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Secrecy Cloaked Proposal for Huge Theme Park

Grayling officials signed confidentiality agreement, spurring rumors

June 28, 2007 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Patrick Crosson, a developer who wants to build a gigantic amusement park on 1,800 acres of state lands, makes a presentation to the Grayling Township Planning Commission

GRAYLING – Citizens, local elected officials, and the Granholm administration are lining up in support of a 1,800-acre amusement park that its downstate developers propose to build on nearly three square miles of public land here, adjacent to Interstate-75. The planned amusement park promises 2,000 jobs and would be among the largest in the Midwest. But its path to construction is subject to a host of local and state environmental and land use approvals, and some of the most important early agreements and management decisions were deliberately kept secret from the public.

An investigation by the Michigan Land Use Institute found that, 16 months ago, when executives from the company representing the project, Axiom Entertainment of Rochester, Mich., came to town, they convinced everyone sitting on the Crawford County Economic Development Partnership Board to sign confidentiality agreements regarding the park. That park, which would be called Four Seasons, will be built by a brand-new company, MainStreet America Inc., which is closely related to Axiom.

That in itself is not terribly unusual in the give and take between developers and local development promoters, say economic specialists. But what was unusual, they said, is that among those signing the agreements were two elected township supervisors, a city manager, a county controller, and David Stephenson, the elected chairman of the Crawford County Board of Commissioners.

Mr. Stephenson now faces a potential conflict because MainStreet America is expected to ask the county board to issue millions of dollars in public bonds in the future to help finance the park.Grayling Township Supervisor Terry Wright also signed the agreement and may face a similar problem, because his position makes him a key source of information for those in the township who make important decisions to allow or halt the planned park.

The Institute’s investigation also found that anyone who signed the agreement and violated its promise of confidentiality by publicly discussing the amusement park plans without Axiom’s or MainStreet’s permission, in theory at least, faced legal action under the terms of the contract.

"As an elected official, I’d be insulted," said Judy Nadler, a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California and an expert in government management principles. "It really begs me to ask the question: What is it they are talking about and why do they not have enough confidence in the process and the integrity of elected officials?"

Defending Confidentiality
The leader of the Four Seasons project, Patrick Crosson, who is Axiom’s special projects director and the principal investor in MainStreet America, said the confidentiality agreements were needed during his company’s initial assessment of the park’s feasibility in Crawford County. He said he also wanted to protect the business model the two companies—which share a Rochester address—are developing.

Mr. Stephenson said that he signed the confidentiality agreement as a member of the county economic development board, and that he told Mr. Crosson that the agreement would not apply to his position on the county board.

"I made it very clear to Mr. Crosson that when you come to the county, that’s a public meeting, and whatever we discuss is public," he said.

The secrecy agreements, though, prompted months of wild rumors in Grayling about the project. Some now question whether government officials in the county blurred the line between public representation and private interest. Mr. Stephenson, for example, is the president of AJD Forest Products Company, which sits immediately adjacent to the site of the proposed amusement park. AJD, according to online filings, provides wood waste products to a nearby cogeneration plant that Mr. Crosson has said would supply energy to the park.

"It certainly sends a troubling message to the public," Ms. Nadler said of the confidentiality agreement. "These folks are elected to do the public’s business, and they are required to do that business in full daylight."

Local government officials were quick to defend their actions. Like Mr. Stephenson, they insisted that their role on the economic development alliance was separate from their role in duties such as overseeing permit hearings for new developments. Such confidentiality agreements, they said, are not unusual and that they acted in the best interests of the county. Mr. Stephenson said his independence on future issues presented to the county Board of Commissioners is not in doubt.

"Our community is in bad shape economically and everyone knows that," said

Mr. Wright, one of the township supervisors who signed a confidentiality agreement. "If this amusement park comes together, it’s going to be a huge, huge benefit to not only this county, but all the surrounding areas, too."

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources said they were not asked to sign any confidentiality agreement. A spokeswoman for Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm would not answer questions for this article.

Jobs, Opportunity, Development
The overwhelming sentiment of Crawford County residents is for the park to be approved and built. For instance, when Tommy and Stephanie Fisher heard that a massive amusement park was being proposed just outside Grayling they were ecstatic. Their rural northern Michigan community, located in the picturesque county, has been struggling with high unemployment and low wages for years, prompting longtime residents to say they are tired of enduring a relentless economic storm.

"There’s nothing here. It’s a hole in the wall," said Mr. Fisher, who is 22 and works as an auditor at a Crawford County business to support his wife and two children. "This is just a go-through town on the way to the Interstate, and there’s nothing here for kids."

Securing those jobs will not be simple. MainStreet America must first secure deeds to nearly 1,800 acres of state land from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and then secure local land use permits, meet environmental standards imposed by the Department of Environmental Quality, and secure millions of dollars in tax breaks from the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth. The company will also request infrastructure subsidies from the county and the state department of transportation.

The proposal has stirred intense interest in northern Michigan, which so far has generally conveyed its support. But as it makes its way through the various hearings and permitting steps it also is likely to attract substantial scrutiny in other regions and among other interest groups. At issue is whether a massive amusement park that is dependent on changing state forest boundaries, deeding nearly three square miles of public land to a private firm, and spending millions in taxpayer dollars represents a sound economic development investment for the 21st century.

Mr. Fisher certainly thinks so. "A lot of my friends who I used to hang out with, they are all felons because there’s nothing else to do," he said. "We need jobs here. If this gets rejected, a lot of people out here will be real mad."

But at least some parties are starting to voice concerns about the project. The North Woods Call, a Charlevoix-based newspaper that covers state conservation issues, called the proposal a conservation "disaster" in a recent editorial.

"Concrete, noise and ugly will replace timberlands that now turn dollars for a state forest system going bankrupt," the paper wrote. "Songbirds, eagles, bears, deer, ruffled grouse, and dozens of other critters will lose their homes. Gas guzzling snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles will churn down facilities planned for them."

The Traverse City Record-Eagle also urged caution in the pursuit of the park.

"It could…alter Grayling for good and overnight transform an area best known for its trout fishing, hunting, canoeing and Camp Grayling into the neon-and-glitter capital of northern Michigan, maybe even the state," the paper wrote in an editorial.

Is Management Up To It?
Local officials here say they are convinced that the management team behind the park has enough experience and financial backing to see it through to construction. The project leader, Mr. Crosson, is the founder of a freezer warehousing company in Detroit’s Eastern Market, and has some prior experience financing amusement parks. He previously consulted with a 500-acre theme park in Indiana in regard to securing $10 million in acquisition financing.

Mr. Crosson’s partner, Daniel Cobb, is a documentary director and producer, and is the founder of the downstate marketing firm Daniel Brian & Associates, which also shares Axiom’s address.

MainStreet America’s park proposal also involves David A. Sinacola, a prominent Michigan developer whose companies, the Sinacola Group and Rock and Waterscape, have helped develop golf courses, shopping centers, casinos, and apartment complexes throughout the United States.

Last month Mr. Crosson told the Grayling Township Planning Commission and a room packed with citizens that he and his partners are preparing to build one of the premier amusement parks in America. The park itself will consume 42 percent of the 1,800 acres, and will feature a winter wonderland, a giant water park, a shopping district, public skating, a NASCAR track that converts to a wintertime snowmobile racing track, at least three roller coasters, toboggan sledding complete with a lift for sledding enthusiasts, and an indoor surfing center.

The park’s design also encompasses a convention center, a hotel, a 150-acre segment reserved for unspecified industrial development and a 12-acre spot for a "major anchor" that has yet to be determined.

Mr. Crosson said he and his partners are entertaining the idea of creating a U.S.O. tour section at the park complete with a World War II aircraft carrier, and they've even suggested to Governor Granholm that they would consider putting her face on prominent display in that section of the park.

"We’ve been in conversations with Bob Hope and his family to use his legacy and his touring with our troops for this," Mr. Crosson said. "When we presented this to the governor the first time, we thought it would be kind of nice to see her face on the wall," Mr. Crosson said. "She thought that would be kind of cool."

Green Machines
In addition to meeting with the governor, Mr. Crosson said he’d already met with officials with the DNR and the DEQ. All of these meetings unfolded before details of the proposal were made public. He said the DNR has been cautiously enthusiastic about the proposal, given what he said was the park's environmentally conscious design.

Last week, the Brighton-based renewable energy developer, Partners Green, announced it signed a letter of commitment to install an integrated renewable energy system at the park. The plan is to power the plant from vertical axis wind turbines, horizontal axis wind turbines, solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells, and waste burning. Other components are expected to include energy-storage technologies such as batteries, capacitors, and flywheels, as well as energy efficiency devices.

The entire development is expected to cost $161 million.

"We are committing $60 million of private equity to this project, which is unheard of," said Mr. Crosson. "A big piece of that is mine and I don’t have a crystal ball to say unequivocally we are going to succeed. We have structured this in such a way that if all the pieces don’t come together, the only person embarrassed is me."

Glenn Puit, a journalist and the former lead investigative reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is the Institute’s Smart Growth policy specialist in Emmet County. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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