Three years into Mayor Andy Schor’s tenure and we’re still waiting for bold leadership, a compelling vision for Lansing’s future and real progress for the city and its residents. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a convenient excuse for not doing much at all over the past year, but Schor’s approach to leading the city has lacked urgency and direction since the start of his administration.
Now — facing reelection for the first time — comes his thoroughly perplexing proposal to study everything from building a new City Hall, police headquarters, jail and performing arts center to selling off the city’s parking and sewer systems. All of these notions are wrapped up in a single Request for Proposals that seeks to hire a “development professional” to study potential projects, several of which have already been studied ad infinitum. The proposal reads more like a wish list created by someone who expected to hit last week’s billion-dollar Mega Millions lottery rather than a pragmatic approach to getting any of the named projects started, much less completed. The absurdity of the proposal’s scope speaks to Schor’s apparent desire to quickly make up lost ground after a lackluster three years in office. It’s an effort to put an ambitious face on an administration that apparently prefers to create commissions and hire consultants rather than getting anything done.
We have previously opined on our disappointment in Schor’s failure to pick up where former Mayor Virg Bernero — who is leaning toward running again — left off in transforming City Hall into a new downtown hotel. It was an ambitious but workable plan that also would have refurbished the former Lansing State Journal building adjacent to the CATA bus terminal to create a new home for municipal government. The conjoined projects would have had a massive impact on downtown Lansing by securing the long-awaited second hotel to compete with the Radisson, activating one of the most valuable pieces of property in Lansing directly across from the State Capitol, and injecting new life into the downtown’s southern tier by repurposing the moribund LSJ building. Had Schor embraced the plan, both projects would be well underway by now.
Schor said he abandoned the plan because it didn’t include a strategy for relocating the Lansing jail and the 54-B district court. He also noted recently that the city “couldn’t afford” the project. As reported in this newspaper at the time, the hotel proposal would have cost the city nothing. The developer’s long-term lease payments for the old city hall property were designed to cover the bond payments for creating the new city hall. As for the courts and jail, it would be relatively simple to relocate both to a temporary facility while plans were developed and executed to complete those pieces of the puzzle, including the potential for an agreement with Ingham County to expand the existing detention facility in the basement of the nearby Veterans Memorial Courthouse.
We’re also struck by the improbability of finding a single consultant who is not only capable of scoping what appears to be hundreds of millions in prospective new development, but who also has expertise in monetizing city assets like parking ramps and sewer systems. A skeptic might even see Schor’s proposal as an election-year bid to generate campaign cash from developers and the building trades by raising their hopes that large-scale development projects are on the way.
Schor’s all-in-one grab bag of development goodies also comes across as a tacit admission that his team of highly paid appointees doesn’t have the depth or expertise to plan and execute complex development projects. As a result, the city will spend the equivalent of another department head salary, if not more, on yet another consultant. Interestingly, the proposal offers the winning respondent a one-year contract with up to four, one-year renewals, which suggests Schor is at least committed to planning what he wants to do during a second mayoral term. We’re underwhelmed.
In the face of complexity and uncertainty, Schor opted to punt instead of heeding an old African proverb: How do you eat an elephant? The answer: One bite at a time. Consider us at least somewhat wistful for the bullish approach of his predecessor. Although Bernero’s obstinance could be an impediment to getting along with others from time to time, his aggressive style also served the city well by keeping the gas pedal pushed firmly to the floorboard. Schor’s approach is more akin to a leisurely bicycle ride down the Lansing River Trail on a warm Sunday afternoon.
Mayor Schor still may have a chance to redeem himself, at least in the eyes of city voters. If the U.S. Congress and President Biden approve a bailout for state and local governments that helps alleviate the massive budget deficits created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Schor likely will escape a very painful financial reckoning that would almost certainly result in layoffs and city service reductions. (As is, city employees are furloughed on Fridays.) We welcome federal assistance for cities like Lansing because the real beneficiaries are the citizens who need their city government to provide high quality public services and a support system that addresses key challenges like historic levels of violent crime, homelessness, hunger and unemployment. Yet such assistance will only paper over the city’s ongoing financial challenges due to more than $700 million in unfunded legacy costs for retiree pensions and health care and open the door to once again kicking the financial can down the road.
As the 2021 mayoral campaign heats up, we’ll be watching for evidence that Mayor Schor can offer the city more than the friendly platitudes, indecision and aimless meandering we are getting now. We’ll also be looking closely at the alternatives.