Business > News HitsBridge company's fear factor
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Working hard not to jump up and start screaming, News Hits sat in Detroit's 36th District Court last week, growing more and more disturbed every time lawyers for the Detroit International Bridge Co. raised the specter of terrorism, and how it's fallen upon the company to protect this vital economic asset known as the Ambassador Bridge.
We wanted to grab Judge Beverly Hayes-Sipes by her black robe and give her a good shake, while shouting, "Bev, it's time to wake up and get the point here. This isn't about terrorism. It's about a company that will say and do anything in order to advance its own financial interests, including illegally occupying a piece of publicly-owned property, and then refusing to leave, using fear as its justification."
We restrained ourselves though, if only because armed bailiffs tend to frown on that sort of spontaneous interjection by spectators into the judicial process. But our frustration here at the Hits remains unabated.
Here's the story up until this point:
In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Ambassador Bridge Company — owned by Grosse Pointe billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun — erected a fence on what's known as the Riverside Park Extension. Claiming to have had the approval of then-Mayor Dennis Archer — but unable to produce any documents showing that actual approval — the company fenced off a 150-foot-wide swath of parkland, creating a "buffer zone" separating the bridge from park-goers.
No one paid much attention until last year, when blogger and former Free Press reporter Joel Thurtell was taking pictures of the bridge from the park and started getting hassled by what he described as a "shotgun-toting goon" working at a security firm hired by the bridge company.
Once the issue started generating some media attention, and with a disgraced Kwame Kilpatrick removed from office, the city went to court in an attempt to have the bridge company take down the fence and hand the land back over to its rightful owners — the people of Detroit.
As city attorney John Nader has pointed out, whether Archer actually gave the bridge company permission to occupy the property is irrelevant; any such deal would have required the approval of City Council to be valid. As far as the city is concerned, the bridge company, at this point, is the illegal trespasser. Which meant that the bridge company, absent any legal right to be on the property, has had to resort to flimflam in its attempt to keep control of the property.
Over and over in court, bridge company lawyer William A. Seikaly emphasized what an enticing target the bridge is for terrorists, and how the company is protecting national interests by keeping it safe. At one point, he went so far as to suggest that if the company was forced to remove its fence, and terrorists succeeded in blowing the span up, the judge would bear responsibility.
Alluding to the consequence of "not being vigilant," Seikaly asked the court, "who wants to be on the cover" of some national magazine as the person who recklessly gave the bad guys access to this vital link in the chain of international trade.
But the bridge company's argument is a bogus one — not because it's inconceivable that the bridge, which carries about 20 percent of the trade between the United States and Canada, would be a target from terrorists interested in delivering a significant blow to the national economy, but because the fence in question is completely ineffective as a deterrent to would-be terrorists.
How can we say that with such certainty?
Easy. Last week News Hits grabbed editorial intern Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and his video camera for a little field trip down Fort Street. We saw the signs — posted by the bridge company — warning that, by order of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, anyone caught trespassing on the other side of the fence would be subject to prosecution.
Sounds tough enough, no? Except that, just east of the bridge (on the side closest to Downtown Detroit), there is no equivalent fence. Hell, from what we saw, there aren't even any "No Trespassing" signs on the road leading up to it from the north side. Anyone can do what we did— which was walk right up to one of the bridge's steel supports.
So, a bridge protected on one side and not the other is a bridge that's unprotected. Period.
Maybe that's why Dan Stamper, president of the bridge company, assured us last week outside Hayes-Sipes' courtroom that, indeed the bridge was fully enclosed on both sides by a fence. We asked twice, just to make sure there was no confusion.
But Stamper's assertion is obviously not true — as Goodman and his video camera proved (you can view it at metrotimes.com). But what else was Stamper going to say after the company's lawyers just got done doing its best in court to convince the judge that this is all about national security?
He has to realize that, if the judge understands that the bridge is fenced off on one side and not the other, then all those red flags being raised about terrorism are really red herrings being used to draw attention away from what's really going on here, which is this: Matty and his bridge company need that little swath of land to plant supports for a new bridge they want to build. A bridge, by the way, which has yet to receive federal authorization — although that hasn't stopped the company from building a massive approach ramp leading up to the, as yet, nonexistent new bridge.
As it is, the bridge company is currently negotiating with the city to buy the property. But, it's complicated. Because state and federal money were used to purchase it, and because it was supposed to stay parkland forever, the city can't just sell it. Both state and federal approval would be required, and the bridge company would have to come up with an equivalent piece of land to turn over to the city in exchange.
In their arguments before the judge, however, the company's lawyers never mention that they need this land to build their new bridge. They just keep talking about the need to protect the span from terrorists. So important is their role as protector of the bridge, in fact, they are asking the judge to consider becoming involved in the negotiations over selling the parkland.
What's apparently being missed by the judge is the fact that this is the city's land, and no one should be forcing them to sell this property, or meddling in the negotiations. What's happening, though, is the bridge company is wielding the threat of terrorism as a gun, and it's holding that gun to the city's head.
Which, it seems to us, is just another way of using terror as a way of achieving results.
News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.