Who Says Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees?

 When I was a kid whenever I asked my grandma for something new she always sharply reminded me that, “money doesn’t grow on trees.”

Turns out, she was wrong. Money does grow on trees. In fact, with the gift foresight and some startup funds, it can grow on just about anything.

Don’t take it from me. Just ask Warren Buffet, the third richest person in world who made his fortune based on money growing speculation. He’ll tell you something that all investors know, but perhaps haven’t fully mastered: “The lower things go, the more I buy. We are in the business of buying,” Buffet told Fortune magazine in an interview. Well, here in the Tha D, “things” have pretty much bottomed out.

And unless Detroit is the one city that defies history, there’s nowhere to go but up, up, up. You don’t have to be a soothsayer to see the signs. It’s a slow, slow uptick, but it’s happening. It’s not rocket science but it’s a science of analysis: The people who make the big bucks are the ones who see them coming before they land.

John Hantz, the successful investor who plans to buy up a big swath of Detroit for cheap, is one of them. He knows that in 40 years “things”—in this case city land—won’t be dished out at fire sale prices. No. The early bird gets the worm and it’s just a rule of investing.

I ain’t mad at him. He’s a talented guy. He’s a smart investor. He didn’t get rich by leading clients of his finance-consulting firm astray or by making poor investment decisions himself. So let’s put the emotional responses to this proposed land sale aside just look at the facts here.

Hantz has pitched this proposal as a philanthropic act, claiming that he only wants to spend millions on the area surrounding his Indian Village home simply to make Detroit a better place to live; simply because Detroiters deserve better, that more research has to be done on using urban and for agricultural purposes. We can operate under the guise of philanthropy or we can just call it what it is. I prefer the latter. So let’s be real: this is a business investment. 

 In Detroit there is an element of class warfare, a rich v. poor battle raging on under and at the surface and often justly so presenting a grand clash of idealism and realism given the country and society we live in. Rich people can do stuff that poor people can’t. But if that’s not the oldest story in the book, then I don’t know what is. Well, maybe prostitution is but I digress.

The Hantz land proposal comes from Hantz Group subsidiary Hantz Woodlands, LLC. The company would buy 1,500  vacant city parcels for $600,000 with agriculteral tax credits. The plan is to demolish abandoned buildings and clean up the land which makes up about 140 contiguous acres and plant thousands of hardwood trees. Trees that will take about 40 years to get to the point to where they could be harvested for lumber. Right about the time land values in Detroit will be going up.

So why are we participating in this charade? We all know what the real intentions are: to invest in the land, buy low, sell high or develop and sell even higher. From an economic standpoint this is a great thing. But lets call it what it is and not insult our intelligence. If the city council approves it, approve it for what it is and not for what it’s pitched to be. History can be the guide here.

Look back to New York in the 80s, in the Alphabet City neighborhood. It was a total slum. Now? Million dollar apartments abound there. That was 30 years ago. Look at that happened in Washington DC, in Berlin, Germany. It’s the history of cities.

In 30 years it will be happening in Detroit. It’s happening now. Dan Gilbert knows it, John Hantz knows it and the ones who don’t will be crusty visionless naysayers left in the dust. Detroit is coming around, shaping to be an invetor’s dream. Time and money is all it takes.

When we consider this proposal we should take a moment too look around the country. This type of proposal is not unique to Detroit. The Hantz Woodlands project may be the largest land sale Detroit has seen but it certainly is not the largest city land grab in the country.

Last year city panels in St. Louis approved a much bigger city land sale to private developer Paul McKee. The St. Louis Real Estate Society reported last year:

Despite the continued legal appeals over losing out on $390 million in tax increment financing (TIF) money for infrastructure improvements, St. Louis mega-developer Paul McKee is pressing forward on his ambitious Northside Regeneration Project. Just this morning, City officials quickly approved McKee’s offer to purchase 1,233 city-owned parcels and option on the neglected Pruitt-Igoe for roughly $3.2 million. All these parcels are located on the Near Northside of St. Louis, just north of Downtown. With this expansion, McKee will now hold around 2,200 parcels, totaling over 250 acres.”

Perhaps McKee took a different approach than Hantz but it’s basically the same thing. Because St. Louis has different economic circumstances, it doesn’t need a 40-year of hardwood lot to buffer the land value gap. It’s already there.

Detroit’s top development officals plaud the Hantz land sale, happy to be relieved of the cumbersome responsibility of too much land and too little tax dollars to maintian it with. Perhaps they are lacking foresight here but right now in Detorit it is what it is. Money is tight, you get it where you can. 

 Rob Anderson, Director of the Detroit Planning and Development Department said the project would save the city money and was all around a good thing.  “What we have is an individual who is willing to clean this community and pay taxes. I don’t see the down side,” Anderson told city council members recently.


In St. Louis, city officials are saying the same thing Detroit officials are saying. St. Louis Today reports:  

“Rodney Crim, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s top development official, said the land sale agreement was a good one. It moves more than one-tenth of all city-owned property off the books, adding $100,000 to the tax rolls and saving the cost of mowing and maintenance. Some of the $3.2 million proceeds will pay to demolish more crumbling city-owned buildings across north St. Louis, freeing up more land for redevelopment. And much of the ground has been up for sale for decades, with no credible buyers, until McKee. “The market hasn’t addressed this issue,” Crim said. “Now we have a developer who plans to address the whole area and is ready to move forward.”


Sound familiar?


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