The 13 Watchdog team is asking questions about the sale of two former Muskegon school buildings after we found the Muskegon Public School District was unaware its current occupant had a long court history and had previously filed for bankruptcy.
To some, the former Froebel Elementary in the Jackson Hill neighborhood in Muskegon and the former Phillips Elementary in Norton Shores on E. Broadway Avenue have become eyesores that need immediate attention. The former schools are currently owned by the Life Training Campus, owned by investor Ervin Joseph Lamie.
In 2014, Muskegon Public Schools sold Froebel for $1000 and Phillips for $500 just to get rid of them with the hopes somebody would bring them back to life.
That hasn't happened and we found the man at the center of this, Lamie, under pressure trying to get something done.
Froebel Elementary was built in the 1920's and educated generations of childen. Lamie allowed us to tour the building and it is clear it is a step back in time. The elementary room had a fireplace, a mini-stage and fish pond. The 400-seat auditorium is in decent shape and could probably be used by the community today if the area would be cleaned up.
We found much of the school hasn't changed though. The old lunch room rules are still up on the wall, posters show Box Tops for Education expiring in 2006 and there are still painted murals left behind by the school district, now owned by Lamie.
Lamie wants to turn it around and is hoping to put what he calls the Life Training Campus at Froebel. While the core idea has changed over the years, Lamie says he now wants to put an education center in for older teenagers and post-high school adults. At this point, he hasn't made a move to fix things up yet.
In fact, very little has happened in two years of his ownership partially because he says there are those in government who are playing a "devious game" to get him out.
"Next thing we know everything is being turned against us including the assessment," Lamie said. "And then other issues came about regarding getting the property cleaned up when in fact we've done cleaning through the last year."
Lamie is seeking non-profit status to exempt Froebel from property taxes. That request has been denied by Muskegon County Department of Equalization Director Donna VanderVries, in part, because her opinion is the building's technically not occupied.
Lamie also bought Phillips Elementary two years ago and hasn't done anything with it. It's a building that Lamie acknowledges is falling apart and near being condemned.
In fact, the city of Norton Shores is suing Lamie for various violations at Phillips. The 13 Watchdog team obtained photos of some of the profane graffiti tagged on the building and the overall poor condition of the property including asbestos problems in tiles on the floor.
What makes people who live around Phillips so angry is seeing the fenced-in playground equipment in the backyard unused and slowly decaying. We are told neighborhood children put themselves at risk by sneaking in to the old school grounds to either play in the school or use the equipment.
Neighbors who live near Phillips are frustrated.
"Get something going in there," neighbor Douglas Hendrick said. "Yeah, you got to get something going in there and not let it lay there if you're not gonna do something with it."
Our investigation into Lamie's past provides questions whether anything will ever be developed.
In various court systems, Lamie has sued or been sued close to a dozen times. Federal court documents show he recently lost his primary residence because of a quote "foreclosure-related eviction case". Earlier this year, he was jailed because he didn't pay fines related to his conviction for driving while his license was suspended.
Muskegon County District Court shows Lamie has other violations over the years ranging from having expired plates to driving with no proof of registration to failing to maintain vehicle in a safe condition.
Federal documents also show Lamie is just coming out of bankruptcy. His case was discharged from Federal Court in May of this year.
Court records show Lamie also filed for bankruptcy in 1991.
"As far as them digging to see if there was anything negative about purchasing the buildings, I don't think they would have truly found anything that was positively negative about selling it to (me)," Lamie said.
In our investigation, Muskegon Superintendent Jon Felske said the school district was unaware of the previous bankruptcy.
Felske dismissed it, though, saying that wouldn't have stopped the sale of the school because of the length of time between the bankruptcy and sale.
"He did bring a wonderful team in and was very eager to want to purchase the properties," Felske said.
The superintendent recommended approval of the sale of the buildings to Lamie and says he thought Lamie was going to do something positive for the community.
"At this point in time you would hope to have seen progress and obviously the neighbors and school board would love to have seen him do what he said he was going to do," Felske said.
Despite the lack of action, Lamie was adamant he will finish his project. We asked if he could answer the skeptics.
"We want to put efforts to get this done and everybody is impressed by this building," Lamie said.
His first hurdle is a pending delinquent tax bill of more than $20,000 but he says he will have help from investors and his personal finances are separate from the business.
"The other issue is I am not alone," Lamie said.
Lamie says he hasn't paid his tax bills because he thinks the government's stiffing him with the tax valuation of the schools. Froebel is valued at $125,000 and Phillips is valued at nearly $500,000.
Equalization Director VanderVries says those valuations are opinions of value and it's up to Lamie to appeal them, something he says he will do in 2017.