December 26, 2012 - Investing thousands of dollars in the hopes of collecting millions – that's the Oxford Downtown Development Authority's strategy when it comes to financing the proposed streetscape plan, which carries a price tag of nearly $5 million.
To that end, the DDA board last week voted 4-3 to hire Rochester Hills resident Linda Davis Kirksey to serve as a funding consultant and grant writer for $12,000. Her employment period is for six months beginning Jan. 1.
"I hope that we are successful. In fact, I know we'll be successful together," she told the board.
Back in February, the DDA was presented a $4.66 million conceptual plan to revamp and improve the downtown's streetscape in order to make it safer for pedestrians, more attractive and identifiable to visitors, and help calm the tremendous volume of traffic that rolls up and down Washington St. (M-24) every day.
Kirksey comes with "15 years worth of experience and success" as a grant writer.
"Primarily, my client base (consists of) municipalities, DDAs, folks like yourself," she said.
Kirksey is currently under contract with the City of Utica in Macomb County. In her six years working for the city, she's brought in almost $6 million in grants for infrastructure and facade improvements, hike/bike trails, bridges, police, fire and the River Walk project.
"I really feel I bring a lot of experience (and) a wealth of knowledge," she said. "I've had a very good success rate with DDAs and municipalities in trying to get infrastructure projects done."
DDA member Anna Taylor was "impressed" by Kirksey's ability to secure funding and her "true understanding of planning and development." Her contacts at the municipal, county and state levels are an added bonus.
"She (has) the connections that are needed in order to . . . get your project in front of the people that are making decisions," Taylor said.
Although grant writing is "a very technical job," Taylor feels Kirksey is also able to "tell a story," which is critical when it comes to garnering the attention of whoever is reading the application and making decisions on whether or not to fund a project.
"It has to be told in a way that makes sense," she said. "It has to be told with passion and Linda has that ability."
"It's about working the project from start to finish – understanding, from your perspective and the community's perspective, what the passion is and what the goal and the vision (is)," Kirksey said. "I understand how to take that vision and make it into a reality."
But not everyone on the DDA board was as enthusiastic about hiring Kirksey as Taylor was.
"Let me be the Grinch," said DDA Chairman Bill Dunn.
His main concern was any grants the DDA receives will require matching funds and the authority has no extra monies for that purpose.
"We could get all these grants we want, but what we don't have here is money," Dunn said. "What I'd like to see done is have the DDA put aside money – earmark it for certain projects. We don't have anything like that in place. So, you can get us all the grants you want, (but) we don't have any money to match it.'
DDA Director Madonna Van Fossen explained that Kirksey has the ability to find and secure grants that could serve as the DDA's matching funds for other grants.
"That sounds illegal," Dunn said.
"It's not illegal," Kirksey replied. "You can leverage funds to get funds. It's an approach."
Kirksey noted how she was able to get $1.9 million in funds for Utica that required no matching funds. "That was for a bike trail and a bridge replacement through MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation)," she said."I understand your point completely – you do have to budget funds for projects, but the bottom line is you have to know how to work that yourselves to be able to leverage dollars," she explained. "I know how to do that. I really do."
Oxford Village Manager Joe Young told the board there are "other avenues to come up" with match monies "outside of village or DDA funds" such as foundation money, private money and creating a nonprofit to solicit and receive donations.
"There are other sources of funding that you can leverage to assist you to get the match requirements that you need," Kirksey said.
Kirksey indicated she'll "make sure" the DDA isn't "putting (itself) into jeopardy" and that "you can leverage the funds that you need to complete your project."
"You don't go after funds if you're not qualified or eligible," she noted.
"That's my fear," said Dunn, who added he's simply not willing to "spend $2,000 a month (for Kirksey's services) on a hope."
"Until we put something into place to earmark money for specific projects, I'm going to be voting no," he said. "We have no money, folks. None. I'd love to see it go through, but I'm just a realist."
"It's not like we go willy-nilly and we do a gunshot (approach to get funding)," Kirksey said. "It's a very planned, aggressive and strategic way to do things . . . It's not a hope or a prayer. I put together these contracts based on the fact that I know that I'm going to be successful. Just like you pick me, I pick you."
Mark Young, a downtown business owner and former DDA chairman, asked Kirksey if she's looked at the entity's finances.
"I have not had a chance to review them," she replied.
"I haven't gone through your finances in detail . . . But the bottom-line is with this type of a project, we'd be able to leverage the funds that we would need to make it complete. I know that," Kirksey told the board. "All I can tell you is I know what I know because I've been doing it a long time.
"I do understand your concerns. I do. It's (something) that I've been faced with before. But when you're going into a contractual relationship with a professional, you have to trust the fact that I'm going to deliver on what I say I'm going to deliver on."
"If we were to engage your services, are you saying that you could deliver?" asked DDA member Ed Hunwick.
"I don't guarantee," Kirksey replied. "I know that we can leverage the dollars we need to get this project to completion. I don't guarantee. I never do that. I'm just saying knowing what I know about this project and who is involved in this project and what we need to do to get it done, this is a very, very doable project."
"I know where we have to go to get the funding," she noted.
Hunwick indicated he voted against hiring Kirksey because it's unclear to him where the village council actually stands on the proposed streetscape plan.
"I think this is a great opportunity for us and I think she probably provides us with a great opportunity to secure some funds, (but) my concern is (whether) the village council is completely on board with this," he said. "We really haven't gotten – at least that I'm aware of – 100 percent approval from them or that they're completely on board with this and they're willing to allow us go forward with pursuing this project. I would be more comfortable voting for her engagement if I know the village council is completely on board."
Hunwick expressed his concern that the village council might make the DDA "go through hoops" or "put a bunch of roadblocks in front of us" with regard to the proposed streetscape plan.
"(What) if we hire her and she secures grant money, (then) the village says, 'We're not going to do that. We're not going to go along with that,'" he said.
"The village council has been invited to any and all informational sessions that we have had about this, so the information is readily available to them," Van Fossen said. "They have not been formally presented with a plan."
Manager Young noted how the village council has adopted a Complete Streets resolution, which formally recognized the need to make the downtown safer for pedestrians, one of the proposed streetscape's main goals.
"This is the next step," he said. "You won't know till you present it if they like it or they don't."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.