Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 27, 2013

Traverse City officials click heels over theater contract

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — City Commissioner Mike Gillman declared the Traverse City Film Festival will have to pave its proposed yellow brick road through Clinch Park over “my dead body.”

That was before Gillman and other commissioners learned the management agreement they approved with Film Festival officials shows a yellow brick road and language for the Film Festival to maintain it. That same agreement allowed city staff to approve a lighted marquee on the front of the building and shows a building addition to the front of the historic structure.

Commissioners never read the agreement they approved.

“We discussed it and left the nittygritty details up to the city manager,” said Commissioner Jody Bergman. “But I thought it was really clear that any exterior changes would have to come back for commission approval. We never got the agreement back to approve it, which was a big mistake.”

The Traverse City Film Festival spent about $1 million to renovate the vacant Con Foster Museum building in Clinch Park into a movie theater. The proposed “yellow brick road” that five of seven commissioners objected to would be painted on existing sidewalks to lead patrons from the parking lot south of Grandview Parkway through the tunnel to the theater.

“We are trying to create a clever way-finding for the theater instead of just bland sign posts,” said John Robert Williams, a festival co-founder and board member. “It would just be a fun, cool, novel little thing to do.”

Drawings that are part of the agreement also show the building and grounds the film festival will manage including a vestibule -- a type of entrance hall. The vestibule would hold a small ticket booth and a second set of doors to increase energy efficiency.

“I did not agree to a yellow brick road in any way shape or form,” Mayor Michael Estes said. “The commission never even discussed the vestibule. I think (the agreement) included a lot of stuff that the city commission never agreed to. That is a problem.”

Commissioners told former City Manager Ben Bifoss during a meeting in April they didn’t like the yellow brick road; that they didn’t want to see any changes to the exterior of the historic building; and any requests for the road, the marquee, or alterations to the building would have to come back to them at a later date. Estes then summarized the items one more time for the city manager and city attorney, Lauren Trible-Laught.

Bifoss returned in May with an outline of what would be in the agreement. It did not mention the marquee, yellow brick road, or a vestibule. Commissioners approved the outline unanimously, with the final document to be drafted by Bifoss and Trible-Laught.

The document wasn’t signed until July 26. Bifoss had by then retired and the document was signed by Trible-Laught and Mikayla Vitous, assistant city manager.

The signed agreement includes all three items and at best leaves the approval decision up to the city manager, and not the city commission.

Commissioner Jeanine Easterday said she feared this type of result when she questioned in April if staff had the fortitude to stand up to Film Festival officials.

“It’s a mess,” said city Commissioner Barbara Budros, who read the 19-page document after being contacted by the Record-Eagle. “Clear as mudd.”

City Manager Jered Ottenwess maintains the agreement does not give the Film Festival permission for the Yellow Brick Road because any changes to the building or grounds require written approval by the city manager.

Budros agrees with Ottenwess but said Film Festival officials could easily argue the agreement gives them approval for those items.

Deb Lake, Film Festival executive director, did not return messages seeking comment. But in an email to Ottenwess, Lake said for now they are focused on constructing the marquee and reopening the theater. They’ll make a decision in the future regarding other improvements and bring them to the city commission as one package.

“We want you and the city commission and the people of Traverse City to rest assured that we will not want to do anything the people of Traverse City do not want,” Lake wrote.

Park advocate and attorney Grant Parsons said the city is lucky it’s dealing with a nice organization. Others might not be so forgiving, he said.

Estes said others can expect the city commission to put similar proposals under a microscope down to the paint color.

“My trust is shaken,” Estes said. “This can never happen again. It’s unfair to the public.”