A historic mill at the corner of Hines Drive and Wilcox Road in Plymouth will officially be changing from public to private hands, despite an attempt by community members to prevent the sale.
The deal has been a source of debate since plans to sell the land to a private buyer emerged. A recent Wayne County Commission hearing late last month drew almost 50 speakers, with viewpoints split. A week later, commissioners approved the sale in a 12-to-3 vote.
The roughly four acres of Hines Park, home to the old Wilcox Mill building (above) once used by Ford Motor Company to tap engine blocks for street cars, is now under the ownership of artist Tony Roko and his non-profit, the Art Foundation, and will be dubbed the “Mill on Rouge.” Roko says plans include an art studio and gallery with programs for kids, as well as an outdoor park space complete with sculpture garden.
Click on the player above for WDET’s story on the sale of Wilcox Mill.
“We’re looking to transition this property,” Roko says. ”Rehabilitate the building, and turn it into an art campus that’s open to the community from dawn to dusk.”
The sale “was wrong to begin with.” — Bill Craig, Save Hines Park
But opponents of the deal have called foul play, questioning the County’s handling of the sale and expressing concerns on the future of the park system.
“The whole process I think was wrong to begin with,” says Bill Craig, and activist and member of Save Hines Park, an organization that collected more than 17,000 signatures on a petition opposing the sale. “I think it would’ve been better if it was presented to the general public and had a better debate.”
A $10 Million Millage, But Little Progress
In 2016, county voters renewed a millage that commits about $10 million a year to maintaining Chandler, Elizabeth and Hines Park, while also improving 43 other parks. Craig says he feels Wayne County has a responsibility to preserve the property.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Craig says. ”That we pay a parks millage just for those things, I thought, was to restore and maintain and preserve the parks system.”
There’s “no picnics going on, no park activity. [It’s] just a false premise.” — Tony Roko, artist
But Roko, the new owner, argues that the old mill building on the property is in a state of disrepair beyond what the county can handle.
“There’s no millage money being spent on this site currently,” says Roko. ”If it isn’t obvious by its appearance here.”
Walking through the badly blighted mill building, Roko points to a number of current safety hazards.
“Clearly no picnics going on. No park activity. Just a false premise as far as I’m concerned,” says Roko.
Roko says he’s frustrated by project’s opposition. He says his group wanted to work with the activists early on in the process, but felt the group had what he calls an “agenda.”
Nancy Darga of Save Hines Park says her group has no problem with the Art Foundation.
“The people who are buying it now are wonderful people,” says Darga. “Save Hines Park has nothing against the artist who wants to buy it. I think they intend to do good things.”
The County “can secure that money, stabilize the building, and then [the Art Foundation] can come in and build out.” — Nancy Darga, Save Hines Park
Darga says she’d like to see Wayne County lease the property, similar to how land agreements with private buyers are done at the state level. She says that would allow the county to explore certain grant opportunities.
“They can secure that money, they can stabilize the building, and then the guy can come in and build out the interior to his need.”
An Art Campus, Or a New Home?
Art Foundation executive director Greg Hoffman argues the lease option would not be feasible for the non-profit. He says the Wilcox Mill is too far gone.
“Regardless of whether its yearly lease or a 100-year lease, a lot of those things, it just financially doesn’t work,” says Hoffman. “In addition to that it would completely hamstring us from not only the bank financing but donations. People don’t want to donate to somebody who doesn’t own the property.”
“People don’t want to donate to somebody who doesn’t own the property.” - Greg Hoffman, Art Foundation
Renovation plans for the approximately 4,200 square foot building include a live-in artist residence space. Hoffman says Tony Roko will be the first resident on the site — living there while the art campus is built out.
“I don’t think it’s something where Tony is gonna want to live at that site when it’s fully up and running,” Hoffman explains. “So after Tony has his residency there, we’d be looking to bring in artists from Detroit, but also connecting with other artists from around the country and potentially around the world.”
While the Art Foundation is yet to pinpoint the exact cost of renovating the space, Hoffman says one option that’s been discussed is using Roko’s ties to the Ford Motor Company for additional financing.
“A lot of those conversations though have kind of had the caveat or the understanding that, let’s have that chat after you guys get the vote,” says Hoffman. “But we have had discussion, preliminary discussion with Ford Fund and a lot of other foundations.”
A Fragmented Park System
Hoffman says the deal also gives Wayne County first right to repurchase the property if it goes up for sale in the future. But Bill Craig from Save Hines Park says he thinks the county simply wants the property off its hands.
“You have $10 million a year,” says Craig, referring to the millage. ”You can do some things, right? Nobody said you had to snap your fingers and improve those mills over night.”
“We no longer have a parkway system.” — Nancy Darga, Save Hines Park
Nancy Darga says she shares that concern. She says Wayne County previously tried to sell the Wilcox Mill property to a housing developer.
“When we found out and brought it to the public,” Darga says, ”there was so much push back that they started talking to this artist about buying the mill to make it an art center, in my way to make it more palatable that they could sell it.”
Darga also points to Wayne County’s recent dealings on nearby properties, such as the Newburgh Mill. She says it calls the future of the park system into question.
“It’s now commercial property on both sides along Newburgh and Hines,” Darga explains. “That means we no longer have a parkway system. We have a fragmented parcel.”
While those long-term concerns remain unanswered, the Wilcox Mill is now in private hands. Roko and Hoffman say the next step will be continuing due diligence on the site, to nail down the cost of renovating the historic building.
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