The headline is spectacular.
Paul Gentilozzi, the guy who sold men’s clothing out of an old shop off South Washington Avenue in the 1960s, is putting his name behind a $215 million housing development project to jumpstart a struggling downtown.
A 25-story high-rise and two other downtown structures are part of a plan to bring 450 new residential units into a central business district badly in need of life.
He’s doing it with the help of a special no-bid, $40 million grant from the state that also came on the heels of $15,000 in campaign contributions to two of the main movers and shakers in state government who made it happen: Senate Majority Floor Leader Sam Singh and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Sarah Anthony.
Why would a real estate developer who’s well known for giving primarily to Republicans be giving to Democrats? Is there something strange going on here? What gives?
The answer to the first question is that Gentilozzi has known Singh since he was the East Lansing mayor. He holds Singh in high respect as a public official. As for Anthony, fellow developer Joel Ferguson introduced the two at a fundraiser, and Gentilozzi was so impressed he opened up his checkbook.
By his count, Gentilozzi has given more than $1 million to political figures because he feels there’s value in contributing to the people he feels are best suited to lead government.
As for the second question: Is there something strange going on here? Here’s the story:
The 73-year-old, who earned his fame racing cars all over the world, could be clipping coupons in his cottage Up North.
But as he strolls downtown Lansing from his 9th-floor Victor Building office to Kewpee for an O’Grady’s, he has to check his watch to make sure it’s not Sunday.
When he walks to the order counter and sees the Weston family working in front of an empty restaurant, he’s startled. COVID killed downtown Lansing as we know it.
Hybrid work schedules have closed the spigot on what once was a bustling downtown lunchtime crowd. The state has let lapse or canceled rented properties all over the city. The days of lines out the door with hungry state employees are gone.
Again, Gentilozzi said he didn’t have to do anything about it. Yet, he felt an obligation to see what he could do to help bring Lansing back.
He visited Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Cincinnati to see what they were doing. What he found was new housing developments were selling out.
There’s a “missing middle” of middle-class working people who are struggling to find quality housing. They clearly like the idea of living in downtown communities.
He asked himself, “Why not Lansing?”
Gentilozzi put his architect to work drawing up concepts. He ran the numbers on the property he was looking at.
What he quickly found was that his building costs were similar to that of Cincinnati, Detroit and other larger cities, but what he could reasonably charge in the Lansing market was much less.
He needed help. Gentilozzi prides himself on rarely asking for government help with his projects, but for this one, he had a gap. He approached legislators like Anthony, Singh and House Appropriations Chair Angela Witwer of Delta Township with a simple pitch.
Now is your chance. The Detroit and Grand Rapids areas have gobbled up a combined 75% of the state’s economic development money over the last 10 years.
When will it be Lansing’s turn? If not now, when it needs a shot of adrenaline, then when?
They were going to do a brownfield grant, but it would take a year to go through the process, so federal COVID relief money was used instead.
After all, COVID essentially killed the city, so this money can help bring it back to life, Gentilozzi reasoned.
He visited the lawmakers with his pitch. He was convincing, clearly. They settled on $40 million as the number needed to make the numbers work, which is a typical government exercise for these types of projects.
Lawmakers wrote the budget bill so the money goes through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority to the city of Lansing. If the Gentilozzi projects fall apart, it can be used for another project.
As for the last question: What gives?
Gentilozzi wants to help lift the city when it needs it most. He wants people to be proud to live here.
“If we don’t brag about Lansing, if we don’t do things that we can brag about, if we don’t take risks, we should be ashamed,” he said. “I don’t want to be ashamed. I owe it to people to take a risk.”
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