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Wednesday, October 19,2011

A one-sided look behind the curtain

Ferguson, LCC and Oliver Towers

by BERL SCHWARTZ
In the world of rumor and innuendo, a
lot of fingers have been pointing at developer and political powerhouse
Joel Ferguson as the culprit in the sinking of the Oliver
Towers-Davenport University deal.

Gossip has it that Ferguson pulled the
strings that culminated in the City Council vote last week that
delivered the fatal blow to the proposed swap championed by the Bernero
administration. The Council rejected giving the plan a public hearing,
and Davenport pulled out not only of the plan but probably out of
Lansing altogether.


Now comes Ferguson to respond. His
version may or may not be the truth, but it has the advantage of being
on the record, which none of his detractors have been willing to be,
from City Hall to Mason.


Ferguson and I spoke for an hour by
phone on Friday. He answered every question I asked him, he chuckled at
times as I brought up one theory after another about his alleged role,
and he provided new information — some of it surprising.


Let’s start with his views on the
property deal that would have had Davenport trading its two buildings
and 7-acre Lansing campus for Oliver Towers and the city parking lot
next to it.


One rumor was that Ferguson influenced
Carol Wood, Brian Jeffries, Eric Hewitt and Derrick Quinney to cast the
prevailing votes against advancing the deal to a public hearing — a
decision that sent Davenport packing after its president declared the
process too political.


Ferguson said they opposed it not because he was against it but because “it was a bad deal.”


“Davenport is in a flood plain,”
Ferguson said, adding “The Housing Commission will only use 20 percent
of the space.” The commission’s offices are on the first floor of
Oliver Towers, a one-time senior citizens apartment building that has
been otherwise closed since a 2000 fire.


Ferguson thinks the deal might have gone
through had Council had more time to discuss it — and had the mayor
worked with the entire Council.


“Here’s the real problem in Lansing.
Virg has a lot of good ideas for how to move the city forward,”
Ferguson said, citing the Accident Fund development and, more important
to him, the clean-up of Grand Avenue it spawned. But Bernero “doesn’t
like certain Council members” and only talks to those he likes.
Ferguson is confident that if the mayor had talked to all Council
members, “they could have worked something out” and the Davenport deal
wouldn’t have gone south.


The Wood, Jeffries and Hewitt votes
against the Bernero plan were predictable. The Quinney vote was not.
Conspiracy peddlers say it happened because Quinney listens to
Ferguson, or perhaps more.


Sure he listens to me, says Ferguson,
citing a friendship going back to the days when Quinney played little
league football on the city playground Ferguson oversaw. Ferguson says
Quinney does listen to him. And, as Ferguson says unabashedly, “I have
a lot of political influence.” So do most big-time developers —
Ferguson says his city of Lansing property tax bill last year was $1.5
million. Moreover, he is an important political figure around the
state, which translated into a seat on the Democratic National
Committee (until out of loyalty he supported Hillary Clinton). And not
just behind the scenes: He was the first black person elected to the
City Council and is an MSU trustee, a statewide elected position.


The personal and political reasons add
up to this, says Ferguson: “All I have going with Derrick is the right
to make a speech to him. He’s not going to do what I want if he doesn’t
agree with me.”


Could it be that some conspirators lump them together because they are both black?


“Everybody thinks I’m friends with every
black person,” Ferguson says, leaving me to ponder the obvious racism
motivating such thinking.


Which leads to his relationship with
Lisa Webb Sharpe, a black woman who indeed has a connection to Ferguson
— but he says not in the way people think.


Before Webb Sharpe was vice president at
LCC and the spokeswoman for the school’s effort to buy Oliver Towers,
she was the director of the state Department of Management and Budget
under Gov. Jennifer Granholm when the Michigan State Police building
deal went through. Despite howls of protest, the administration agreed
to lease a state police headquarters from Ferguson in downtown Lansing.
The conspiracy believers had Webb Sharpe delivering that deal and now
somehow carrying water for Ferguson in the Oliver Towers deal.


The problem with that theory, says
Ferguson, is Webb Sharpe fought him hard on the State Police deal.
“There are plenty of witnesses to the shouting matches we had,” he
says. It wasn’t until she left the state for her LCC job that Ferguson
got his way, he adds.


So, did Ferguson get her out of the way by helping her get her job at LCC?


Nope, he says, it was a former state
employee of hers, Ed Woods. Ferguson helped him onto the ticket for the
LCC board with Jerry Hollister and Deb Canja, who all won. A year
later, Woods successfully championed her for the LCC job, Ferguson adds.


Another rumor: Ferguson is acquiring
property from the Catholic Diocese around Oliver Towers and it would
benefit him in some development scheme if LCC won Oliver Towers.


Ferguson says he owns one building he
bought 12 years ago from the Catholic Conference, which is a block
north and separated from Oliver Towers by two LCC parking lots and
LCC’s University Center. That’s it.


Not that he didn’t want to own another
one: Oliver Towers. He said he and Chuck Clark, CEO of Clark
Construction Co., think it could make good housing for students who
cannot afford Ferguson’s downtown complex Capital Commons. Moreover,
he’s not convinced Oliver Towers needs to be torn down just because of
a fire in one unit.


But he declines to get into a bidding
war with LCC, which has offered $2.5 million. Besides not thinking he’d
win, Ferguson — an LCC alumnus as well as MSU — doesn’t want to because
he thinks LCC has more important plans for the site.


Nor, he says, would the city “want to get into a bidding
contest with me like the ramp,” referring to another important piece of
the conspiracy, the North Capitol Parking Ramp, across the street from
Oliver Towers. After City Council voted down a Bernero plan to sell it
to LCC because it wasn’t enough money, Ferguson and LCC entered into a
bidding war for it. But the Council, in a 4-2 vote, refused to consider
LCC’s offer unless it could consider Ferguson’s as well. (The four?
Quinney, Wood, Jeffries and Hewitt.)


What’s the connection to Oliver Towers?
Supposedly, the deal was that Ferguson wouldn’t stand in the way of the
Davenport deal if he got the parking ramp. Then, supposedly a week
before the Council vote, the city asked for more money than the $2.9
million Ferguson was offering. Ferguson balked and withheld his support
for the Davenport deal.


Ferguson says the ramp deal is on hold
for a reason having nothing to do with Oliver Towers: City Attorney
Brig Smith told him the city won’t sell him the ramp because Ferguson
is suing the city over what it charged him for building permits for the
State Police headquarters. That suit is scheduled for court in April,
Ferguson says.


As I said, Ferguson told me all that on
Friday, and I figured I’d exhausted all the rumors. Not so: On Monday
an elected official told me Ferguson wants LCC to get Oliver Towers so
he can develop the property for the school and make 20 percent on that.


And the beat goes on … .

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