Oct 20, 2023 - News

FOIA Friday: U of M's new school moving forward

Illustration of a manila folder opening like a door.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

After delays that left the public with unanswered questions, the University of Michigan's Board of Regents has approved building a $250 million education center in downtown Detroit.

The latest: An end-of-year deadline was looming for the U of M Center for Innovation (UMCI) to break ground so it could secure $100 million in state funding.

  • UMCI now anticipates meeting that deadline after the project passed a major hurdle Thursday night, securing approval at a Board of Regents meeting. Construction season is waning as winter approaches.

Why it matters: Ahead of the board meeting, U of M had been largely mum about the timeline, plan specifics and who will lead UMCI, a project first announced in 2019. It has a major impending impact on the city, so we have been seeking details through public records requests.

  • This is part of our ongoing series on navigating challenges with the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Details: We submitted three FOIA requests and are waiting to hear back:

  • Recent emails from U of M leaders that discuss UMCI, plus emails from city of Detroit employees on the same topic.
  • Any contracts between U of M and the Downtown Detroit Partnership, the organization acting as fiduciary for UMCI through subsidiary the Detroit Partnership for Innovation.

Between the lines: The regents approved three items Thursday related to UMCI:

  • Accepting 2.1 acres that the Ilitch family's Olympia Development is donating for U of M to construct the innovation center at Grand River and West Columbia. Olympia is also selling the university a nearby 1.2-acre parcel for $9.6 million so the school can build a parking structure.
  • Accepting a $100 million donation for building UMCI from billionaire Stephen Ross, who is co-developing nearby District Detroit buildings with Olympia for $1.5 billion.
  • A third action that "officially advanced" the project, authorizing the appointment of an architect and construction contracts.

What's next: It's expected to take three years to build after breaking ground by the end of the year.

  • Regents will be asked to approve more construction contracts and the schedule in the future.

Plus, Provost Laurie McCauley listed some of the programming that will be offered at UMCI Thursday night, including robotics, electrical engineering, sustainability and urban technology — plus non-credit talent development programs in programming, data science, entrepreneurship and leadership.

What they're saying: Regent Sarah Hubbard told Axios this week regents had been working to iron out the agreement but details were taking time to sort out.

  • During the vote she said: "I feel strongly that because this board has worked together to probe and improve the terms of this deal and delay it for a few months to make sure we're getting the absolute best deal that we can, I'm now going to be supportive and look forward to this amazing thing in Detroit."
  • Other regents expressed excitement about the deal as furthering the school's mission, as well as concerns about its riskiness and how it'll impact the nearby Dearborn campus.
  • "Having a long-term presence in Detroit is crucial for the success of the University of Michigan," Regent Jordan Acker told Axios after the vote.
  • An important piece was ensuring the university's development would go up around the same time as nearby private District Detroit developments, Acker added. "We don't want to be another flashy promise; we really want to have an impact in Detroit."

What we're watching: Before receiving its public dollars from the state, per the 2022-23 budget, UMCI needs to submit plans. They must make various commitments, including that the project is "sustainably funded," breaking ground on the building "no later than 2023," and expanding educational and employment opportunities in the city.

  • The state expects these plans will be incorporated into a final grant agreement, per the state Labor and Economic Opportunity department.
  • Once the agreement is solidified, UMCI must make regular progress reports that the state has to make available to the public.
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