Above: Mark Bell presenting to Planning Commission at the April 26 meeting.
Developer Harbor Bay’s Mark Bell made false representations to East Lansing’s Planning Commission on his Center City District proposal, telling the Commission at its April 26 meeting that he had endorsements of the project from Verizon, Noodles and Company, and Michigan State University, when he did not. At the meeting where the false claims were made by Bell, Commission Chair Laura Goddeeris named those endorsements as one reason she was voting in favor of the project.
Bell has not responded to ELi’s requests to explain the misrepresentations. Nor has he responded to ELi’s question about whether he has made additional misrepresentations to East Lansing’s government. He has instead issued a statement insisting he is honest.
During his April 26 presentation to Planning Commission, Bell presented a slide showing the logos of a number of local businesses and of national chains with outlets in downtown East Lansing. He told Planning Commission that these companies would “vocally endorse this project.”
Bell used Verizon’s logo on the slide and verbally named Verizon as a business endorsing his project. According to Steve Van Dinter, Verizon’s Public Relations Manager for the Great Lakes market, there has been no such endorsement.
Bell also used Noodles & Company’s logo on the slide. According to Michael Endres, Director of Marketing for Pasta Per Trio, the franchise owner of the East Lansing Noodles & Company restaurant, the company has not endorsed the project and is “going to remain neutral at this time.”
Although he did not use the Wharton Center’s logo on the slide, Bell named “MSU’s Wharton Center for the Performing Arts” as another entity that would endorse the project. MSU’s media relations representative Kat Cooper tells ELi, “Wharton Center is a part of the university, and the university does not endorse products, projects or candidates. We have not given any such endorsement for this project.”
Several of the businesses named by Bell and contacted by ELi have declined to respond to our questions about whether they are endorsing the project. None of those contacted confirmed Bell’s claims about their alleged endorsements. (Representatives of two businesses named by Bell, namely Harper’s restaurant and Douglas J, endorsed the project at City Council, so we did not bother to contact them.) In other words, the only responses we’ve received contradict Bell’s claims.
Last Thursday, May 11, I wrote to Bell about the endorsement claims he made to Planning Commission. I wrote, “I’ve been asking those companies and coming up short on getting confirmation of this. Can you give me the name/emails/phone numbers for those businesses? Maybe I’m just reaching the wrong people in the corporate offices as I get different answers.”
Hearing nothing back, I wrote to him the next day to tell him we’d be running a story. I added, “Again, I understand it’s possible you are talking to different folks than I am at these places, so I’d ask you to get me the names and contact numbers or email for the people at the businesses you told Planning Commission are supporting your project.”
This Saturday, May 13, I wrote to Bell asking him, “Would you like to explain on the record why you made these misrepresentations to Planning Commission in your April 26 presentation? Is there anything else you’ve misrepresented to Planning or another branch of East Lansing’ government?”
Bell did not answer these questions. Instead, he sent a statement emphasizing the integrity and honesty of himself and his business. Nowhere in the statement does he deny or address the misrepresentations to Planning Commission.
Bell’s response includes this statement:
“Above all, our organizations are rooted by the single most important thing in life—honesty. As a new father of an 18-month old son, there is no greater lesson that a person must learn than an unwavering commitment to honesty. We have been honest in every project we have ever worked on as a company, including the Center City District Project. Our honesty as a company and as individuals is unwavering, period.”
I asked Brad Ballein and Greg Ballein, whose local company is partnering with Bell’s company on this proposal, if they wished to make a statement of their own. They have not responded.
You can read Bell’s complete statement here.
Note: On May 17, this article was corrected to clarify that Michael Endres is Director of Marketing for Pasta Per Trio, franchise owner of the East Lansing Noodles & Company restaurant.
Update: Since this article was published, the following related communications have been received.
At the April 26 meeting of Planning Commission, Bell claimed Potbelly would endorse the project, and he used the company's logo in his slide presentation. On May 17, Janet L. Nowlin, spokesperson for the national office of Potbelly Sandwich Shop, responded to our inquiry of May 12 asking to confirm Bell’s claim. Writing from the national office of Potbelly, Nowlin said, “Thank you for reaching out to Potbelly. Potbelly Sandwich Shop is not affiliated with this project, nor were we aware of it.” On May 18, in response to our follow up questions, Nowlin wrote, "Potbelly does have franchise shops but the majority of our locations, including our East Lansing shop, are company owned. I have confirmed with the General Manager of the shop that she did not endorse this project, nor did anyone at our corporate level. I would suggest that you reach out to the building management—it could be that the owner of the building that we are in endorsed the project. I have shared this with our teams here so we can look into this further as well, but suffice it to say, Potbelly is not endorsing the Center City District project."
As noted in the article, Michael Endres, Director of Marketing for Pasta Per Trio, franchise owner of the East Lansing Noodles & Company restaurant, told ELi on May 13, “We are going to remain neutral at this time.” After the article was published, Craig Clark of Clark Communications, speaking for Pasta Per Trio, wrote in response to follow-up questions from ELi that (now) “the company is offering its support to the City Center idea.” Clark’s response indicates that Pasta Per Trio can endorse projects of this type and can use Noodles & Company’s name and logo for this type of endorsement. Clark says, “We trust that any mention of Noodles & Company made by Mr. Bell and/or Harbor Bay in public presentations was intended to refer only to our location at 205 East Grand River Avenue, which is owned by Pasta Per Trio.” Bell did not make this specification in his presentation when he listed Noodles & Company as an endorser of the project; he named Noodles & Company and used that company's logo, and did not mention Pasta Per Trio or the local franchise.
MSU’s spokesperson Jason Cody wrote to confirm on May 17, “MSU does not endorse private developments, and did not do so here.”