hills remains a golf course, the city can retain control over the cost of services. It’s still public property, and there for the benefit of the public.
Finally, Smith highlighted another one of the RFP’s assumptions:
The Contractor shall be required to relieve the City of all operating and capital expenses associated with HHGC unless specifically agreed to by the City. Respondents are advised that any request for City-funded capital improvement on-site will be considered only if the project constitutes a public purpose and meets all statutory financing and City debt service conditions.
If a proposal is accepted, it would allow the city administrator to negotiate a contract with the respondent, Smith said. The reality is that the RFP can’t include an example of a contract, he said, because the details will depend very much on the type of proposal that might be accepted.
Smith said that the staff developed this RFP under the council directive as part of a budget process. At this point, they’re looking for feedback prior to it being issued, he said.
Huron Hills: Commissioner Deliberations
Julie Grand, who chairs PAC, began by thanking Smith and his staff for their hard work in developing the RFP.
Gwen Nystuen wanted to know what the process would be to provide feedback. Would they need to make a resolution? Smith said they could give input at the meeting, or email suggestions to Grand by the end of the week, and she would forward those to him.
Nystuen wondered what kind of feedback the golf task force had given. Grand, who also serves on that task force, said they strengthened the language related to the environment, adding mention of the PROS plan. They added the key principle of “to better serve the Ann Arbor golf community,” and gave more weight to the presentation in the scoring criteria.
At this point, it was overall received positively, Grand said, because it’s so open-ended. It’s important to remember that they could reject all proposals, she said, “which is still a distinct possibility.”
Directing his question to councilmember Mike Anglin (Ward 5), one of two ex-officio councilmembers on PAC, Tim Berla asked what the purpose was of putting forward the RFP. Is it because the golf course manager doesn’t like the course any more, or that private industry could do a better job? Why are we doing this?
Anglin said there was never a vote taken on this by council – it was simply a discussion during a work session, and suddenly an RFP was produced. He said he was concerned – is it their task to raise $250,000? Is the city looking to privatize parts of running the park, because it’s getting too expensive? If that’s the purpose, then that should be clear, he said. He said he attended the meetings with the community two years ago, when these issues were first discussed. The golf courses are a standalone enterprise fund, he said, and like most recreational activities, it’s expensive to run. The city hired a consultant to look at the situation, and out of that came several recommendations.
As for Berla’s question – why are we doing this? – Anglin said that council never had an open discussion about that. That comment elicited rueful laughter from some members of the public in attendance. Anglin then noted that councilmember Stephen Rapundalo was there, and could speak to the question if he wanted. [Huron Hills is located in Ward 2, which Rapundalo represents.]
Rapundalo came to the podium, and said that the directive was give to develop an RFP – one of many directives that were given during budget deliberations. There’s no need for a direct vote to give the staff direction on something like that, he said, which was exploratory in nature. It was clear there was an interest to see if they could improve golf operations and the golf experience. From the outset, they’ve been concerned about the long-term sustainability of Huron Hills as a golf course. The staff was given a directive to explore that, and the best way to do that is to seek input through a formal RFP, he said.
Smith added that every recreation facility and operation in the city is being looked at to see if they can be operated more efficiently and effectively. They have to do that, he said. Asking the question of “Are there possibilities?” doesn’t mean it’s a done deal, he noted. But the staff would be remiss if they didn’t ask.
Berla recalled that when the report from the golf consultant was delivered in late 2007, Berla had suggested they talk about closing Huron Hills because it was losing so much money. His personal opinion is that the city should subsidize good activities – which golf certainly is. But they should subsidize those that aren’t provided by others, so that there’s a public interest in providing the service. Then they should think about how much it’s worth to do that. At the time, it seemed to him that the city was subsidizing golf at about $15 per round – “I found that really upsetting,” Berla said.
The purpose of the RFP process is pro-golf, he said – to avoid losing so much money, which is putting a strain on the city budget. He said he’d never want to sell Huron Hills, but he’d previously suggested putting soccer fields or other activities on parts of it. It would still be a beautiful park, but it wouldn’t cost so much to run as a golf course.
Berla then asked who’d make the final decision, assuming there were proposals submitted. Was it the city council? Yes, Smith said. Then what opportunities would there be for public input between now and then, Berla asked. Smith said that when the proposals are submitted and reviewed, they might decide to conduct the interviews on Community Television Network (CTN), much like the interviews for proposals on the development of the Library Lot were televised. Then it would go to the golf task force, he said, which is a public meeting, followed by PAC and city council. Meetings for both of those two entities have opportunity for public comment.
Berla wanted to know if there’s a limit on whether buildings could be constructed. Could someone build a restaurant or auditorium? Smith said those examples don’t tie in with the scope of the RFP, but potentially you could build something that’s related to golf, like a classroom. If so, the project would have to go through the planning commission.
Berla asked whether there was any way that the city could get stuck with the bill for a project at the golf course. Smith said there’s a section in the RFP that talks about how the contractor couldn’t walk away from the project. But if a contract were negotiated, that would likely be addressed in more detail.
Sam Offen said that if the city builds something on city-owned land, it must comply with building codes, but not zoning. What if a private entity built on city land? Smith said that in the case of the Huron Hills RFP, if a proposal called for building on the land, it would be no different than if parks and recreation decided to build something.
Offen asked what a CUB agreement was. [It's one of the forms to be completed in the RFP.] CUB stands for Construction Unity Board – the CUB agreement would require a respondent to use union labor, or to abide by the existing collective bargaining agreements of the appropriate labor unions.
Offen then asked how the city was defining golf. Was it just the traditional game, or could it be something like disc golf? Smith said that right now, the scope of the agreement was for recreational golf opportunities. He didn’t think that disc golf fell into that scope, but it’s something they could look at. There are all sorts of ideas that could come up, he said.
Offen also asked about the interviews. Sixty minutes per proposal seemed like a long time, he said. Smith responded that an hour goes by pretty quickly. He said he’d hope respondents would be able to speak for that long with enthusiasm, passion and strategic foresight.
One part of the RFP asks for respondents to do an assessment of Huron Hills. How thorough would that be, Offen asked – similar to what the golf consultant had done? No, Smith replied. There’s no need for respondents to reinvent the wheel, but they do need to demonstrate that they know about the current operations, as well as the golf course’s history. Last year, there were over 20,000 rounds there, which is a vast increase over two years ago, Smith said. It fills a need, and the proposal needs to reflect that understanding.
Offen noted that two people work at Huron Hills. What does the city anticipate in terms of staffing? Would they be hired – and if not, what happens to their employment with the city? Smith said that people who work at Huron Hills have specialized skills, and he’d want to see how that might be incorporated into a business plan.
Offen said he thought the RFP was a good step, though he knew it was controversial. It gives the city an idea of what kind of creative ideas are out there, with no obligation to do anything. It’s been a very time-consuming process for staff to develop the RFP, Offen said, and he trusts that council is well aware of that. Offen observed that if any ideas are valid, they can negotiate something to the benefit of the city. If not, they won’t. Smith said that even if they don’t end up choosing a proposal, it will allow the city to see how they’re performing, relative to others in the golf business.
Tim Doyle said in his career he’s been responding to government RFPs for 35 years. He described the RFP as very exploratory – you could end up with very diverse proposals, from a putt-putt golf course to a learning center. As a contractor, he said, the thing that’s disturbing about a general RFP is that you have to spend a lot of time writing the proposal, and being careful, because it’s a binding document. He suggested that instead of an RFP, the city could issue a request for information (RFI). The disadvantage is that it would likely yield more proposals, he said. But as it stands, the RFP doesn’t allow for things like a cemetery as adjunct to a golf course. The city might not get any proposals, he said, because no one will be willing to bind themselves to this.
Smith said that the thought behind going with an RFP rather than an RFI is that they did want to be specific that Huron Hills would remain a golf course, or an area for golf. They’re not interested in looking at the possibility of a cemetery. “That’s not the direction we’ve taken yet,” he said.
Doyle said what he heard about the cemetery was interesting to him. They weren’t talking about headstones, but rather about a designated spot for the remains of cremation. Other than having to walk around it, golfers wouldn’t be bothered at all. Doyle also said that the city could write an RFI that was restrictive, and say explicitly that you want certain uses. But for an RFP, you’re asking for a much greater level of detail, asking contractors to tell you exactly what they’re going to do, how much it’s going to cost, and to spend a fair amount of energy doing that. It might cause people not to respond, Doyle said, because they’ll think it’s money and time they’ll just be throwing away.
Smith said the city needs that amount of work to be done, so that they can see what sort of financial return a proposal might have for the city. It does require a level of commitment, he said, and they’ll just have to see what they get.
John Lawter said that there’s a perception, deserved or not, that the golf course is struggling because of the heavy administrative costs that the city charges. If Huron Hills is managed by a contractor, what happens to those overhead charges? Smith replied that until he had a proposal to review, it was too difficult to say.
Offen had another question: Are there other city facilities that are run by an outside contractor? The only one that came to mind was the community centers, he said. Smith clarified that the Bryant and Northside community centers are run by the nonprofit Community Action Network, under a contract with the city. They were hired because the city felt they were better equipped than city staff to provide the services, and it ended up costing the city less. A different example is the Leslie Science and Nature Center, which used to be part of the city’s parks system. It’s now a separate nonprofit, but the city still owns the land and buildings there, and assists with staff and capital improvements.
A public/private partnership isn’t inconsistent with other things the city has done, Smith said. Ann Arbor has an exclusive agreement with Pepsi, for example, as a vendor for the parks system. So it’s not unheard of, Smith said, and he expects to see more of those agreements in the future. And it’s not just about the money – the quality of service needs to be as good as what the city can provide, or better, he said.
Julie Grand asked about retirement costs – would that have to be negotiated? Smith said it was difficult to speak at that level of detail without seeing a specific proposal, but if the golf courses remained as an enterprise fund. And if a worker spent most of his career there, then the fund would bear most of the retirement costs.
Gwen Nystuen noted that Fuller Park and Huron Hills are prime parkland for the city – if the city didn’t own the property, they’d be trying to figure out how to buy the land. Yet they’re now converting them into a quasi-commercial situation. She wanted to know what legal protections are provided to land that’s designated as parkland, as opposed to just public land. What can the public expect? The public has bought these lands, she said, and they have voted to have a say if they’re ever to be sold or if the use changes. Nystuen wanted to know from the city’s legal staff: What is the status of dedicated parkland? (In the audience, Ted Annis raised his hands, giving Nystuen two thumbs up.) Smith said he’d pass along that request.
Doug Chapman said it was his understanding that the reason this RFP came about was because Huron Hills was losing money and it might have to close. This was something they were trying as an alternative – an alternative to closing the golf course. One concern he had was that the term “alternative golf use” was too vague. What does that mean? He suggested it be more clearly defined.
Berla said he wanted to respond to something that Nystuen had said. Everyone knows that parkland can’t be sold – that’s clear. He said he loves to see the public come to PAC meetings, especially since there were constructive comments. But what he counts as the “public will” are the things that the public voted on, like the sale of parkland. The main thing the public votes for are city council positions, and those councilmembers are taking positions on these and other issues. “I hope the public is holding them accountable,” he said. These are the people who are elected – this is democracy.
Berla said he finds it upsetting that they’re talking about what the proper uses of parkland are – it says in the RFP that the use is for golf. That’s exactly what’s in the PROS plan too. He said he finds it strange that they’re talking about this. Regarding commercial uses, what about the farmers market? he asked. It’s really important and a great part of the community, but it’s a public/private partnership. He supports that, saying it benefits the community. What he’d oppose is if he thought there was cronyism – deals that weren’t benefiting the public, but were only benefiting the private entity. In the case of the Huron Hills RFP, it seems like it’s benefiting the public, he said, and it’s a good thing.
Grand clarified that the golf courses are receiving money from the general fund for six years. There’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to receive general fund support beyond that. They can argue about accounting and the municipal service charges, she said, but the point is that based on the accounting that’s used now, Huron Hills is operating at a significant deficit that the parks system couldn’t cover without sacrificing other facilities. Maybe it’s not what people want to hear, she said, but that’s the financial reality. The result of the RFP might be that the city is doing the best it can, and that no one else wants to touch it. Then they’ll have to deal with how to overcome the deficit.
They are trying to keep the process as transparent as possible, Grand said, and she’s open to making arrangements for more public input, if it’s necessary.
Karen Levin said she wanted to acknowledge the work that’s gone into developing the RFP. The intent is to see if there’s a way to manage Huron Hills more efficiently, she said, and if there is, they want people’s ideas. She said she supports that.
Offen asked if PAC could see a revised version of the RFP, after their feedback had been included. Smith said he would send out a revised draft.
Huron Hills RFP: Public Commentary, Round 2
Several people took a second turn at public commentary at the end of the PAC meeting, responding to the commissioners’ discussion.
Nancy Kaplan said she went to the meeting of the golf advisory task force during which the RFP was discussed, and noted that as a member of the public, you can’t participate or ask questions – you’re just an observer. At that meeting it was stated that cash-on-cash, Huron Hills is ahead, she said, and that this fact is not well known. Looking at how the finances are kept is important. Golf is the only recreation facility that’s in an enterprise fund and that must make money, Kaplan stated.
She also pointed out that Huron Hills and Leslie Park are very different courses with very different audiences, and that needs to be kept in mind. It seems that piece by piece, we’re giving away our parkland, she said. It seems there is no protection. When voters supported the idea that there could be no sale of parkland without a public vote, they didn’t realize that everything except a sale would be ok, she said. It’s very disingenuous to say that there’s protection for the parks. Finally, she said, if you work from a flawed premise, no matter how deeply you dig, you won’t come up with a reasonable answer. It’s a flawed premise to say that the way to save Huron Hills is to put out an RFP, which will destroy the vista there. There has to be something that we can count on to protect parkland, she said. She concluded by thanking commissioners for all they were doing.
Betty Richart reminded commissioners that golf is an 18-hole game. Anything that whacks off parts of the course will prevent people from being able to play tournaments there.
Ted Annis responded to comments that Tim Berla made about the city subsidizing golfers. That’s not quite the case, he said. If you apply enterprise accounting to other facilities, like the senior center, they’d have to close. If you apply general fund accounting to the golf operations, then revenues cover their direct out-of-pocket expenses, he said. Add in the half-million-dollar administrative service charge, however, and it looks like they’re losing money. “You’re being misled, completely misled, by this notion that you’re subsidizing the rounds of golf played,” he said. “You’re not.”
Annis also said that they seemed intent on issuing something, though he wished they wouldn’t. If they’re going to, he said, then the request for information (RFI) makes some kind of sense. Finally, he noted that Colin Smith said council gave direction to issue an RFP. But then councilman Mike Anglin said that there was no direction, it was just a discussion. He asked for some clarification on that.
William Arlinghaus said that any proposal he’d make wouldn’t change the golf course in any way – it would probably remain managed by the city. He also asked a question about golf passes, which can now be purchased and used at both Huron Hills and Leslie Park. Would people still be able to do that, if Huron Hills becomes a public/private partnership?
Fuller Road Station
Fuller Road Station wasn’t on PAC’s agenda this month, but commissioner Gwen Nystuen asked for an update. Colin Smith, manager of parks and recreation, indicated that he’d provide an update during his manager’s report. However, he did not mention the project in his report.
At PAC’s meeting in July, commissioners were briefed on the project by Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager. More recently, site plans were filed with the city’s planning department in early August. [See Chronicle coverage: "Site Plan Filed for Fuller Road Station"]
Fuller Road Station: Public Commentary
Two people spoke about Fuller Road Station during public commentary.
George Gaston said his issues were basically the same as the concerns over Huron Hills – it’s just a different park and a different project. He voiced opposition to Fuller Road Station, saying the same arguments against the RFP for Huron Hills can be applied to Fuller Road Station too. He mentioned that he’d given commissioners a copy of an email he’d sent to the mayor and city council. [.pdf of email] Gaston said he hoped PAC could take a stronger stand on these issues. These projects should go to a public vote, he said, and it seems odd that the city is buying development rights outside the city while granting development rights within the city. “Please pay attention,” he said.
Rita Mitchell said she was there to talk about Fuller Road Station, but her comments were applicable to Huron Hills as well. She thanked commissioners for their attention to Fuller Road Station, and said she knows they represent those who are interested in city parks. Residents have supported Fuller Park with their tax dollars since the early 1960s, she said. It’s a core part of Ann Arbor, near the Huron River. She said she appreciated their concerns about the parks budget and the openness of the public process that they address. However, the resolution that PAC sent to council lacks acknowledgment of the citizens’ interest in parks, indicated by the vote that changed the city charter to require voter input on the sale of parkland.
A memorandum of understanding for the use of parkland for 75 years or more is essentially a sale, Mitchell said. Building a parking structure that will last that long will set a precedent that will apply to all parks. The PAC resolution to council didn’t address the precedent issue, she said. Mitchell asked PAC to change their resolution, and make it a recommendation that actually protects parks. Don’t nibble away at the parks with temporary parking lots or leases. “Really think about what the long-term implications are,” she said.
During the second opportunity for public comment, Mitchell said she’d been looking forward to the update on Fuller Road Station – that’s why she’d stayed for the entire meeting – and she wondered what had happened to that.
West Park, PROS Plan Updates
Earlier in the meeting, parks planner Amy Kuras gave an update on West Park, which has been closed this spring and summer for massive renovations. “There are still big piles of dirt in the park,” she said, “but we’re moving them around.” [For background on the project, see Chronicle coverage: "West Park Renovations Get Fast-Tracked"]
The project is about two weeks behind schedule, Kuras said, but should be completed by the end of October. They discovered poor soils that needed to be removed, which set back their schedule a bit. In addition, recent heavy rains have washed out some of the work, she said.
Major changes to the stormwater system are underway, including installation of large swirl concentrators on the west side of the park. Stormwater that flows through these underground concrete devices is swirled in a cylindrical chamber, filtering out a large amount of sediment, oil, grease and other contaminants. The project also includes construction of bioswales – shallow excavated areas filled with native vegetation – that roughly follow the course of the Allen Creek tributary, which flows through the park in underground pipes.
Other changes include seating for the bandshell and a public art project there, the addition of a boardwalk, new stairs coming down the hill from Huron Street, moving the basketball court out of the floodway, and upgrading the condition of the baseball field.
Commissioner Sam Offen asked if the project was still on budget – roughly $3.5 million, funded in large part with federal stimulus dollars. Kuras reported that they’re within the budget’s 10% contingency at this point, and she doesn’t think they’ll exceed that amount. The city is asking the contractor to look at flood insurance coverage, to see if that might cover some of the costs related to recent heavy rains.
Colin Smith, the city’s parks and rec manager, noted that the changes aren’t intended to eliminate water from the park – it will just be managed better, he said.
Kuras also gave a brief update on revisions to the state-mandated Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) plan, which is done every five years. A draft is finished and being reviewed by city staff, and will then get feedback from the PROS steering committee. After that, the draft will be posted online for public input, Kuras said, probably in September or October. The plan will be presented to PAC and the planning commission later this year, before final approval is sought from city council. [For background on the PROS process, see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Planning with the PROS"]
Updates from the Parks & Rec Manager
Colin Smith gave updates on several projects, as part of his manager’s report.
The Argo Dam RFP was issued, and about 12 people attended a pre-bid meeting on Monday, Aug. 16. They toured the site and there were some interesting questions, he said. [For details on the Argo RFP, see Chronicle coverage: "Two Dam Options for Argo"] In the coming weeks, workers will be removing about 75-100 dead or dying trees on the dam’s embankment, as part of the vegetation management plan, Smith said. They might need to close the trail on certain days, depending on the work, he said.
He gave updates on efforts to raise revenues and cut costs at the Ann Arbor Senior Center and Mack Pool, which were both at risk of closing during the last budget cycle. [For details, see Chronicle coverage: "Shoring Up the Ann Arbor Senior Center"]
The final numbers for the FY2010 fiscal year, which ended June 30, will be presented at PAC’s September meeting, Smith said. Overall, parks did very well, he said. Several facilities – including Vets pool, the senior center, and the golf courses – exceeded the revenue that had been budgeted for the year.
Smith also described a new partnership the city has with Stonyfield Farm. The organic yogurt company will be in the city’s parks through Oct. 1, passing out free samples, and will donate $15,000 to either the senior center, Mack Pool or the parks and rec scholarship fund. Residents can “vote” for one of those options by depositing Stonyfield lids in containers at groceries throughout the area. More information about Stonyfield’s efforts in Ann Arbor is on the firm’s website. Smith described it as a nice partnership, giving exposure to some of the city’s parks and rec programs.
Present: Tim Berla, Doug Chapman, Tim Doyle, Julie Grand, John Lawter, Karen Levin, Sam Offen, Gwen Nystuen, councilmember Mike Anglin (ex-officio). Also Colin Smith, city parks manager.
Absent: David Barrett, councilmember Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)
Next meeting: PAC’s meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 21 begins at 4 p.m. at the studios of Community Television Network, 2805 S. Industrial Highway. [confirm date]