SWARTZ CREEK — With summer on the horizon and many of the Stay Home, Stay Safe orders being lifted, the park board is eager to make some progress on projects that have been on hold since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.
One project, however, is proving to be a little trickier to move forward: the Mary Crapo ballfield and greenspace.
“We’re at an impasse,” said City Manager Adam Zettel.
The city’s involvement goes back to late winter when Communities First, the non-profit organization that has an option to purchase the property from the Swartz Creek Community Schools, rolled out their development plan.
“When we entered into the purchase agreement, the (school) board’s intentions were we didn’t want it to fall into the hands of someone who would turn it into a negative community asset,” said school Superintendent Ben Mainka, who attended the June 3 park board meeting to help sort out some of the details. “We never intended to ask top dollar. We just wanted to make sure it was a good community fit.”
Because the property contains one of the school district’s baseball fields, the purchase agreement included a clause requiring Communities First to maintain the field or pay the district $70,000 to build a new field.
“What would be optimal is to move that field to one of our other locations closer to school buildings,” Mainka said. “However, we are more than happy to work with the field in its current location. We’d be willing and able to provide some assistance in terms of upkeep.”
Communities First initially proposed to turn the shuttered school into 40 apartments for senior citizens, and build several single-story units at the south side of the property. Mainka said the school board was “not aware of any kind of additional buildings they were planning to use on that greenspace.”
In addition, the concept “did not go over well” with residents in the Mary Crapo neighborhood, Zettel said.
“They would like to see (the south side of the property) left open,” he explained. “So, Communities First amended their plan.”
The amended proposal eliminated the one-story units and included an offer to lease the south side of the property, just less than three acres, to the city for use as a park, with one caveat: that the city maintain the baseball field – per the expressed wishes of neighborhood residents – for at least 45 years.
The park board rejected the offer, saying it was too restrictive, and if the city is going to invest public funds into maintaining the property, the city should determine how it will be used.
“We agree,” said Mainka. “Having it strictly as a ballfield is too restrictive. Their desire is we relinquish the $70,000 clause because we can use the field that’s there. If we’re going to continue to use it, we need reasonable assurance that … it will be maintained as ballfield in perpetuity.
“I fully support the park board’s decision. It boils down to, we need them to execute the purchase agreement as agreed upon, or ensure we have that ballfield, and we’d certainly be willing to help maintain it. That’s where we stand at this point.”
In conversations with Communities First representatives, “they’ve indicated the ballfield needs to stay,” Zettel said. But the city is not interested.
“Communities First can maintain it or pay the schools, but they should not dictate how we, as a community, use it,” he said.
“Either the schools get to use the field and it’s their field, or we get to use the space as we want,” said park board Chairman Jim Barclay.
Rae Lynn Hicks, vice chairwoman for the park board, asked whether the ballfield would be “a dealbreaker for the whole thing.”
“Will they just walk away?” she asked.
Mainka said it’s unlikely that Communities First would scrap the plan.
“They’ve spent the better part of year and half doing engineering, drawings and prints,” he said. “I’d find it hard to believe they’d walk away with the amount of investment they’ve already placed in planning and preparation.”
Communities First is seeking state and federal funding for the project, he noted, adding that they’re looking at a $9 million to $10 million venture.
“We want to be reasonable,” Mainka said. “But to ask us to give it away for free and have nothing is not fair, either. We would like to see them honor the agreement they’re in.”
Whatever happens with the south side of the site, the school board has “a high degree of confidence” that Communities First will create quality housing at the school, he said.
Mainka said he will reach out to Communities First to try to resolve the issue of the ballfield so the project can move forward.