Benson, city plan rec center giveaway
‘We don’t need another church’ community says
By T. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen
“Doing the most good,” is the motto of the Salvation Army. Residents of northeast Detroit think the Salvation Army doesn’t mind its words.
Fifteen-acre Lipke Park and the 10-year old Lipke Recreation Center, 1932 Van Dyke between Bliss and Suzanne, are in City Councilperson Scott Benson’s third district. While the future of the park and facility were being decided by the council July 1 — before angry and anxious community members — Benson was absent. (See sidebar)
Benson’s absence was not crucial to keeping the park, however, community residents said, because he has been the one pushing for the property to be turned over to the Salvation Army.
The other members of the Detroit City Council, except Raquel Castaneda-Lopez and Brenda Jones ignored the citizens’ pleas and approved designating Lipke Recreation Center “surplus property.”
The designation takes the center — built just 10 years ago and closed by former Mayor Dave Bing in late October 2013 after the heating, venting and air conditioning equipment was stolen from the roof — away from recreation and gives it to the Department of Planning and Development.
Russ Bellant, of the HELCO block club in the Lipke area and president of the Detroit Library Commission, said after the July 1 meeting that the City — under both Bing and current mayor, Mike Duggan’s administrations — had been dealing with the Salvation Army, which has yet to present in writing any proposal for the property or a sale price.
The Salvation Army made a verbal statement before a council committee that it is committed to building a church and a sanctuary on the site, Bellant said.
Taking the park away from the Recreation Department and transferring it to Planning and Development Department opens the door for the property to be transferred to the Salvation Army, a plan Benson pushed with neighbors, they say.
Gabe Leland and Mary Sheffield, who with Benson serve on the council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, recommended the designation to the council.
After listening to community spokespersons begging council to “just say the Lipke center is not surplus,” Leland introduced the measure. He said he thought Benson had “done his due diligence. I know he knocked on many doors in the neighborhood next to Lipke,” Leland said.
The comment was met with groans and outbursts of “not true” from Lipke-area residents in the audience. Benson was promoting the Salvation Army plan as he talked to neighbors, people said. He was not soliciting opinions.
Benson describes himself on the city’s website as “an urban planner with a strong commitment to real estate development in Southeastern Michigan.” He has “18 years of experience in commercial real estate, municipal planning, and the community and economic development industries.”
The councilman could not be reached for comment. He was not available by phone, nor did he respond to emailed questions asking why he wanted to give the public property to the Salvation Army and whether or not it was a conflict of interest given his real estate and development business.
Pat Bosch, executive director of Nortown CDC, said after the meeting, three attempts by community groups to meet with council had been cancelled, and letters ignored. Bellant said the group has been trying for six months to meet with city officials.
An emailed request for comment from Duggan was acknowledged, but no response was offered by press time.
At the council meeting, Councilmember Raquel Castaneda-Lopez questioned why the designation had to be voted on immediately.
The property cannot be transferred to (Salvation Army) until the Master Plan item is changed Sept. 4, she said, “There is no advantage to doing it now, unless it facilitates the purchaser’s arrangements.”
Duggan administration’s Recreation Department director, Alicia Minter, told council it was necessary to act now “to avoid further vandalism and deterioration.”
“We are begging you; asking you (to save the park). Our children have no place to go,” pleaded Kim Scott, a community resident.
“I hear what everyone is saying,” said Council President Brenda Jones, “But there has to be a way to pay for the park.”
Diane Allen, former president of the East Outer Drive Block Club Association told the council, “We don’t need another church.” She cited all the other social service programs available in the area, implying the community wants recreation and not further social services.
“It’s time for us to hold on, there’s not much left,” activist Helen Moore told the council. “All you have to do is say it is not surplus property.”
To declare Lipke surplus was the equivalent of saying the council was surplus city property, Patricia Hines said. “It’s your asset as much as ours. We don’t need the Salvation Army.”
Elected school board member Elena Herrada said, “Say no to the EM plans that go against the best interests of the people. If and when the people ever have their day in court, you can say you did not consent. You were elected by the people, not the banks and the foundations.”
After the meeting, Bellant said the neighborhood residents had been promised a walkthrough of the center “to assess the physical condition” on July 11. The community groups are developing a counter proposal to present to the city, he said.
He noted there is $300,000 targeted for Lipke sitting in a Michigan Department of Natural Resources fund. Bellant said, “The city refuses to acknowledge the money.”
Recreation officials said repairing and operating the property would require $2-3 million a year.
Since the Salvation Army is a church, it is not required to report its finances to IRS, according to a nonprofit financial reporting website, GuideStar.org.
John Hale, development director for the Salvation Army Eastern Michigan Division Headquarters in Southfield, had not returned phone calls by deadline.
The city’s recreation department states its mission is “to deliver the highest quality of service in the management of parks and leisure facilities, so that the city of Detroit is a place where children, families, and seniors can grow and flourish.”
The committee recommending the disposal of the Lipke Center deals also with Economic Development Corporation, Downtown Development Authority, Detroit Wayne County Port Authority, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Local Development Finance Authority, Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, Detroit Wayne County Stadium Authority, Zoning and Licensing and Consumer Protection.
In August 2013, political consultant, TV host Steve Hood filmed an interview with Mike West, then program director at Lipke, to talk about the oasis the center provided youth in a “high crime” neighborhood. The video displays the value of what the Lipke Center meant to the neighborhood. Watch it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzDM6AAkesw.
First term Detroit City Councilperson Scott Benson, 44, was arrested Sunday evening June 29, after Southfield police found him slumped over asleep in his city car at a stop light, allegedly drunk.
Benson was charged with operating while intoxicated (OWI), and spent the night in jail.
He was absent from committee and council sessions June 30 and July 1.
Southfield police got a search warrant for a blood draw, which was taken at a hospital. Police will forward a warrant request to the city attorney’s office after receiving results from the blood test. Results can take up to 30 days.
Melvin (Butch) Hollowell, corporation counsel for the City of Detroit, said Benson posted $500 personal bond June 30.
Police impounded Benson’s city-issued 2008 Ford Crown Victoria during the incident. The city will reclaim the vehicle and keep the keys until this matter gets resolved, Hollowell said.
Detroit police stopped City Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr., in January after he pulled out of the parking lot of the Penthouse Lounge bar and restaurant on Livernois without using a turn signal.
Officers said they smelled marijuana in Cushingberry’s car and found an empty bottle of rum the councilman said had been in the car for at least a week, and not consumed that evening.
Police later determined Cushingberry was not intoxicated, and issued him a ticket for failure to signal.