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Wednesday, July 3,2013

Soccer saga

by Kara Hope
You might already know that Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero recently signed a deal to let a private company run the Kenneth A. Hope Soccer Complex. Maybe you thought, “So what?” After all, outside the soccer community, did anyone even know that Ingham County ran the facility for the past 15 years? Does anyone outside the soccer community care who runs the place?

Well, you should care. Why? Because a facility that was constructed, maintained and operated with your tax dollars is being given — like a big shiny present — to a private enterprise. I can tell you how this happened, but only the mayor could tell you why.

First, some background information: For many years, the City of Lansing used the site of the Hope Soccer Complex as a garbage dump. Using Michigan DNR grant funds, the city and county rehabilitated the property. At least $2.4 million in state, city and county funds was spent to transform the property into a soccer facility. In 1998, the county agreed to lease the property from the city for $1 yearly. In return, the county agreed to operate the complex, which was later dedicated in Ken Hope’s name. As required by the grant, the original agreement had a 15-year term, which ends on July 27. 

In late spring, some rumors surfaced about Hope Soccer Complex’s future as a county facility. At our first opportunity, several county commissioners, including myself, addressed these rumors during a May 21 meeting with the mayor. At that time, I expressed two things: (1) that Hope Soccer Complex should remain a public soccer facility and (2) that the county wanted the first opportunity to renew the lease for at least six months. For his part, the mayor stated in no uncertain terms that the city didn’t want the complex and that, without a lessee, he would close it. Consequently, county representatives left this meeting confident that we had ample time to put the six-month lease extension through our committees, allowing the full board to vote on it well before July 27. 

Some time after that May 21 meeting, Lansing Economic Area Partnership President and CEO Bob Trezise convinced a reportedly reluctant mayor to meet with Kevin Mullin, who co-owns Michigan Chill SBS Soccer Club. [Editor’s note: The city has entered into a lease agreement with Mid-Michigan Sports Turf LLC. Mullin’s wife, Julie Mullin, says she is the owner of Mid-Michigan Sports Turf and that Kevin Mullin does not play an operating role in it.] On June 10, the county learned that the city would not renew its lease. The county responded with two letters, asking the city to grant a six-month extension. And I personally called and wrote the mayor, asking him to slow the process and to reconsider. The mayor did not respond to either the county’s official communications or to my personal letter. 

To date, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners has not acted to close the Hope Soccer Complex. The county has budgeted funding to operate it through the end of 2013. 

The mayor didn’t engage in much meaningful, direct communication with the county, but his staff didn’t hold back on buzzwords. “Win-win” and “public-private partnership” have been used to sell the mayor’s decision to the county Soccer Advisory Board and to me. The problem with buzzwords is that they’re usually used to distract from what is really going on. 

Of course, the city picked one winner here: Mid-Michigan Sports Turf has won and won big. The business will be housed in a multi-million dollar facility for the next 59 months for a mere $1,000 yearly. There is no question that the new management will raise the facility’s user fees. This means that small soccer groups and groups comprised of folks of modest means might no longer be able to use the facility. So they can’t possibly be the other winners. The taxpayers can’t be counted as winners either; they just footed the bill for this extravagant prize. 

There are examples of true public-private partnerships — situations where both sides leverage their resources to benefit even more people than either could have alone. But this isn’t what has happened with the Hope Soccer Complex. The Hope Soccer Complex has been privatized, and only an individual or a small group of individuals will profit. So this is a partnership only if you consider a gift giver and a gift recipient to be partners. (A fairer analogy might be that of a landlord and tenant, but they aren’t aptly called partners either.) 

Speaking of buzzwords, if regionalism is important — if it is more than an empty buzzword — then it means that those of us in local government must play for the same team. After all, we are all working for what is best for residents, and the best will only come about if we listen to one another, trust one another and act in good faith. Following this ethos would be a more enduring legacy for Ken Hope than a name on a soccer complex. 

About Ken Hope: Ken was a businessman in Holt, and he served the public in many capacities — on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, the Road Commission, the Airport Board and the Delhi Township Board. By all accounts, he was a kind and generous person. My husband, Evan Hope, is Ken’s nephew.

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