Mark one up for Traverse City staff and the City Commission.
A circuit court judge ruled the city properly allowed the Traverse City Film Festival to open the Bijou by the Bay theater in the old Con Foster museum building at Clinch Park.
Former Mayor Fred Nelson had sued the city, claiming officials improperly disposed of parkland by contracting with the Film Festival to develop the theater in the century-old building.
Grant Parsons, Nelson’s attorney, had argued the move violated the city charter, which requires the public to vote if the city attempts to dispose of parkland.
Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power disagreed and ruled the 10-year length of the agreement made a vote unnecessary.
“I don’t think that ... the circumstances here involved that this 10-year lease-slash-management agreement can constitute a disposal such that it would trigger the requirement of a referendum,” Power said.
He said if the film festival’s contract was substantially longer, it could have qualified as property disposal.
“Then the full value of the property is transferred,” Power said of a hypothetical 99-year contract. “It seems to me that in view of these extensive costs that had to be incurred to create this theater, 10 years is not an unreasonable length of time to allow somebody to operate.”
Power also said a movie theater is an acceptable park use and contracting with a private entity did not constitute disposal of public lands.
For the city, that was the good news. The bad news is that less than 10 years from now the city and the film festival will be faced with the question of what to do when the lease expires.
The festival has invested an estimated $1 million to redo virtually the entire building, install a projection system and seating for nearly 200 patrons. That’s a lot of money.
And as the State Theatre has done for downtown, the Bijou can be expected to draw people to area restaurants, bars and shops before and after movies. Because the Bijou can show first-run movies — something the State can’t contractually do for now — it is expected to draw a different, younger movie crowd. That’s a plus.
The Bijou will likely be a positive addition for the city but the question of what to do when its lease expires must be addressed, and sooner rather than later. It may be such a part of the city by then that a vote won’t be an issue, but don’t bet on it.