Buchanan commissioners discuss social district, DDA

BUCHANAN – The Buchanan City Commission’s first in-person meeting in more than a year featured a discussion on everything from the downtown’s new social district and construction of a new DPW building to unresolved issues related to the now-dissolved Downtown Development Authority.

As for Buchanan’s downtown social district, it is getting off to a bit of a rocky start. While commissioners approved applying to the state to establish the social district in late May and had it approved by the state in June, it will not take effect until two downtown businesses sign-on.

Monday, commissioners voted to recommend that B&W Village Inn’s social district application be approved by the Liquor Control Commission. It is the first business to do so but another one is needed before the social district goes into effect.

Grace said once the social district is fully implemented the city will purchase the cups and bracelets participants will use to buy alcohol at participating businesses and walk around inside the social district. She said there has been some hesitancy on the part of businesses to participate.

B&W Inn owner Dan Benak noted later in the meeting that implementing the social district plan has been a bit frustrating because of the mixed messages from the state. He was told initially there would be a $250 fee and then another $70 fee was added on.

“I’m not really going to benefit. I want to do this for the city. It looks cool,” he said. “Other businesses don’t know if they want to sign on.”

Grace and Denison said one of the confusions is whether the city can reimburse businesses for their application fees. They have been told by Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber of Commerce officials that the city can pay the application fees but then the state said they cannot.

There also appears to be some concerns about the social district boundaries. Downtown business owner Alan Robandt said Monday that he would like to see the boundaries changed to include a bigger part of the downtown.

Monday’s meeting also featured discussion on two longstanding issues: last year’s dissolution of the DDA and the construction of a new DPW building.

Former DDA Chairman Joe Paolucci asked commissioners to release the 2019 opinion letter from then city attorney Randy Hyrns about the DDA. Hyrns provided the letter and opinion to the commission in a closed session in the fall 2019. Paolucci said the dispute between the DDA and the city was a policy dispute that city officials made into a legal dispute.

While three commissioners initially spoke in favor of releasing the Hyrns letter for the sake of transparency, the motion to do so failed on a 3-2 vote. Commissioner Larry Money spoke in favor of releasing the letter but then voted with Denison and Mark Weedon to not do so. Cameron Downey and Patrick Swem voted to release the letter.

Denison said he did not have a problem with releasing the letter but said it would set a bad precedent to release information from closed sessions. He said he had been advised that closed session information can only be disclosed by a court order. He also described the Hyrns letter as a “big nothing burger.”

The commission has been talking about a new DPW building for a number of years and finally agreed earlier this year to build the new facility on the site of the current one at the end of Clark Street.

Grace said Monday that a bid opening earlier in the day showed that seven companies have submitted bids for the project. She said the Barton Group, the firm the city hired to oversee the project, wants the commission to hold a special meeting to go over the bids and decide who they want to interview.

The commission set a special meeting for 6 p.m. July 20 at City Hall to go over the bids. The intention is for them to decide which companies they want to interview at another special meeting. The commission is expected to make a final decision on which bid to accept at their Aug. 9 meeting.

Commissioners did not take up a special use request from Zen Leaf, the city’s first marijuana business, to expand into an adjacent building. Denison said they want to first get input from the planning commission which was set to hear the Zen Leaf request at their meeting Tuesday night.

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