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Wednesday, August 22,2012

Father and son Jerome

"Not your normal developers" put all their eggs in the Red Cedar Renaissance basket

by Andy Balaskovitz

With a host of outsized personalities involved with the redevelopment of Red Cedar Golf Course, who are the two guys who paired up with well-known developer Joel Ferguson on this ambitious, 61-acre plan to bridge Lansing and Michigan State University?

They’re the father and son team of Leo and Chris Jerome. They can each be seen driving white mini-vans. And they spent an hour and a half Tuesday detailing a shared passion for leaving a lasting footprint on their hometown for generations to come.

While Chris Jerome is the one with his name on a development proposal alongside Ferguson, he said his father “deserves all of the credit in the world for the common-sense idea to put undergrads next to MSU. The details of how that vision becomes reality are what I’m responsible for.” The family owned and operated two defunct car dealerships they hope will be developed as part of the Red Cedar Renaissance project.

Chris Jerome, 44, was born at Sparrow Hospital and grew up riding his bike around East Lansing. He remembers playing on the showroom floor at Story Oldsmobile on the north side of Michigan Avenue. (Story Pontiac is adjacent to the golf course, which the Bernero administration shut down five years ago.) He earned a B.A. in economics from Duke University, an M.B.A. from Harvard and a post-M.B.A. from Stanford University. He spent time in Silicon Valley as a venture capitalist until Oldsmobile started getting phased out in the early 2000s, which had a direct impact on the Jerome family’s car dealership business in Lansing. “I never saw myself leaving California,” he said. It was around Sept. 11, 2001, when he moved back to the Midwest. “I’ve been trying to put together our survival plan to go forward for the better part of a decade now.”

“Lansing is trying to reinvent itself. Ever since Oldsmobile went its way, we’ve been trying to reinvent ourselves,” he said.

Leo Jerome, 70, has lived in the Lansing area since 1962 after college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he worked till he returned to work at the Story Oldsmobile dealership after marrying into the family. “We had no intention to be what we are,” he said, referring to selling cars. “But we had a good life.”

The notion of transforming the area into towns like Madison, Austin, Texas or Chapel Hill, N.C. — the two cumulatively have lived in all of these places — is a strong motivation for the development. “Why not copy what works elsewhere?” Chris Jerome asks.

A review team made up of city officials, the Parks Board chairman and employees at the Lansing Economic Area Partnership selected Ferguson’s and Chris Jerome’s proposal for redeveloping the former golf course from four other plans. (Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann was also a member, but he said just for the purpose of saying yea or nay to whether a plan would interfere with his goal of curtailing the pollution of the Red Cedar River.) Unlike the others, some of which came from national development companies, the Ferguson/Jerome plan has a vision for all 61 acres of Red Cedar. An initial ballot proposal overwhelmingly supported by Lansing voters asked for permission to sell 12.5 acres, with the remaining green space to be used as a public park and storm water management system to curb pollution into the Red Cedar River. The City Council will vote Monday on a new Red Cedar proposal seeking voter permission Nov. 6 to sell up to the remaining 48 acres for redevelopment, which will still include the storm water management plan and green space for park amenities. It passed through a Council committee Monday night unanimously. Chris Jerome said the “12-acre vision cheats everybody,” because it wouldn’t have accomplished the goals of “smart development” — it was “well intentioned but misguided,” he said. “If we do this right, everybody is better off. But it takes a bigger vision.” 

Father and son Jerome are adamant about the private sector maintaining whatever amount of green space is eventually used as parkland, but it’s uncertain how much that will be until a development agreement is worked out. As for yet-to-be determined tax incentives they plan to seek: “Our belief is we have paid taxes without complaint for 60 years. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of programs that exist that have true public benefit? People aren’t against (tax incentive) programs — they’re against the abuse of it,” Chris Jerome said.

What sets them apart from other developers, Chris Jerome says, is that “we only have one thing” they’re working on — the Red Cedar proposal — compared to developers with multiple projects in the air. “People with their eggs all in one basket typically get things done,” Chris Jerome said.

So how did they pair up with Ferguson, the developer of several prominent downtown projects, like the Michigan State Police headquarters and Capitol Commons? Turns out the Jerome-Ferguson ties run deep. Leo Jerome said he first met Ferguson in the early- to mid-1960s. Ferguson was a schoolteacher at the time, about to be the youngest and the first African-American elected to the Lansing City Council; Leo Jerome was working at the Story Oldsmobile dealership. Jerome said Ferguson would come down to the dealership occasionally and eat chicken soup out of a cup for lunch when economic times were a little tougher for Ferguson than today. (This was before Ferguson drove a Bentley.)

Jerome said the friendship solidified after Ferguson bought an Oldsmobile. “He never changed the oil,” Jerome recalled, which soon enough destroyed the original engine. “I changed the engine and we became friends for life. The relationship has been there for over 50 years.”

Leo Jerome spoke for Ferguson when he said the two are reaching a point in their lives when it’s time to consider their legacies — where it’s not about “what you picked up, but what you left behind,” Jerome said.

In the end, maybe father and son Jerome are the right fit for this development. Sure, they’re relatively unknown in development circles. But you might say they fit the cast of what Leo Jerome called “interesting characters” involved with the project — Mayor Virg Bernero, Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann and Ferguson. Chris Jerome’s 6-foot-6-inch frame and his father’s booming tone that segues into interesting factoids every few minutes combine with the family’s passion for an area they watched evolve for over 50 years. 

Chris Jerome supposed it just might be possible for the gang to get along: “We’re gonna have to have meetings in Spartan Stadium to accommodate all the egos,” he laughed.


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