By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
TRENTON – From plant closures to environmental concerns, Trenton’s top topics were discussed at an Oct. 26 virtual Town Hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-12th District).
Dingell said the challenges and opportunities facing Trenton were the reasons for the online gathering.
She said in the past two years, all of the structures on the former McLouth site have been torn down, ending two decades of the abandoned buildings dominating the site.
Dingell said Trenton faces challenges with the closure of Solutia, a plastic fabrication facility, in December 2020, and the closure of the DTE Energy Trenton Channel coal-burning power plant, as it shifts to renewable energy.
“It is the right course for DTE to take, overall, as we do eliminate coal-fired plants, but it leaves a hole in Trenton’s tax base,” she said.
Dingell said the community has positive events to celebrate, including the opening of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.
“We have never needed it more than we do in these COVID days,” she said. “It is the only international wildlife refuge in our country, and a crown jewel of Downriver.”
Rzeppa said the pandemic has added to the economic uncertainty which the city faces.
“It certainly threw a huge wrench into things and what the future of our economy may hold, both short term and long term,” he said. “It hasn’t been as bad as we initially feared it would be. It’s not been good, but it wasn’t the total doomsday scenario.”
Rzeppa said Michigan’s Proposal A, which changed how schools are funded, and the lack of state-shared revenue, as well as the 2007-08 decrease in housing values, have cost Trenton $12.5 million from the state of Michigan in the past 18 years.
“What that would equate to is about $1.2 million in our budget, every year, right now,” he said. “We literally have about the same general fund operating budget as we did in the year 2000.”
Rzeppa said that while property values have rebounded, city property tax revenue is inhibited by Proposal A.
“While things free-fell 12, 13 years ago, we still are only seeing 1, 2 or 3 percent increases in terms of what we get back, while values may be looking at double digits,” he said.
“So, it is really a convoluted way, a huge issue that I am very passionate about, and how this is broken in our state. It has really impacted what we are able to do here in Trenton.”
He said while attrition among city employees has allowed the city to balance its budget, he will not balance the budget at the expense of the remaining city employees.
Rzeppa said the city had 200 employees in 2000, and now it has about 140 employees.
“We are stretched thin, but we are still able to provide a good level of service to our residents, that they have grown to expect, as they should,” he said. “But people are worried about their retirement and their health care, and their pensions, and that’s not fair, and that is not something that anyone should have to worry about.”
Rzeppa said the city’s $20 million annual budget will be taking huge hits. He said that in 2024, the city will lose an additional $1 million in annual revenue from the DTE site, and hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from the Solutia closure.
“With these upcoming losses, we need new development that is safe, that is sustainable, from an economic and environmental perspective, because we can’t afford to go backwards,” he said. “I think if we get the right developments on these sites, they can add an extra component to our downtown, to help invigorate that.”
Rzeppa said the opportunities the city has with Wayne County and Elizabeth Park, with the Trail Town initiative and with the International Wildlife Refuge are attractions which are going to help the city’s small businesses grow.
“Nobody wants to be the person that has to talk about what cuts are being made for services,” he said. “But I think that we have an opportunity to be able to talk about what these things can add to us, what opportunities we have and what we can do as a community with these properties going forward.”
Assistant Wayne County Executive and Wayne County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director
Rahal spoke about the Wayne County’s finances, county projects in Trenton, park projects and the Crown Enterprises project at the former McLouth site.
He said Wayne County is expecting revenue loss because of the pandemic, and will need to manage its finances accordingly.
“One of the best, easiest, most convincing ways to overcome these obstacles is economic development, generating new jobs, new investment and new revenue,” he said. “Job investment raises the property values all around the city, and that brings in new revenue, so that you can protect against that revenue loss that we are facing because of the pandemic.”
Rahal said that as of Oct. 1, the county finished the $3.2 million West Road bridge project, and in the spring of 2021, Wayne County will begin resurfacing the Allen and Van Horn intersection and getting ready for the rail grade separation, a $35 million project which he said will help relieve a lot of the traffic in the area and open up development Downriver.
“Between now and 2021, we are going to spend almost $1.5 million on Elizabeth Park, upgrading some of the docks, the concession stands, some new roofing, and new things for folks to do in that park,” he said. “We are really excited about that.”
Rahal said the county is proud of the wildlife refuge, and the county spent $550,000 on it recently.
He said last year they announced a $2 million grant to connect all of Downriver so that parks and trails can take people all the way to the Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park in Detroit.
“We are very focused on providing more park space, more outdoor activities, and tourism, which the wildlife refuge is certainly a part of,” Rahal said.
He said he knows small businesses have been hurt by the pandemic, and noted that 31 Trenton businesses recently received help from the Wayne County Executive’s $50 million Small Business Grant Program.
“It’s not enough, and certainly, we got to do more, but I am very happy that we were able to get some of those folks some money,” Rahal said.
He also spoke about the past, present and future of the former McLouth site. He said the county’s priority was to make sure the property ended up with a buyer who would be obligated to do something with it.
Rahal said Crown Enterprises presented the best offer for the land, and it has worked out agreements with respect to monitoring and reporting to the Wayne County Land Bank, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
He said the development agreement required Crown to spend at least $20 million on the site, to take down the buildings within two years, and to not store petroleum “pet” coke on the site.
Rahal said Crown has agreed to employ local hiring practices, and to spend $250,000 on philanthropy in Trenton.
“There are portions from Jefferson that you can see that water,” he said. “Forty buildings knocked down, monitoring agreements with the EPA and EGLE, millions of dollars invested in the city of Trenton and millions of dollars in cleanup.”
Most importantly, Rahal said the actions got the site put on the national priorities list for cleanup.
“It means not only are there private dollars being spent on that site, it means that federal dollars are coming back into our jurisdiction,” he said. “Under this president, Michigan has been a donor state. We have not seen our fair share of federal dollars coming back into Michigan.”
Rahal said the development still has a long way to go, and that it is not unusual for people to be nervous about a logistics facility.
“Today’s logistics are not your grandfather’s logistics,” he said. “It is much more surrounded in environmental issues, in optimization for traffic, because they want to move things fast, just like everybody else.”
He asks residents to keep an open mind about the future Crown Enterprises development.
“I am really happy that we have gotten to the place that we are at,” Rahal said. “We cannot take our eye off the ball because we are not there yet.
“To do this – and to do this right – we have to encourage and facilitate development, to make sure we end up getting those jobs and investments, because that is the next half.”
Next week: Trenton town hall, part 2.
The Nov. 8 edition will include comments from: Susan White, manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge; Brian Kelly, EPA onsite contact for the former McLouth site; Ben Felton, senior vice president for DTE Energy; and Michael Samhat, president, Crown Enterprises.