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Dollars and cents behind proposed streetscape discussed

April 17, 2013 - While most of the presentation regarding revamping downtown Oxford's streetscape revolved around potential safety enhancements, the village council's main concern seemed to be money.

Specifically, how much is the proposed streetscape project going to cost and from where will the funding be obtained?

"It's going to cost quite a bit of money to do this, obviously," said Councilman Elgin Nichols. "Where do we stand on that exactly?"

"Bottom-line, grand total cost for this?" asked village President Tony Albensi.

Based on the conceptual plan submitted by Grissim Metz Andriese Associates (Northville) and Birchler Arroyo Associates (Lathrup Village) in February 2012, DDA Executive Director Madonna Van Fossen said it would cost approximately $4.5 million.

However, "that amount is the pie in the sky," she said. "The actual amount that we'll develop will be lower."

While the conceptual drawings will help form what the final streetscape design will ultimately look like, village planner Chris Khorey, of the Northville-based McKenna Associates, Inc., explained that "some changes have already been made and some more changes are in the works."

"Nothing's set in stone," Van Fossen said. "Nothing's been decided."

DDA Treasurer Ed Hunwick echoed these sentiments.

"Is this pie in the sky? Absolutely," he said, referring to the conceptual drawings. "We are not expecting to get to this level at all."

"We would like to get something close to that, but the reality is it's not going to happen – unless the Good Fairy drops some money down upon us," Hunwick explained. "We're not that naive to think that's going to happen."

Hunwick admitted what's shown in the conceptual plans "is going to be subtracted from."

"We can take away a lot of these frills and still make an improved downtown," he told council. "If it's 10, 15, 20 percent of what you see here (in the conceptual drawings), that's better than what we have."

Albensi reiterated that "the biggest concern about all this obviously is the funding."

"Quite honestly, the DDA and this village don't have the money to match (any grants Oxford is looking to apply for to fund the streetscape project)," he said. "There's no revenue stream that I can see in the future that's going to be coming in to be able to match a lot of this money."

Both Van Fossen and grant writer Linda Davis-Kirksey explained there are a number of funding sources that are being explored.

For instance, they're attempting to make the case to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) that many of the proposed streetscape improvements are necessary to enhance safety and health for pedestrians.

That way, when MDOT comes to do the M-24 road work it has planned for 2016, it could decide to include many of these improvements in their project and cover the cost.

Hunwick told council that "it makes more sense to put a plan together and to work with MDOT."

"If you don't deal with MDOT, it's going to cost you more money," he said. "If you do it with MDOT, the expense is extremely less and maybe they'll pick up a significant amount of the improvements that we can't afford."

Hunwick believes it also makes sense to coordinate the streetscape work with MDOT's project, so as not to prolong construction in the downtown area and hurt merchants.

"It would be prudent for this community to not disrupt the businesses anymore than they have to – to do whatever they can to improve the walkability of the downtown in conjunction with whatever MDOT does," he said.

In addition to dollars from MDOT, Van Fossen noted how the DDA's attorney is donating his time to set up a 501 (c)(3) tax exempt nonprofit organization to collect donations for the streetscape project.

Davis-Kirksey explained there will be corporations and businesses that want to donate to this project, but they can't because "you, as a community, of course, cannot accept that" money.

"And they, as corporations, really look at having a (tax) write-off, basically," she said.

Having 501 (c)(3) status is one of the "critical elements" that's missing in Oxford, in Davis-Kirksey's opinion.

Donations to the tax exempt organization could be used to help provide matching funds for grants. Smaller grants could also be used as match money for larger grants from other sources.

Davis-Kirksey noted that at some point, the village council may have to decide whether or not it wishes to continue accepting Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds because doing so makes the municipality ineligible for up to $100,000 in potential funding for infrastructure improvements from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

"It depends on what the village wants to do," she told this reporter.

The CDBG program provides federal funds annually to benefit low-and-moderate income individuals. Around here it's been used for everything from home improvements to sidewalk projects.

"(Oxford is) considered an entitlement community through (Oakland) County," Davis-Kirksey told this reporter. "(Oxford has) a contract (with the county for CDBG funding) that goes until I think the end of 2014. While (Oxford is) in that contract, it precludes them from applying for other funding with the state that could leverage larger and bigger dollars (for the streetscape project)."

Oxford Village receives approximately $9,000 in CDBG funds each year.

Davis-Kirkey indicated it would be up to the village council to decide whether it wants to trade this $9,000-per-year for the possibility of attaining up to $100,000 for the streetscape project.

"Communities do different things – it's (about) where their priorities are," she told this reporter. "In the future, they might say, 'We really want to go for this larger project . . . Maybe it's in our best (interest) to go after this other type of funding and maybe elect not to be in those programs (like CDBG) because they're not really being utilized.'"

Albensi wasn't too keen on the possibility of eliminating the village's participation in the CDBG program in order to go after potential funding from the MEDC.

"It's all well and good to try to get these funds, but I'm not sure this council, tonight, is going to say we're going to opt-out of CDBG," he said. "I know you say it's only $9,000, but it's $9,000 that benefits this community directly."

"We're not asking you to opt-out of CDBG funds," said Van Fossen, noting the April 9 presentation was for informational purposes only at this point.

In the end, Hunwick urged council to at least allow Davis-Kirksey to see what types of grants and other funding sources she can secure.

"If you don't ask, you don't get," he said. "If she comes back with millions of dollars, I think it's a home run. But we're not going to know until she tries."

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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