Folklorist Doggedly Researches Developers

Thursday, July 16, 2015, 6:25 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: Eliot Singer

When one thinks about influential people in city governmental affairs, one might picture local elected officials, high-ranking city staff, or maybe wealthy business owners. What one probably wouldn’t picture is someone like Eliot Singer: a bespectacled, white-bearded folklorist, often spotted crossing campus and town with the aid of his walking sticks.

Citizen gadflies are hardly unique to East Lansing, but Singer is perhaps unique among their ranks. A scholar whose work in the humanities has included papers like “Fakelore, Multiculturalism, and the Ethics of Children’s Literature” (link), Singer has spent a chunk of the last several years relentlessly seeking to uncover the financial and legal backdrop to what could be East Lansing’s first hundred-million-dollar deal.

That deal is the one involving the most obviously blighted corner of East Lansing’s downtown, along Grand River Avenue just west of Abbot Road. It is for that area that a company known as Park District Development Group (PDIG) has put forth a redevelopment proposal.

The reason for Singer’s (and others’) intense focus on this is not only the fact that the project as proposed requires a sizable public-private economic partnership; it is that two individuals who appear to be closely tied to PDIG—Scott Chappelle (owner of Strathmore Development) and Charles Crouch—seem to have accrued to their various companies a rather extraordinary number of financial and legal messes. (Read more here and here in ELi reports relying on Singer’s research.)

Indeed, it recently came to light that the privately-owned properties in what would be the PDIG development are now slated for a foreclosure sale because of apparent failure to pay the mortgage due on the property. Chappelle and/or Crouch are also connected to development projects caught in legal and financial tangles in Ohio, Petoskey, and elsewhere.

Singer has been researching all these related companies and bringing the documents he finds to the attention of East Lansing’s City Council and Downtown Development Authority (DDA.) The “communications to Council” section of Council’s agenda often contains lengthy reproductions of PDFs sent by Singer along with warnings from him about doing business with PDIG.

Some around town paint Singer as an anti-development crank. Yet his findings have often been welcomed—if in an understated fashion—by those charged with safeguarding the public good. I recall discovering this, for example, by listening to a recording of a local government meeting about PDIG. Someone forgot to turn off the tape after the meeting ended, so the recording captured what might have otherwise been a private conversation between two persons influential in city business.

The first person alluded to an hour-long conversation he’d had with Singer about the troubled financial and legal history of those individuals associated with PDIG. The second remarked, “That’s an hour of your life you’ll never get back,” but the first responded that he appreciated Singer’s willingness to do research on these developers and to bring it to the table.

At the most recent Council meeting, Councilmember Ruth Beier referred to Singer’s efforts while denouncing the report on PDIG provided to East Lansing’s DDA by the National Development Council (NDC). In that report, the NDC gave PDIG a generally positive review, in stark contrast to Singer’s findings.

Asked about Singer’s research’s value to the City, Beier told me, “Eliot Singer provides excellent and exhaustive financial information on PDIG, especially when compared to the report that the Downtown Development Authority received from the National Development Council. Mr. Singer finds and analyzes relevant information, while the NDC report appears to rely on information that was volunteered by the developer and the developer's lenders.” Beier added, “In our Council-Manager form of government, the council does not really have any staff, so I appreciate Mr. Singer's work.”

Singer and his wife have owned a home in the Chesterfield Hills neighborhood for 30 years. He taught for many years in the MSU College of Education and tells me he is “currently engaged in independent research on Michigan folklore and history”—when he’s not gadflying about city politics.

Asked what motivates him to do this work, Singer told me he is “motivated to try to save the city’s finances, so there is money for public services, public safety, and neighborhood infrastructure.” He expresses frustration at how the city’s official “due diligence” process of looking into PDIG’s background has worked: “It ought not to be necessary for private citizens to spend time and money to engage in investigative journalism or to provide city government with documents that are clearly relevant to any standard due diligence with regard to developers seeking public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, it has been.”

Singer feels strongly that City staff ought to be able to do—and ought to be doing—what he is doing, and what a number of other local citizen-gadflies did before him: “All research about PDIG and other entities comes from publicly available sources. . . .  As an experienced researcher in other areas, I simply applied researching skills and quickly learned where to look for sources. I have always shared what my sources are and how to find them and urged city staff to do it for themselves.”

Singer appeared unsurprised when, after hearing the accidentally-recorded discussion about him months ago, I told him about the respect expressed about his research. When I asked if he thought Downtown Development Authority members take him seriously, he said, “Although I am often critical of development and especially public subsidies, many reputable developers and financiers, in and out of East Lansing, talk to me, because they know I understand financial issues, and I have learned much from them that could lead to a better, financially sustainable, model for public-private development.”

Does he think City Council listens to him? He says, “Ruth Beier on current Council listens to me, as did Vic Loomis and Don Power, during his brief tenure. I also listen to them. I worked closely with Kathy Boyle on senior housing and assume she reads the documents I provide, although Council has been placed in a difficult position by not having been proactive in creating a screening process to exclude high-risk developers from public-private projects. Nathan Triplett doesn’t listen to anyone who disagrees with him, and I have long since given up trying, as have many others.”

Singer’s public criticism of Triplett and others have lost him points with some in the City. One city official, who asked not to be named in conjunction with the remark, said Singer would be more effective if he would stick to the research and avoid ad hominem attacks on certain Council members and staff members. Singer frequently criticizes Director of Planning Tim Dempsey and others by name in his posts to Public Response, a local discussion forum (see example).

Mark Sullivan, co-chair of the grassroots East Lansing Citizens Concerned (ELCC) whose meetings Singer attends and speaks at, tells me: “No matter if one likes his rhetoric or style, or not, it is undeniable that [Singer] has provided data and information that could play an extremely important role in preventing financial disasters, and hopefully, in getting developments on that dismal corner we all hate on a secure and reasonable footing.” Sullivan believes that Singer “provides an accurate and insightful history left out in the media accounts and council summary.”

Indeed, local reporters—including this one—often use Singer’s findings to report on what’s going on financially and legally with PDIG, Chappelle, Crouch, and their associated companies, although not all news outlets give Singer open credit. Singer remains amused about one time when the Lansing State Journal attributed one of his findings, posted on Public Response, to “wire service reports.”

Jim Cuddeback, publisher of Public Response, has sometimes declined to publish Singer’s findings at his site out of concern about liability—a concern arising in part out of Chappelle’s reputation for being litigious (a reputation well documented by Singer).

Nevertheless, Singer appreciates having had Public Response, telling me: “For more than a decade, Public Response has been the only vehicle for getting information to the public. Even though ELi does now function as an alternative news source, Public Response is still a useful way of sharing documents and writing longer analytical pieces, as well as editorializing.” (ELi does not allow editorializing.)

Singer appears to show no signs of letting up on his quest—a quest that may eventually conclude in a chart mapping out, for all to see, who owns what, who owes what to whom, and who is suing whom. What all this detective work will ultimately mean to citizens’ hopes for redevelopment of the trouble corner remains to be seen.

 

UPDATE: This article was amended on July 16, 2015, at 6 pm because Eliot Singer informed me that he is not the Eliot Singer who co-authored “Approaches to Language Identification Using Gaussian Mixture Models and Shifted Delta Cepstral Features," so that reference has been removed.