But Blue Bridge Ventures, the local developer serving as the catalyst for the project, told the Business Journal last week that negotiations have gone from “cold to pretty warm” since both sides began discussions in July.
A presentation on how Blue Bridge and Hines Interests LP of Houston would relocate the city from its headquarters on Calder Plaza was tentatively scheduled for Aug. 27 at the Committee of the Whole meeting, a gathering that all city commissioners attend.
“We backed off. The city, as well, isn’t ready yet. We’re still rolling, but we don’t want to go in with incorrect or incomplete information,” said Ed Kettle, spokesman for Blue Bridge.
The next earliest date that commissioners can hear the report from City Manager Kurt Kimball’s staff is Sept. 10. But that date isn’t written in stone either. Still, the city and the developers are continuing talks, having met again last Wednesday.
“We are shooting for Sept. 10, but there is no reality to that,” added Kettle.
Kettle said his group and the city have covered most of the major issues that surround moving city headquarters to another downtown location. A few matters, however, need a review of city policy and Kettle said those were the items that still need to be ironed out.
“We feel we’re doing pretty well. The spirit and the tone of the negotiations are certainly much more positive than these have been in the past and that is a real good thing. Staff has been very helpful,” said Kettle.
“We’ve gone from cold to, I’d say, pretty warm on this thing. That’s a huge step, as far as we’re concerned.”
While the developers have been meeting regularly with the city, they also have kept in touch with Kent County Assistant Administrator Al Vanderberg. The county building also sits on the plaza and county employees would also have to be relocated for the 24-story hotel.
“They are being very cooperative, very helpful, just like the city,” said Kettle.
The developers are looking at different sites for the city and the county. But while multiple locations are being included in the talks with the city, Kettle said the county has identified a building that suits its needs.
“They are way ahead of us, to be quite honest with you. (County Facilities Manager) Jim Leach has already got the program put together. He knows exactly what he is looking for, what he wants,” said Kettle. “At this point, we’re just trying to satisfy their needs.”
Kettle said it’s harder to move the city than the county, as more workers have to be relocated from the nine-story city headquarters than the three-level county building, so a larger structure is needed for the city. But both have said that taxpayer dollars can’t be spent on the move and a new location can’t raise the annual operating costs of either entity.
None of the buildings have been publicly identified.
It’s also too early to put a dollar amount on the project. The hotel should cost at least $50 million to build. It’s exact tab will depend on how many rooms it will have. A minimum of 300 has been offered, but 400 are possible. Then the cost to move the city and county have to be added in and that figure is unknown for now.
The cost, however, could climb awfully close to $100 million and that is a total that skeptics of the project feel is too expensive and likely a deal killer.
“We don’t know. I wouldn’t even venture a guess,” said Kettle of the total investment needed. “We’re not site-specific for the city and we’re not detail-specific enough for the county.”
If the developers and the city do meet on Sept. 10, Blue Bridge and Hines hope to have a binding option on a buy-sell agreement with the city shortly after that meeting. If that happens, then the developers will have a better grasp of what the project will cost.
But something the developers do know is that asking the city and county to relocate isn’t setting a precedent, as both have done so recently. Both vacated the old Hall of Justice to make room for DeVos Place, the new convention center.
“Moving the police department, moving the courthouse, taking down the parking ramp — every element of the convention center project is exactly the same as this one. So it isn’t uncharted water,” said Kettle. “But it is difficult.
“This is just another piece of that whole big puzzle of how you shape the downtown urban area. So it is complex. There is a lot of detail. And there are people who are skeptical, saying you can’t do this,” he added. “But it’s already been done. We have a model. We’re not asking the county or the city to do something they haven’t already done.”