Source: Sherman Publications

DDA board member responds to criticisms

by CJ Carnacchio

January 16, 2013

“To be insulted in a public forum like that made me sick to my stomach.”

That’s how Anna Taylor described the feeling she had watching the Jan. 8 Oxford Village Council meeting at which a group of property and business owners spent about an hour criticizing the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), the board on which she serves (see story on Page 1).

Much of the criticism came from owners who are past DDA board members.

“I’ve seen no evidence that these past board members, who cry a river about opportunities being missed, actually roll up their sleeves, get dirty and do the work that needs to be done in order to continue having a viable DDA,” Taylor said. “They didn’t do the work, but yet they’re here to criticize all of the people who (are now doing it).”

Taylor defended the proposed $4.7 million streetscape project to which these property/business owners expressed strong opposition.

The project is supposed 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.

“Is there some pain when you go through remodeling? Sure there is,” Taylor said. “But I’ve been through countless remodelings. It’s painful, but you get through it, you get over to the other side and you’re better off when you finish than you were when you started.”

She likened the DDA district to an “absolutely beautiful home” with “absolutely no curb appeal.”

“There’s no safety, it’s worn and it’s tired,” she said. “The front yard is highly lacking.”

That poor image makes it difficult for Oxford to compete with other downtowns.

“We have competition now south of us,” Taylor said. “We have to compete for those same dollars with other towns.”

The streetscape will help downtown Oxford do that, in Taylor’s opinion.

“You don’t prepare your front yard if you’re not expecting visitors,” she said. “We can sit here and keep scratching our heads and doing the same things over again. Or we can prepare for the future.”

That being said, Taylor noted that the proposed streetscape “is simply a scope of work.” No engineering designs have been created and “nothing is set in stone,” so nothing is being “forced” on anyone.

“Do I like everything about the plan? No,” she said. “A lot of things are not what I would do. But it’s a professional’s opinion.

“It’s like having an artist come in to paint a portrait of you. What you see and maybe what they see are not necessarily the same thing, but you’ve got an artist and you’ve got a starting point.”

Taylor was upset by the “absolutely ludicrous” accusation that the DDA’s planning to build a new streetscape that’s going to be torn up if the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) does the resurfacing of M-24 its planning for 2016.

“On the false meter, it registers all the way over as far as (the needle) can go,” she said. “It’s preposterous that anybody in their right mind would go through the process of implementing a $4 million project just to have it ripped up for resurfacing. Nobody would do that. Nobody on our board. Nobody that I know.”

“To spread that misinformation to other business owners is wrong and it’s immoral and unethical,” Taylor added.

Taylor explained that the DDA has been talking with MDOT about coordinating the streetscape project with the road construction, so the time-lines match and the work is done at the same time. “We’ve met with MDOT, I can’t tell you how many times,” she said.

With regard to securing funding for the proposed streetscape project, Taylor explained that not only has the DDA hired its own grant writer, it’s also pursuing a public-private partnership with one of the Big Three.

“Don Sherman (chairman of the DDA’s Economic Restructuring Committee) and I have already started working on putting together a package to present to Ford and the Ford Foundation in order to form a public-private partnership,” she said.

“This lays the groundwork for having monies available for your matches for your grants. I’ve watched, over the years, municipalities . . . start with one pool of money. That money is leveraged into another pool of money, which is leveraged into another pool of money until eventually, you get to the point where your projects are funded.”

Taylor wanted to the set the record straight concerning criticisms that DDA board members are somehow not qualified or accountable and that they represent no one’s interests but their own.

She explained the DDA is made up of property owners like Tom Jones and Jim Bielak, who own the buildings that house their businesses, Funky Monkey Toys and Beadifferent. It’s also made up of business owners like herself (Pink & Charlie) and Dorothy Johnston (Johnston Photography).

Taylor noted she invested about $50,000 to move her business downtown. “I have a lot of skin in the game,” she said.

With regard to her background, Taylor said she’d put her resume up against anyone else’s.

“I’ve spent my entire career working with municipalities,” she said. “I was in asset management (for eight years). If a loan or a bond was issued to a municipality, I did it.”

Prior to that, she worked for two different corporations where she was involved in financing for municipalities. She started doing that type of work in 1979.

Over the years, Taylor’s been involved with projects involving streetscapes, housing developments and water/sewer systems throughout the state of Florida.

“I didn’t put in my application for the DDA board,” she noted. “Five members from the DDA board came and asked me to join because of my past experience. I did not volunteer.”

Taylor noted the people levying these criticisms have no idea how hard the current DDA board has worked.

“We have spent hours and hours meeting with the Department of Transportation, SEMCOG, Oakland County, (and the) Michigan Economic Development Council,” she said. “We have closed our businesses to go to meetings. We have spent countless hours promoting downtown Oxford.

“I’ve closed my store I don’t even know how many times to go to Detroit or to go to Flint or to go wherever I need to be.”

With regard to accountability, Taylor pointed out how it was the current DDA board that finally straightened out the billing problems, which had left the authority with a $166,000 debt to the village.

“The past boards were not paying their bills,” Taylor said. “We had to clean up the mess from the past boards . . . Did we put our tails between our legs and say, ‘I’m out of here.’ No. We did what we did for the community and we cleaned it up.”

Basically, the DDA had $146,000 in bills that the village had paid on its behalf, but never submitted to the DDA for approval and reimbursement, and $20,000 in bills for which the DDA approved payment, but the village never transferred the money to itself.

“We sat down, rolled up our sleeves and went through those bills line item by line item and cross-matched to prior years,” Taylor said. “We insisted on invoices being presented to the DDA from the village, not just statements. We worked our butts off.”

Not only did the DDA board make sure those past bills were paid, it also put procedures in place to ensure something like that doesn’t happen again, Taylor noted.

She also noted that unlike a previous DDA board that simply set aside the issue of $8,550 in tax revenue it should have received, sometime between 2005 and 2007, based on county records, the current board is pursuing the issue via a forensic audit.

As for the argument that the DDA spends most of its money and focus on downtown’s four quadrants as opposed to the northern and southern ends of the district, Taylor said that’s “very common because historic districts are very maintenance-intensive.”

“It takes much more time to maintain a historic core than it does some of the outside areas,” which are usually newer developments like strip malls.

Taylor explained how the core is there to help promote the DDA district as a whole.

“The core is the attraction. The outside areas benefit from the attraction,” she said. “There are (businesses) in (the Oxford) Marketplace (shopping center) and as far up as Meijer that understand the importance of the historic core and the downtown. They build next to historic cores because of the draw if you’ve got a viable one, which we do. They know the value of it.”

Taylor wondered if people felt the DDA’s distribution of funds within the district was “so unfair, why didn’t any of the prior boards do something about it in the past? Why is everybody whining and complaining all these years later?”

Taylor noted how the proposed streetscape is much more than just the four downtown quadrants.

“When we developed the streetscape plan, we didn’t leave out the north, the south, the east or the west,” she said.

She pointed to the numbers as proof. The total streetscape project is estimated to cost $4.7 million. The central core accounts for $2.6 million; the rest is being spent elsewhere in the DDA district, according to Taylor.

Taylor pointed out how the Oxford Marketplace “is slated to be the gateway” to the DDA district with new pavers, signage, shrubs and entryway markings.

“It wasn’t left out of the plan,” she said.