December 07, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry
Citizens’ Forum members from left: Mark Brackon, Lisa Zsenyuk, Chris Barnett, Mary Ann Ryan, Jarrett Gorman, Alaina Campbell, Julie Brenner and Mindie Wolvin. Photo by G. Ouzounian. (click for larger version)
and Gabriel Ouzounian
Earlier this fall, The Review sent out a public invite and eight people from our community stepped forward to participate in the newspaper's first Citizens' Forum held last week.
The meeting took place at the Orion Township Public Library. No lights, no cameras – just a few tables pulled together, with the multi-generational group talking candidly about living in Lake Orion. Questions were asked regarding what the group liked and disliked about our community, their thoughts on our schools and government, the business climate and more.
We managed to gather a nice cross-section of the population:
Julie Brenner, mother of two district students and director of the North Oakland Community Coalition;
Chris Barnett, father of three students, salesman and high school PTO president;
Alaina Campbell, mother of two students and director of the Orion Area Chamber of Commerce;
Mindie Wolvin, small business owner;
Mark Brackon, retired automotive executive and current part-time professor;
Lisa Zsenyuk, stay-at-home mom of a two-year old child;
Jarrett Gorman, senior at Lake Orion High School; and,
Mary Ann Ryan, long-time resident of the community, nurse and health professional.
The following are excerpts from the conversation:
LOR: What makes Lake Orion unique?
Campbell: "Lake Orion has a small-town feel with big city amenities not far away. We're close to so many things, from the Palace down the road to downtown Detroit. But, at the end of the day, we're still a small, tight-knit community."
Wolvin: "The lakes – there are so many of them. You can be driving on busy M-24 and then make a turn and be on a dirt road and see wildlife. You step off of the highway and in minutes you're back to nature."
Zsenyuk: "Before moving here, I was living in Trenton and we'd come up here on the weekends. After a while, we knew more people here than down there. Back home, we only knew the neighbors on either side of us. We love our neighbors here and are very close. I had never experienced that before."
Brenner: "I originally came from Canada and lived in Philadelphia before coming here. I was driving down Maybee Road and found Lake Orion. I was impressed with their schools, which seemed top notch. That was important to me since I was pregnant. This community also is very family-oriented, which was important to me in setting down roots."
Gorman: "I think our community is tight and sticks together in the bad times. When we went to (the state football championship) it wasn't just the kids that were excited and went, but the parents too. It's what makes us different than other communities."
Ryan: "We've lived here 30 or 40 years and the people around us are the same neighbors we had when we moved here. That gives you the feeling of a small town. Nobody's clingy, but when there's a need - man, they're there."
LOR: Is there anything about Lake Orion that you do not like?
Campbell: "I think our school district is just too big. Our children get lost, both academically and socially. . . It's hard for kids to get involved and connected . . . It's not the teachers' or administrators' fault. It's got to be difficult managing something so big. "
Brenner: "We live in a reactive community that needs to be more proactive. A crisis, such as a suicide, will rock this entire community and sometimes that kicks us into a reactive mode. I'm not saying this community is bad, but I think things can be handled differently."
Gorman: "There have been nine (now ten) suicides amongst young people (from Lake Orion) in four years. I know it's not just a school issue, but I want something to be done. But, the people who come to the meetings to discuss suicide and get involved are not the people who are killing themselves. We need to find the people who really need the help."
Brackon: "Voter apathy. In the last school board election, we couldn't even get ten percent turnout. A village council election attracted what – 250 voters? There is a real lack of voter turnout in this community."
Campbell: "It seems like a lot of people have opinions, but few are willing to step up and voice them and try to make a difference in what goes on around here. I guess it's because this is a small town and we don't want anybody to know."
Zsenyuk: "The downtown is lacking business. I can go to Oxford and see all the lights and realize wow, things are happening there . . . I love Dragon on the Lake and I wish they'd move the carnival back downtown. We need more events there."
LOR: Is Lake Orion heading in the right direction?
Wolvin: "I think it's moving in the right direction, but I think we can do better. At least when I drive down the street these days, every other home isn't for sale."
Ryan: "We have to be more business friendly. The township needs to look at its ordinances and those that are unfriendly (to businesses) need to be thrown out. I've seen people in tears in front of the planning commission because they have to come back so many times (to get approvals for their new businesses)."
Barnett: "I generally think we're heading in the right direction, but I agree the problem we have is that we're not doing enough to attract business here, rather than scaring them away. If we're a million dollars in the hole, then we need to cut our budget, or increase our revenues – one way is to bring businesses back into the community."
Campbell: "There are several ways to increase revenues. One is to attract new businesses. The other is to educate our residents to keep their spending local. People just don't realize what kind of impact this can have. (Studies show) for every $100 dollars spent locally, $68 stays in the community. That's huge."
LOR: Is the state moving in the right direction?
Brackon: "I don't know. The state has lost so many people, 67,000 one year, 75,000 the next. Until the state stabilizes itself, I don't know how local governments can continue to survive."
Barnett: "Snyder (Michigan's governor) has done a good job of pretty much getting every group mad, but the bottom line is if you're in the red, you can't spend more money."
Zsenyuk: "Government keeps getting bigger and bigger and every business keeps getting smaller. I guess I'm obsessive about making government smaller. There is little accountability to justify why they need the budgets they have."
Gorman: "A lot of people in this state are stubborn. Michigan has always been a manufacturing state and people want to keep it that way. Unfortunately, that is not how many people are going to make a living here anymore here. Michigan needs to educate its kids that they may not be engineers their whole life."
LOR: What is the greatest challenge facing Lake Orion in 2012?
Ryan: "I know when a family is struggling, it cuts its budget. The township is not doing enough to be accountable. We have mileages for the police, firemen, parks, safety paths and so on. Where is all of this money going?"
Brackon: "It will still be financing. That's an uphill battle. Everybody I talk to is still holding their breath. Property values are not coming back.
I don't think Lake Orion can survive by itself. It's being shortchanged by the county. They care about Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, Troy and Rochester – where the money and voters are. I think Lake Orion and Oxford need one central government. I drive up M-24 and over the span of six miles I see three police departments, two boards of trustees, village councils – why? I just don't think small towns can survive unless they get together."
Brenner: "I guess I'm just a practical person. If we're facing such difficult times, then how can we put new building up? It's ridiculous. I mean if this township is struggling so bad, why do we need new things. We need to pare down . . . Our government leaders need to listen to us. They work for us."
Zsenyuk: "We need to restructure government. They have to work within their means. They can't always get everything."
Gorman: "What has worked in the past does not work anymore. We need to convince ourselves there are other ways of doing things . . . Unfortunately, our community like the rest of the nation is resistant to change."
Barnett: "We're so trapped in ourthinking that this is the way it's always been done. Thinking outside of the box is a difficult exercise."
LOR: What should be Lake Orion's top priority next year?
Barnett: "Economic development us be the township's No. 1 priority. I think we're in the midst of a rebound, but there's a small window of opportunity. We need to be less restrictive with our ordinances . . . Lake Orion is competing against Oxford, Auburn Hills, Rochester, Troy and other nearby communities. We need to look at it as if this is a competition and be selfish because, if we just sit back, we'll be left behind."
Zsenyuk: "Our businesses need to make money and create jobs."
Ryan: "I'm a nurse and have worked with people struggling. I'm very aware of the consequences of mental illness and this state has stripped the mental health system. If this community really wants to wrap its arms around this issue, help needs to be accessible to all who need it."
LOR: Is this community polarized?
Campbell: "I don't know if it's polarized, but ther certainly are a lot of personality conflicts."
Zsenyuk: "You can be either left or right, but there are no greys. There are certain topics to avoid with my neighbors.
Ryan: "When you think about the ying and yang of it, you need compromise."