Is Madjax Still a Unifying Force in Muncie?
By: Todd Smekens
NEWS – In general, a lot can happen in two years. In Muncie, a town which suffers from decades of SILO building, Ball family control, and political corruption, two years can be an eternity. The former Cintas building was acquired by Sustainable Muncie nearly two years ago and headed by Ontario executive, Michael Wolfe and Ball State architect, Scott Truex. The City of Muncie guided the project as did our two anchor non-profit institutions. The project’s concept was to renovate the abandoned Cintas industrial building into a makers hub for entrepreneurs.
From my article dated two years ago announcing the project:
Ball State University is pleased to join with Mayor Tyler and our community partners in working to revitalize the Cintas facility as a major aspect of downtown economic development, “said President Paul Ferguson. “This project has the potential to contribute in a sustainable, meaningful way to One Muncie.” Mayor Tyler agrees. “This initiative is an important project for the Muncie community. It serves as a unifying linkage between our community, our foundations and our anchor institutions. The chance to collaborate on the Sustainable Muncie project represents an opportunity to accelerate the transformation of the community in a substantive and strategic manner.”
Madjax Gets Ferguson Ousted
The bold and italics are mine for emphasis. The reason I point this out is I’m sure Dr. Ferguson fully believed in this mission, and yes, had Ball State honored its commitment, it probably would have been a “unifying linkage,” but it isn’t what Tom Bracken wanted. He wanted a downtown park and had already acquired many surrounding properties in secret. Since his foundation supports the Cornerstone building, Tom had other plans for the former industrial laundry – alleviate the “eyesore” by tearing it down. He wanted an underground parking garage by elevating Madison Street.
I’m sure there were other conflicts between the BSU board of trustees and Paul Ferguson, but the Madjax project operated by Sustainable Muncie was a major irritant for Tom Bracken, so Ferguson was ousted. After touring the building this week, there were no signs for Ball State University. Will the new president challenge Tom Bracken and honor BSU’s commitment or will they throw MadJax and the Mayor under the proverbial bus?
Anybody know a Vegas oddsmaker?
FBI Investigation a Concern for Anchor Institutions
Also, since the announcement two years ago, the City of Muncie has been entrenched in an FBI investigation with the Mayor’s appointment to building commissioner being arrested and facing 33 charges and federal prison.
The Mayor also appoints the board members to the Sanitation District which is under investigation. He also appoints most of the board members to the Muncie Redevelopment Commission which is behind Sustainable Muncie and the acquisition of the former Cintas building.
The corruption certainly makes a convenient excuse for the anchor institutions to flop in this project. In fact, one Ball State employee told me last year that Ball State won’t back the project because of the corruption within the city administration. It’s a convenient excuse, but it’s also a cover story for Tom Bracken.
There is an old truism in banking – “never chase good money after bad.” In other words, if you’ve made a bad deal, cut your losses and admit your mistakes. Don’t pump in more money hoping to salvage the deal. In this case, the bad money was invested by Ball State University and First Merchants, thanks to John Fallon, our Mayor, and the City Council.
Forget about the controversial language; our council members approved $1 million as a guarantee to First Merchants $1 million line of credit. The line was used to improve the old industrial space and has been fully funded. However, there is plenty of work to be done on the project – lots of work.
So, with Tom Bracken negating BSU’s commitment and a corrupt city administration in charge of the facility, where will the money come from to complete the project?
Can you imagine a Mayor under investigation by the FBI seeking more money from the taxpayers in the community? That’s a possibility because I don’t see any big dollar donors rushing to salvage the project.
Personally, I think city taxpayers will erupt if their dollars bail out this project. We still don’t know the extent of the government corruption and how much has already been stolen from taxpayers and rate paying customers.
I’m not a real estate expert, but if $1 million has been spent on that building, I’d say we need twice that amount, if not more, to finish the project.
Also, one of the major tenants, Guardian Brewery was supposed to move into their finished space last month. That didn’t happen. Sources in the downtown brewing world were telling me that Guardian owners were very upset about the lease negotiated with Scott Truex and Michael Wolfe. After touring the facility, the space set aside for Guardian is nowhere near completion.
Line of Credit Funded But Leadership MIA
I don’t think anybody is ready to answer the question about money at this time. I was told by several people earlier this spring that vendors had walked from the project due to lack of payment. If vendors weren’t paid, and the Guardian Brewery buildout is nowhere close to being completed, and the line is fully funded, where is the money coming from to finish the tenant improvements for Guardian and the rest of the project? Where did the money go?
As the local newspaper discovered, those questions will not be answered by those in leadership at this time. I asked to speak to the Executive Director, Ashlee Bane, but she no longer works at Sustainable Muncie or Madjax. She was hired in August after the YMCA fired her. Michael Wolfe hired Bane, but he isn’t talking. John Fallon was on again, off again, in leadership, but has retired permanently. Scott Truex isn’t in a leadership role.
Sherri Contos and the Muncie Arts and Cultural Council are not part of the project any longer even though an October 16 article in the Muncie Journal stated how excited she was to move her offices from the Rose Court to Madjax:
“This is an important step for MACC as we seek to expand opportunities for artists and makers,” Contos explains. “We plan to relocate our offices to the Madjax facility in 2017 and be the point of contact for artists and makers taking part in this makers initiative.”
Well, that’s not happening either, and she believes the project has abandoned the arts community. However, I saw artists in the facility.
Personally, I find it odd that all the principles are now gone, and so is the line of credit. Over one million dollars were spent, but none of the people who were there during the expenditure are accountable for the dollars going out the door. Excuse my skepticism; it must be the investigative journalist in me. I also haven’t heard back from the acting president of Sustainable Muncie’s board.
How do I wrap up this article when it’s far from over? How about a recommendation because I’ve witnessed enough of these projects in Muncie and outside the community. Might I suggest the following:
- No taxpayer money is used for this project unless an independent financial audit is complete. The financial review should take place immediately by the City Council to protect taxpayers from potential misuse or misfeasance by those previously running the project.
- Order a budget proposal to estimate completion of the buildout.
- Determine if revenues from tenants can sustain the building.
- Assess potential funding sources for the project.
- Ascertain what Ball State’s involvement will be going forward.
- Once the above items are collected and reviewed, the community can decide what steps to take going forward.
It’s sad to witness another project set up to fail because of forces outside their control. The tenants; makers and artists in the community fully support the project, and conceptually, it’s an excellent idea. Unifying Muncie is no easy task with all the underlying personal motives and political agendas. Building community around individual SILOs are challenging, and blatant corruption cripples trust and confidence among local leaders.