January 16, 2013 - A group of concerned Oxford property and business owners went before the village council last week demanding some fundamental changes be made in the way the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) operates, its focus and its plans for the future.
"The general consensus is that we have lost confidence in the directions that the boards and commissions are taking," said Mark Young, owner of Mark A. Young Jewelers (31 N. Washington St.) and former DDA chairman. "They're not making the proper judgments (with regard to) the direction that we think Oxford and council should be taking."
These property and business owners essentially want to see five things happen – 1) stop pursuing plans to construct a proposed $4.7 million streetscape; 2) stop coordinating and funding events and focus on economic development; 3) eliminate the DDA's paid administrative positions; 4) consider more carefully who is appointed to the DDA in terms of their skills, knowledge and background; and 5) start investing DDA funds in the district's northern and southern areas instead of just focusing on the four central quadrants.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we need to do things differently," said Chuck Schneider, who owns 11 properties throughout the DDA district and used to serve on the DDA board.
Schneider indicated the above points represent the "consensus" of 24 people he talked to representing 50 properties. He said what Oxford needs is a "new beginning."
"We are starting over," he said. "We're starting over financially. We're starting over organizationally. We're starting over people-wise."
Despite the public criticism, which lasted for about an hour, DDA Director Madonna Van Fossen was gracious in her responses.
"I just want to thank everybody for their comments tonight," she said. "I appreciate them . . . It's really great to get this feedback on projects that we're working on."
In February 2012, the DDA was presented a conceptual $4.7 million 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 vehicular traffic that rolls up and down Washington St. (M-24) every day.
"We are agreed that any spending on streetscape improvements should be eliminated," Young said.
Young cited a variety of reasons for their opposition to the proposed streetscape.
"You don't have any money (to do the work). I don't see any great, widespread support for this project . . . The design is probably not as good as it could be.
"I do believe that if you do move forward with that project that you will probably be tied up in court."
Young later told this reporter, "It wouldn't necessarily be me that would probably sue them, but based on the discussion amongst some of us, (the streetscape project) would be challenged in court by the other property owners, especially some down in the south end (of the DDA district)."
"The streetscape, while seemingly a good idea for the village, can turn into a disaster for a lot of the local businesses," said Richard Williams, who's owned Williams Art Glass Studio (22 N. Washington St.) for 30 years.
"I've seen the sidewalks torn up at least three times for extended periods. Access is denied to the businesses. Parking is denied to the businesses. At what cost to the merchant? Well, quite a bit."
"On several similar projects, many businesses have gone out of business because of the (financial) losses they suffered," Williams noted.
He, too, wonders how the DDA is going to pay for the proposed streetscape, which he believes is "overextended in scope."
"I don't know where the money is going to come from," he said. "There's no money there."
"I'm in opposition to the project and I hope that saner heads prevail," Williams said.
With regard to the money issue, the DDA believes it can obtain the necessary funding for the streetscape project through grants.
That's why last month, the DDA board voted 4-3 to hire grant writer Linda Davis Kirksey for $12,000. The DDA is pursuing grants that could be used as matching funds to help win other larger grants or grants that require no match monies.
Schneider told council "it's more important" for the DDA "to create development and create tax revenue than it is to spend money on beautification," which is what the streetscape boils down to in his view.
"Beautification is not going to bring people to your community," he said. "I'll show you all kinds of communities with streetscapes that have empty stores."
"Streetscape is the very last thing you do. It's beautification. You don't put in your landscaping, then build your house. It's the very last thing you do."
It was noted how the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is looking at doing some road work on M-24 in 2016.
The property and business owners who spoke feared that if the DDA tries to construct this new streetscape before then, all of the improvements will have to be torn out when MDOT does its project.
"We're going to line up some 40-yard dumpsters and we are going to put our streetscape in them," Schneider said.
In response to the streetscape criticism, Van Fossen said, "I appreciate everybody's opinion and nothing is set in stone, yet."
The director noted the DDA's has been talking with MDOT. "There has been discussion about if the streetscape (project) goes ahead, when exactly to do it because we certainly wouldn't want to spend the money on streetscape and then a year or two later have MDOT come and rip it up," Van Fossen said. "We are in conversation with MDOT about actually working together because of the fact MDOT would cover a lot of that cost."
Van Fossen noted "a lot of the points that were brought up are very good."
"I apologize if I have not or the DDA has not done a good job in communicating all of this information because rest assured, we have been working on this project for about two years and a lot of these (points) have been addressed and are actually in (the) process of being talked about," she said.
Van Fossen stressed that all of the DDA's board and committee meetings are open to the public and she welcomes people to attend and give their input.
Economic development, not events
Concerts in the Park, Celebrate Oxford, The Scarecrow Festival and Backyards & Burgers are all events spearheaded by the DDA.
But these property and business owners don't believe they should be.
"These are all fine events, but using DDA money to fund and produce them is really contrary to what the DDA's charged with, which is economic development," Young said. "The losses of income to the commercial district are far greater than the limited number of businesses that do benefit from them."
"Basically, the DDA's lost focus," Young noted. "If the merchants find these events critical, then they should contribute along with service groups, private individuals and businesses. I don't believe that the DDA should be doing that anymore."
Schneider expressed the same sentiments.
"We are not in the concert business. We are not (here) to entertain people. We aren't there to have to soup strolls . . . and (put on) all these little events we do that generate nothing," he said.
The DDA's focus should be economic development in their opinion, specifically attracting new businesses. "We have to establish a reason for businesses to come to the community," Schneider said. "Who's job is it to build demand? Who's job is it to build consideration? The DDA. It is not the DDA's job to have some concert in the park."
DDA Chairman Bill Dunn, who's also the supervisor for Oxford Township, explained how the DDA is currently in the process of re-examining its role and looking at possibly moving away from constantly being the group that organizes and funds community events.
"I believe the board does not want to get out of the business of working on these events," he said. "We would like to work on (them) with the community. We just don't feel the DDA should be the spearhead for all these events."
Van Fossen noted how she's been in contact with representatives from Oxford Township Parks and Recreation, Oxford Community Schools and the Oxford Chamber of Commerce about participating in event-planning.
"Those organizations are very much interested in everybody working together (on) our events, so the DDA doesn't shoulder everything," she said. "The goal of the DDA is for economic development and that has not been the mainstay for the past few years."
Van Fossen said events should be "community events" and "to have a real community event, let's get the community involved, let's get the other organizations involved."
Eliminate paid DDA administration
Young indicated they would like to see the village consider eliminating the DDA's paid administrative positions.
The director's position receives about $66,780 in compensation between wages and benefits, while the administrative assistant position, which is currently vacant, costs $15,000.
"To have an $80,000 expense to administer a $170,000 budget makes absolutely no common sense or fiscal sense," Young said.
Young explained to this reporter that in his view, the DDA really only has about $170,000 in available spending when fixed expenses such as bond debt payments, Department of Public Works services and police services are subtracted from the budget.
It should be noted that in the past, Van Fossen has tried to save the DDA money by taking a $998 cut in her annual salary and securing her own health insurance coverage, which saves approximately $7,000 annually.
Chris Bishop, owner of Oxford Hardware, noted how the savings from eliminating administrative positions could be used to help pay off the DDA's bond debt.
This group of property and business owners believes the village council needs to carefully consider who it appoints to the DDA board and what their qualifications are.
"People are a very important element in our process here," Schneider said. "The bottom-line is that we need to be more conscious of who we're putting on boards, who were putting on commissions. What can they contribute? What are their skills?"
Schneider gave each council member a copy of his resume and told them, "This should be the starting point with anyone we want to put on a board, commission, committee, etc. We want to know who these people are."
Schneider wants skilled, professional people administering the tax dollars it receives. "I want somebody who knows what they are doing. I want to see their resume," he said.
This needs to be done because DDA board members should be accountable for their actions. "The people who we appoint who are making these decisions are responsible to us as property owners," Schneider said. "They don't get a free ride. They are responsible for their decisions . . . We're not playing Monopoly here. This isn't a game. This is real life."
Bishop believes council needs to be much more active and shrewd in deciding who it appoints. "I don't know if it's always wise to use merely the recommendation of the DDA board to appoint additional DDA board members," he said.
"There's been a lot of conflict through the years between the DDA and the village council over the administration of this budget. I think you might have a less adversarial (DDA) board to the village's view if the council is more involved in the actual selection . . . and less concerned with the recommendation from the DDA as to who they want on that board."
Young noted that some of those serving on the DDA board are not concerned with the district as a whole, only their part of it.
"The representatives that you approve for these boards are really acting in their own interests," he said.
DDA is more than four quadrants
The DDA needs to start expanding its focus and investment beyond the four downtown quadrants, according to these property and business owners.
"Any real economic development can only really occur on the south end of town in the DDA district because that's the only property you have left to develop," Young said.
It was noted how the southern portion of the DDA district is neglected, in their view.
"The people south of Broadway contribute $179,555.94 a year to the DDA," said Schneider, noting these property owners, including himself, have nothing to show for it.
"Where is my money? I don't have a streetlight. I don't have a trash can. I don't have anything," he said.
Schneider noted how the Oxford Marketplace has "not a thing" to show for the $1 million it's contributed to the DDA over the years.
Young agreed. "It's been (more than) 20 years that they've contributed that and they've really got zero to show for it," he said.
"For us, in parts of the district that receive no economic benefit however, we continue to fund this DDA, it's very disheartening," said Bishop, who's hardware store is located in the Oxford Marketplace. "It makes it hard to volunteer because you're merely wasting your time."
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.