CEDAR SPRINGS, Mich. (WOOD) — It was cold outside but the mood was hot. A dozen people met a Target 8 reporter in front of what for decades had been their club house, the North Kent Senior Center in Cedar Springs.
It had been “their home…their network…their safety net,” said one member of the group, Cherrie Cammileri.
Now they were out in the cold.
The Senior Center had just sold, and they had just found out that the price tag was eight times what their organization had gotten for it a couple of months earlier. They were angry and they had a lot of questions.
The North Kent Senior Citizens Association bought the building in the late 1980s. Other nonprofits rented space, which paid the bills. Then in 2005, the last of those nonprofits moved out. The senior center nearly closed then, according to stories in the Cedar Springs Post from that time.
So they started renting small office spaces to local businesses. That violated the zoning code — it’s a residential neighborhood so nothing commercial is allowed — but over the years nobody complained and city officials didn’t make them stop.
That changed in 2019 when a potential new tenant worried that her state license required official city approval and asked for a zoning variance. That put the issue on the city’s radar.
City Manager Mike Womack, also the zoning official, ruled that unless a business primarily served the seniors, it was banned. Current tenants would be allowed to stay but couldn’t be replaced when they left.
Last summer, some of the seniors wanted to raise the rent from $200 to $400 a month.
“I would go in and talk to them and say they’re not going to pay,” said Sue Norton, the president of the senior citizens group and also a tenant in the building.
She and another tenant, Kim Gillow, both of whom ran massage therapy businesses in the building, had been running things for the seniors since 2015. Norton said she warned the group that doubling the rent would empty the building — and that’s what happened.
Without income from the rent, the center was doomed.
“If the city would have allowed us to let somebody else come in and rent when these others left, we could have continued on,” Norton said.
But as it is, she and the board “had no choice” but to sell the building.
They got a real estate agent, Brynadette Powell. Within a few days, according to Norton, and without listing the property or even putting out a for sale sign, Powell had a potential buyer.
“She knew him,” Norton said. “She worked with him before and so she contacted him about the building even before putting it up for sale.”
The buyer offered $25,000. That’s less than the $41,000 the seniors paid for it in the late 1980s. But Norton says they thought the building was in bad shape, needed repairs and might even have to be torn down.
“So at that price and without having to get an inspection, ’cause he was going to give us cash, we thought, OK, we’ll do it,” Norton said.
“And we wanted out,” Gillow.
By that time, the relationship between the people running the place and many of the seniors had frayed.
The deal closed Oct. 21. By Nov. 3, the building was up for sale again. The same real estate agent who got the $25,000 for the seniors was now listing the price at $249,000 for the buyer she brought in. That’s 10 times what she got for the seniors.
The building was on the market for a little over a month and sold to a church for $209,000.
“It’s been sold for $209,000 after it went for $25,000,” remarked senior Cherrie Cammileri. “How did that happen?”
“It was a shock because we never thought … the building would be worth that much money,” Norton said. “I mean, it was a sickening feeling.”
She said Powell, the real estate agent, never told them she was going to represent the buyer, too. She said Powell told them she might be able to get only $40,000 or $50,000 for the property.
Real estate ethics codes generally tell agents they should disclose potential conflicts of interest and be honest about what the market value of a property might be. A real estate ethics board may get a chance to see if there were any violations in this case. An attorney hired by some of the seniors, Jeff Portko, plans to file a complaint with the realtors association and maybe even a lawsuit.
“Right now, on the surface of it, it just looks suspicious as all get-out,” Portko said.
Portko has a private investigator at work. He said it might take a court case to find out why the real estate agent didn’t land the big bucks for the seniors instead of the buyer she brought in.
“The bad thing is it hurts the seniors,” he said.
Had the seniors gotten the $209,000, there might have been enough cash to find another place for their senior center. The senior organization is dissolving and what’s left in its bank account has to go to other nonprofit groups in the area. What it has left of the $25,000, after paying expenses, leaves a lot less for other nonprofits than there might have been.
“It could have helped so many organizations,” Norton said.
Some of the seniors have been meeting at the local library and the pastor of the church that bought their former center says he’s willing to talk about finding space for them in the building. Still, many say they want their own space.
Real estate agent Powell wouldn’t comment for this report. Buyer-seller Bob Young of Comstock Park was in touch by email but so far has not responded to questions.