GRAYLING -- The state's natural resources director won't say whether she'll approve a proposed land sale today that could pave the way for a multi-million dollar, taxpayer-supported amusement park in Crawford County.
"I'm going to listen to the rest of the testimony first," said Rebecca Humphries, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "I still have some outstanding questions on this issue."
Humphries may approve, deny, modify or delay the sale of about 1,700 acres of state forestland in Grayling Township at today's Michigan Natural Resources Commission meeting in Lansing, following years of talks with developers.
If approved, the potential $5.2 million land deal would allow developers to step toward a $161 million theme park called Main Street America near Interstate 75 and Four Mile Road, just south of Grayling.
Many local residents support the project, believing it could be an economic catalyst for the entire region, providing needed jobs and revenue to Crawford County and surrounding counties.
Others worry the development may create environmental problems. Some opponents are critical of the estimated $11.5 million in state grants that could be awarded to the developer for infrastructure improvements.
"If approved, it's not a done deal yet," said David Freed, DNR chief of land and facilities.
There are a number of stipulations that must be met before the land sale is finalized, specifically independent confirmation of complete financing, Freed said.
In addition, the state also requires the developer to acquire all needed state and federal environmental permits; structure of the land sale in four phases; placement of both property deeds and purchase money in escrow and released in time with the development; and, an official start date for work. The whole deal will collapse if work hasn't begun by then.
"Right now we're moving along. I can't comment on financing, but we are pleased with the progress," said Susan Haddad, spokeswoman for Main Street America and the affiliated marketing company, Axiom Entertainment of Rochester. "If (Humphries) approves it, this means we can go ahead with the next step in our plan: contacting the investor group and letting them know it's been approved."
Humphries said questions remain within the DNR about whether the theme park is financially viable and sustainable, a sentiment included in some of the public input she reviewed. Additionally, she faces some political pressure to approve the deal, she said.
State Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, said he and state Rep. Matt Gillard, D-Alpena, would co-sponsor a bill to sell the land to Main Street America if Humphries opts against the deal.
Humphries won't directly address political arm-twisting today, but instead plans to focus on the developer's failure to provide financial information the DNR has long sought.
State officials are concerned about possible environmental impacts of the theme park, the personal bankruptcy history of lead developer Patrick Crosson, a failed theme park project in Indiana that Crosson worked on, plus a federal investigation into an apparent theme park investor, Humphries said.
The DNR received more than 100 letters and e-mail messages about the theme park in recent months, plus petitions of support with about 2,000 signatures. The letters are about evenly split between supporters and opponents, Freed said.
Among those planning to attend today's meeting in Lansing is Grayling Supervisor Terry Wright.
"If the project is successful -- and there are no guarantees, although I think Mr. Crosson should have an opportunity to try -- it will add tax dollars to local governments, increase the value of property, increase the sell-ability of property, add jobs and bring tourists without hurting the vast natural resources we've already got," Wright said.