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DDA board defends itself

xford DDA Board Member Jim Bielak (click for larger version)
January 30, 2013 - "When large projects requiring large amounts of capital are introduced, there's bound to be disagreements.

"While I'm fully open to spirited discussion on the matters stated, I do not believe that this board should be threatened, demeaned and chastised for what the majority at the time believe is needed."

Those were the words of Jim Bielak, a member of the Oxford Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board, as he responded to the criticisms and demands leveled against him and his fellow board members at the Jan. 7 village council meeting.

At that council meeting, DDA district property and business owners like Mark Young, Chuck Schneider and Chris Bishop presented a list of five things they want to see happen.

They indicated their points are supported by 24 property owners representing 50 properties within the DDA district.

Their demands were as follows:

n Stop pursuing plans for a proposed $4.65 million streetscape;

n Stop coordinating and funding events and focus on economic development;

n Eliminate the DDA's paid administrative positions;

n Consider more carefully who is appointed to the DDA in terms of their skills, knowledge and background;

n Start investing DDA funds in the district's northern and southern areas instead of just focusing on the four central quadrants.

This list, plus the remarks that went along with it during the presentation, upset some members of the DDA board. They in turn responded at both the Jan. 21 DDA meeting and Jan. 22 council meeting.

"I want to thank those gentlemen that gave that presentation for bringing their concerns to light," Bielak said. "I truly do understand their concerns with regard to the DDA's involvement in these events, the streetscape project and the apparent inequity of the disbursement of DDA dollars."

That being said, Bielak pointed out that Schneider, Young and Bishop have all previously served on the DDA board.

"They all know the procedures that are typically followed for giving input and discussion of committee ideas and DDA plans," he said. "And they are all aware that they purposely chose not to address these issues and discuss them with the DDA board or its committees."

"Their presentation to the village council was unsettling to me since I was threatened, accused and portrayed as incompetent," Bielak noted.

With regard to the "rhetoric" used to criticize the DDA, Bielak said, "We need to tone it down, gentlemen, and act professional.

"I realize that people don't get involved in something until they disagree with it and emotions can sometimes overtake sensibility. But I have a hard time responding to and identifying with people who believe that the only way change can be accomplished is through the use of premeditated threats and bullying."

He cited the threat of potential legal action against the DDA and the characterization of the streetscape project as being "their side against our side" as examples.

"Those are confrontational devices and militant words that are used in war, abortion and gun ownership issues, not a streetscape project," Bielak said.

With regard to the accusations that DDA board members are "ignorant" and "unqualified," Bielak said. "I have real trouble taking anyone seriously who paints the entire DDA board with that wide of a brush."

"I ask you to tone down the rhetoric. I want to work together," he noted.

Bielak went on to say that "many of the accusations leveled at the DDA were baseless and hypocritical."

"The accusers could have been looking themselves in the mirror," he said.

Bielak noted how Young demanded the DDA host no more events. "Where was his outcry for this demand when you were DDA chairperson?" he asked.

As for the claim that "there is no money" for the streetscape project, Bielak noted the DDA is still paying off the $1.8 million bond debt incurred for parking lot improvements under Young's chairmanship.

"Evidently, there was no money for that project either," he said, adding he was curious as to whether or not the DDA pursued any grants for those projects.

Bishop defended the parking lot improvements because prior to them "the state of the parking in downtown Oxford was dire."

"The DDA was not spending any money on its parking," he said. "And that was a complaint by council. Council went to DDA and directed them to spend money on parking – bond if they need to, but address the issues."

"If you look at the state of the parking from 2006 to 2010, it's a dramatic difference," Bishop continued. "Just with some simple (redesign of the layout), I believe they picked up close to 40 spots (in the southwest lot)."

"I can point to at least two of the people on this board that have much more presentable backdoors today due to the parking lot improvements that were done just two or three years ago in the (northwest) quadrant," Bishop said. "The DDA had direction from the council on the parking lots at that time. I don't know if you can say that about this streetscape today."

Regarding the accusation that there is no widespread support for the streetscape project, Bielak noted how the DDA sought input from the township, village and the public, and contracted with professionals to create and publicly present plans and drawings.

"As a result, the input was overwhelmingly positive," he said. "This is what I was basing my votes and my decisions on."

As for the criticism that the streetscape design is "not as good as it could be," Bielak said, "No one ever said the design was perfect."

"The bottom-line is the streetscape drawing can and will be tweaked before any engineering drawings are ever created," he said. "The final design, cost and implementation dates are not set in stone."

Bielak noted that the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) "will without a doubt force changes to the plan before a shovel is ever put in the ground."

He cited the northwest parking lot improvements instituted while Schneider, Bishop and Young were on the DDA as an example of poor design. "They want us to do as they say and not as they do," he said.

Bielak described the northwest lot as a "sterile looking sea of asphalt and concrete with a $30,000 dumpster enclosure as a focal point."

Bielak cited "yet another case of the pot calling the kettle black." He mentioned the $166,000 debt the DDA owed to the village for bills which the village had paid on the DDA's behalf, but never received reimbursement.

"That bill accrued while these gentlemen sat on the DDA board and actively approved the monthly budget sheets and bill runs," he said.

In the end, Bielak supports the streetscape project because "the entire DDA district has degraded to a shabby-looking state and studies show that it is a pedestrian-unfriendly, hard-to-navigate, unsafe and noisy place."

"In order to create a more successful, vibrant, healthy and attractive DDA district, those negative attributes must be addressed," he said.

DDA Board Member Ed Hunwick also had plenty to say with regards to the criticisms and demands he heard.

"We were labeled as being incompetent at the (Jan. 7 council meeting)," Hunwick said. "That was my impression. I don't want to be confrontational. I'm willing to let it go in one ear and out the other. I have a thick skull, but I just think it was unfair. These guys on this board work pretty hard."

"I'm here because I care about the community and I want to make a difference if I can," he added. "I have no prejudice against the north end of the town or the south end of the town. I just want the town to be successful."

To Hunwick, the DDA's main objective is to "grow the downtown" and "provide an environment for the residents (in which) they can walk in a safe manner."

Hunwick noted that Bishop, to his credit, has always been "very consistent" in his criticism regarding "the lack of attention to the south end" of the DDA district.

The most "frustrating" thing, to Hunwick, about the comments made at the Jan. 7 council meeting was the "misinformation."

"We have a plan that was drawn up that's about $4.5 million if we went the whole gamut," he said. "The DDA board never, ever said they wanted to do this in 2014 (as was asserted as the Jan. 7 council meeting). I don't know where that date came from. It never was brought up in a meeting. It never was discussed."

"The mindset was if we only have $2 million or $1.5 million, then that's what we're going to have to deal with. If we get the whole $5 million (in grants), then maybe we can look at the whole plan and say, 'Well, is this what everybody wants?' I can't believe that the business community doesn't want to improve the aesthetics of the downtown to some degree."

Since MDOT's already planning to do some road work on M-24 in 2016, which is going to impact the business community anyway, Hunwick said, "Why not, while they're feeling the pain then, make whatever changes we can make (to the streetscape) during that MDOT reconstruction?"

Hunwick noted he wants the village council to give its input on the streetscape. "I wanted to have you guys review the plans and see what you thought," Hunwick told council.

Hunwick explained that the DDA has "never tried to do anything more than to put forth a plan that was reasonable."

"We never talked about borrowing any money. That has never come up in discussion," he said. "It was always (about) trying to recoup any type of grant money that might be available."

"I'm the last guy that wants to raise taxes or spend money that we don't have," Hunwick noted. "I'm as conservative as you can get. But let's face it, you own a home, you have to make improvements to it over a period of time or maintain it.

"I don't think (it's) illogical to want to reinvest in the downtown. I think you have to do that over a period of time. All this board is trying to do is reasonably put something together. By no means are we going to do it without input from the council and from the business owners."

Although she was given plenty of space in the Jan. 16 edition of the Leader to respond to the criticisms and demands, DDA Board Member Anna Taylor made a few additional points at the Jan. 21 meeting.

"We might have a difference of opinion as far as the direction of the downtown, but this is our downtown," she said. "We don't go on camera and disparage a brand new board, who's barely been together . . . not even a year."

Taylor noted there's one difference between this DDA board and "every other board."

"We really, really like each other," she said. "And we really respect each other a lot."

With regard to the streetscape, Taylor noted MDOT's coming through Oxford to resurface M-24 in 2016 and the DDA is trying to prepare for that by coordinating streetscape improvements to happen at the same time.

Doing nothing would be the equivalent of "putting clean clothes on a dirty body." It doesn't make sense to Taylor to put in new streets and gutters, but leave sidewalks and brick-pavers that are broken, popping and missing. "We have a fine, fine community and we have a beautiful home with gorgeous businesses, (but) our landscape stinks," she said. "You walk into any room in our home and we're proud to call this home, but the front yard looks bad . . . and it's our job to protect it."

Taylor also defended DDA Director Madonna Van Fossen as these property/business owners demanded the elimination of the DDA's paid administrative positions.

"Madonna Van Fossen has been so unjustly beat up and she is used as a punching bag for the self-serving purposes of certain people in this town," she said. "I've worked with more DDA directors than all you all put together.

"This is one of the hardest working, most dedicated people I have ever met. She rarely puts in (just) 40 hours a week. She's on call 24 hours a day and she answers the phone at 12:30 (or) 1 o'clock in the morning."

"If you guys don't recognize what y'all have in a DDA director, then I'm sorry, but there's plenty of people that would give their eyeteeth to have someone that was as dedicated, convicted, sincere, honest and loving as this woman is," Taylor added.

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.
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