February 29, 2012 - There's no denying that the streetscape concept proposed for downtown Oxford is absolutely beautiful.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's dazzling, even breathtaking. It's obvious that a lot of time, effort and thought went into creating this plan. Kudos to the planners!
The images shown at the Feb. 20 Downtown Development Authority (DDA) meeting painted quite the blue sky picture of how wonderful things could look if we're willing to spend $4.66 million to make it happen.
But ay, there's the rub. The cost is no small matter and it certainly shouldn't be brushed aside as a minor obstacle in the pursuit of this grand vision. Dreams don't happen without dollars – no matter how much we all think good thoughts.
Now, we've been told that $3.66 million of that total could be eligible for Transportation Enhancement Grant funding from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). We've also been told that if awarded such a grant, MDOT typically pays 70 percent and requires a 30 percent match from the locals.
Forgive me, but I just can't see MDOT giving Oxford $2.56 million for this project. If I were MDOT – which has to look at the Big Picture – I'd see very little wisdom or value in handing out such a large chunk of funds for a brand new streetscape in a small village in northern Oakland County.
Sure, Oxford's very important to those of us who live, work and own property here, but it's fairly insignificant on Lansing's political radar. That's not a slam, it's reality.
Downtown Rochester has a much grander reputation than downtown Oxford and MDOT's only giving it $600,000 for its $1.4 million streetscape project. The other $800,000 is coming from Rochester's DDA. The remaining $6.2 million MDOT's budgeted for Rochester's renovation is for repaving the streets, which carry MDOT's top priority – traffic.
Frankly, if I were MDOT, there's no way I would give Oxford $2.56 million because then I'd have every other community knocking on my door, looking for a handout.
But there's absolutely nothing wrong with asking so, I say go for it – ask away. Let's assume MDOT's feeling generous these days, has a few cocktails at lunch before it starts handing out grants, and gives Oxford everything it wants.
Or let's assume our state representative, Brad Jacobsen, is able to pin down some faceless MDOT apparatchik and force them to cut us a check. (Brad, can you master the Figure-Four Leglock? How about the Camel Clutch?)
In either case, Oxford's DDA would still have to come up with $2.1 million, which isn't exactly chump change.
Given the proposed DDA operating budget for 2012-13 is approximately $587,000 and the entity's fund balance is projected to be around $66,000 by June 30 and could be $3,359 by June, 30, 2013 (these numbers are subject to change), it's safe to assume the DDA does not have the necessary funds to pull this off.
Yes, the DDA could look for grants from other sources to help cover its $2.1 million portion and I sincerely hope it does.
But remember, you need to have matching funds for any grant you receive, so it's not exactly free money as some people seem to think. Also, the grant game is much, much more competitive than it used to be. Everybody's got their hands out these days, so nothing's a sure thing anymore.
I really hope the DDA does not consider borrowing any money for this project. The last thing anybody needs is more debt. Right now, the DDA owes $1.56 million in principal from two previous bond issues and pays $145,000 annually in principal and interest.
I know it's the American way – why put off until tomorrow what you can borrow for today, then make future generations pay – but it's a habit that will ultimately ruin us.
Of course, the DDA could have some extra money to set aside for this project if the village wasn't forcing it to pay a combined $145,000 annually for police and DPW services.
But again, we all know the village council isn't going to release it's iron grip on that money, so that idea's out.
It's amazing how money that's really supposed to be used for economic development ends up back in the village's coffers for basic municipal services. Anyway . . .
I'll say this – if the DDA can convince MDOT to pony up $2.56 million; and if the DDA can get the majority of its $2.1 million share from other grant sources; and if the DDA can pay for whatever's left without borrowing one thin dime; and if the DDA can figure out how to pay an additional $30,000 to $40,000 per year to maintain this new streetscape, then I vow to wholeheartedly support the new streetscape project from start to finish.
Finally, I'd like to comment on something DDA Chairman and Oxford Village Councilman Kevin Stephison said following the streetscape presentation.
"I know a lot of us are used to living in the Land of Can't. I hear that an awful lot in government. I hear it an awful lot in business," he said.
Actually, I wish more people in government lived in the Land of Can't – or at least visited once in a while. From where I sit, most government folks live in the Land of Can.
To paraphrase President Barack Obama when he was on the stump during the 2008 campaign, it seems to me government is always saying, "Yes, we can . . . spend your money. Yes, we can . . . increase the debt. Yes, we can . . . expand government programs. Yes, we can . . . raise taxes."
Government most definitely lives in the Land of Can.
It's the taxpayers who are living in the Land of Can't.
We can't pay our bills. We can't get ahead. We can't afford the things we need. We can't afford the things we want. We can't catch a break, period.
Yes, I do believe we can – and should – improve downtown Oxford. But right now, we can't afford this plan.
Maybe bits and pieces of it here and there over time, but certainly not the whole thing at once.
It's not "negative" to point this out, it's simply being realistic, which is a mindset that some like to castigate as "negative" because they don't believe in dissent of any kind. Positive thinking is no match for stone-cold reality.
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.