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Questions raised about proposal for Winchester (Published Feb. 22, 2009)

Developer Kenneth Bardwell and an entourage wearing business suits approached the governing body of a small township near Detroit with a thick binder full of plans for Bardwell's dream.

What Bardwell presented to the board of trustees in Huron Township excited the community of nearly 14,000: a multimillion-dollar recreational facility with basketball courts, an ice arena, workout area and pools.

The development would create jobs and inject life into the waning southeastern Michigan economy.

But in the months that followed, township leaders say they never received proof that Bardwell, 51, could pay for such a "grandiose" project.

Then "Mr. Bardwell just kind of went away," said John Enos, municipal services director for Huron Township.

That was in 2006.

Nearly three years later, Bardwell and his development company, Motown Technology and Sports, have re-emerged. This time, in Kentucky.

Several months ago, Bardwell's group began talks with Clark County about a $300 million sports and recreation center. Bardwell and county officials announced in January that Winchester was among six finalists for the project.

The announcement brought to Clark County the same hopes that three small Michigan cities once experienced.

Since 2003, Bardwell has pitched similar development projects in Romulus and then in Huron and Van Buren townships. But none of those projects advanced beyond the proposals. It's not clear what other projects Bardwell's company has completed.

Elected officials in Michigan said the deals fell through because Bardwell couldn't prove that he had adequate financial backing. City leaders in Romulus said Bardwell expected the local governments to contribute millions of dollars and infrastructure changes, along with granting significant tax breaks.

Ultimately, they found his plans to be ambitious and said the cost to their cities would be too great.

"I would consider it a fishing expedition," Enos said of Bardwell's proposal.

Bardwell denies that his previous efforts failed because he didn't have enough money or details.

He said the Michigan communities were "short-minded" and "shortsighted."

"We shot our best shot, and we weren't received very well, and they didn't take us very serious. So we took the show on the road, and we were taken seriously," Bardwell said.

Competing for the project

Bardwell said he also has approached communities in Illinois, Georgia, New York, California and Arizona. New Orleans, which was a finalist last month, is out of the running, Bardwell said.

He said a couple of communities have advanced to the level of Winchester in terms of competing for the project, but he declined to name them.

The proposed 180-acre site in Winchester is about half a mile off Exit 96 on the north side of Interstate 64.

The facility would include a 14,000-seat arena, an IMAX movie theater, a surf park that re-creates beach surf, a fitness area, basketball and tennis courts, and other athletic and family amenities. It would create more than 1,000 jobs, Bardwell said.

In January, Winchester City Commission and Clark County Fiscal Court approved an agreement that would offer as much as $37 million in tax increment financing over a 20-year period. Tax increment financing allows state and local governments to fund public improvement projects and pay them back with the increased tax revenues that the development generates.

If the project comes to fruition, Bardwell says, it would be the first in a series of sports and entertainment complexes. It would also be the realization of a dream.

But those who had dealings with Bardwell in Michigan are skeptical.

"I always get worried when somebody's dream relies on public funding to get off the ground," said Tim Keyes, economic development director for Romulus. "That always sends up red flags for me."

In 1998, the Detroit Free Press wrote an in-depth story about investors and creditors who were clamoring for money they said they were owed after investing in Bardwell's business, Bardwell Technologies. The article said one former landlord obtained a back-rent judgment for more than $260,000 from Bardwell.

Bardwell didn't want to discuss the article during an interview last week. He would only say that he is "very, very much a stand-up person and a person of integrity."

Seemed like a 'godsend'

Todd Denham, executive director of the Winchester-Clark County Industrial Development Authority, said he hadn't talked to officials in Michigan about issues they had with Bardwell. Denham said Bardwell informed him that the proposals never came to fruition in Michigan.

Even if the plans fall through, Clark County won't suffer much of a loss, Denham said. He said officials in Clark County have spent only minimal legal fees.

"We've not really put ourselves in a position that would be detrimental to our community," he said. "If and when financing comes through for the project, that's great, and I hope it happens."

Though the plans differed in size and scope, the Michigan cities shared Winchester's enthusiasm when Bardwell pitched his project.

In 2003, Bardwell approached city officials in Romulus, a town of nearly 23,000 in metropolitan Detroit, and discussed a $40 million sports facility, said Keyes, the economic development director.

Romulus had considered building a similar facility using government money, so officials were thrilled that someone wanted to be responsible for such an expensive project, Keyes said. But Keyes said Bardwell never proved that he could pay for the project.

"We lost faith in the ability that these guys would build their own facility."

Romulus city officials broke off talks with Motown Technology, deciding to build their own recreation facility in April 2006.

Elke Doom was an appointed member of Huron Township's Local Development Finance Authority when Bardwell presented what seemed like a "godsend" to the community in 2006.

Doom, who is now the township's supervisor, said Bardwell presented a proposal for a multimillion-dollar recreation facility similar to what he pitched in Romulus.

"When somebody like this presents such a wonderful idea, of course you're going to jump on it," she said.

But there were holes in Bardwell's presentation, said Doom.

"The questions we asked, they kind of spoke around the type of answers we were looking for," she said.

Doom said Bardwell asked the township for major financial concessions.

"It sounds like a godsend, but you have to really look deep into what type of true concessions they want from the community, how it's going to benefit the community as a whole," she said.

"I wish Winchester the best if he's able to pull it off," she said.

Chasing a dream

Bardwell said comments from Keyes and other community leaders have no bearing on Motown Technology. Romulus, in particular, is a competitor to the Motown project because the city has its own facility, Bardwell said.

"They're not going to say anything positive about what we are going to do," he said.

The proposals Bardwell introduced in Huron and Van Buren townships and Romulus are very different than the project he has proposed in Winchester, he said.

"Those particular areas were not proposing any financial incentives, so it made it very difficult to finalize any kind of serious deal," he said.

The fact that Clark County leaders approved measures for the project show that they believe in it, Bardwell said.

He says he has secured numerous sponsors, but that he "was not at liberty" to name his investors.

Bardwell has said he hopes to secure a mix of state and local incentives for the project. He said Motown Technology intends to apply for a Tourism Development Act tax credit from the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet to enable an independent consultant to conduct a feasibility study.

Gil Lawson, a spokesman for the cabinet, said his department has not received a completed application.

Bardwell said his company submitted a formal application a few weeks ago.

Bardwell, who says he never went to college and is a self-made developer, said that for nine years his company has worked solely on the planning, design and development of a one-stop shop for sports and recreation.

The complex has been a dream of his for years, he said. Bardwell, who is from Detroit, said that growing up in a sports town inspired him to try to build a multisports complex that would offer the public a variety of amenities.

Motown Technology's plans call for seven of these sports facilities to be built across the country within six years, Bardwell said.

He said the company has never developed a project as large as the sports facility, but has been involved with "smaller types of community facilities" in the Detroit area. Bardwell did not name any of those projects.

"We went through what we call mini trials and errors of critiquing a development business plan to put together what we call the perfect sports and development project," he said.

"It's something that I believe in. It's something that I've spent a lot of energy and time with."