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Streetscape grants from Royal Oak's WA3 help unify Woodward Corridor

Five cities and communities with Woodward Avenue as their spine now have money to spend on projects to make their street fronts more appealing, inviting and useful.

The money, $53,000 split among them, comes from the
Woodward Avenue Action Association (WA3) via Federal Highway Administration Scenic Byway funds. WA3, a Royal Oak-based economic and community development organization with the mission of improving the visual, economic, function and historical character of the 27-mile long avenue, hands out the grants as part of its Streetscape Grant Program.

The 2010 recipients run from Detroit north through Oakland County and up to Berkley. In 2009, WA3 awarded $118,000 in mini grants.

"We're looking for areas that can enhance Woodward as an entire corridor and also help communities fulfill their individual goals," says Heather Carmona, executive director of WA3. The projects are not only aesthetic but practical, she says.

And the added bonus is that the grants bring federal tax dollars back home. Woodward Avenue, a history-rich and storied thruway, is designated an All-American Road, making it eligible for the funding.

The allocations were:
  • City of Berkley - $8,000 for median improvements
  • Ferndale Downtown Development Authority - $10,000 for Wayfinding Kiosks, high-tech, outdoor directories
  • Arden Park-East Boston Historic District - $7,000 for historic entry grates
  • The Park District (between 6 and 8 Mile roads) - $5,000 for beautification
  • South Oakland county - $13,000 for median improvements
The program provides a simplified process to generate physical improvements for Woodward as a connected region by celebrating and promoting the byway and the communities it runs through.

Source: Heather Carmona, executive director, Woodward Avenue Action Association
Writer: Kim North Shine

One of nation's largest plumbing suppliers moves into new digs in Sterling Heights

One of the nation's largest suppliers of pipes and plumbing products is moving into larger digs in Sterling Heights, renovating the exterior of the building and making other improvements that amount to $3.6 million.

The 360,000-square-foot space lets the company, The Macomb Group, consolidate some of its operations.

The Macomb Group, which also supplies fittings and valves, is moving into the former Collins & Aikman facility on Van Dyke near 15 Mile Road.

A MEGA tax credit from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation is keeping the company in the state rather than consolidating elsewhere, possibly out of state.

Luke Bonner, Sterling Heights economic development manager, says the decision "truly demonstrates Macomb Group's long-term commitment to Sterling Heights."

Source: Luke Bonner, Sterling Heights economic development manager
Writer: Kim North Shine

Ice rink cometh to Auburn Hills, heating up plans for downtown

A newly opened ice rink in Auburn Hills is offering a cold-weather activity to skaters while warming up nearby businesses in the city's developing downtown.

The rink, located at the corner of Auburn and Squirrel roads, was funded by TIFA, a Tax Increment Financing Authority that also relocated an historic log cabin adjacent to the rink, which faces the area's busy frontage.

The natural rink, not a refrigerated type, and the cabin are the centerpiece of a downtown district that's in the works in this Oakland County community of about 20,000 residents.

"We've been working on growing the downtown," says Stephanie Carroll, a spokesperson for the city. "We've been putting our heads together...We've moved our events down there. We've had our concerts and other summer activities there already. We kind of thought 'what can we do in the winter?'  We thought the addition of an ice rink downtown would be a great way to get families out to enjoy wintertime activities and also to complement our businesses that are there."

Skaters can grab a hot chocolate or coffee at Nana's Gourmet, stop for a bite to eat or a drink at sports bars such as Stan's Dugout and Duffy's Pub, pick up a sandwich at the newly arrived Subway sandwich shop, or spend more time outdoors on nearby trails.

A barber shop and knitting shop operate out of the log cabin.

"We're hoping to create more there in the future," Carroll says.  "And as we continue to develop the downtown we will definitely create more things for people to do."

Source: Stephanie Carroll, coordinator of community relations and legislative affairs, city of Auburn Hills
Writer: Kim North Shine

Mount Clemens scores 10th new downtown business since May

Two new business have opened in recent weeks in downtown Mount Clemens, adding to an eclectic mix of establishments in Macomb County's county seat and bringing to 10 the total of new operations to open in the last eight months.

Gibbons Bakery, once an institution in The Clem, reopened under new ownership near the end of 2010. It's run by a family of Yugoslav immigrants who decided to revive the bakery that gave them jobs, taught them English and brought them opportunity when they came to the U.S. in the 1990s. With the return of Gibbons and its beloved cherry nut bars, downtown gets back a piece of its history that began with the original bakery debut in 1929.

On Thursday, Gemini Moon, a metaphysical and spiritual supply store and gift shop, became the 10th business to open since May.

The openings along with the relocation of the Box Theater from an upper level space to the ground floor has halved downtown's ground floor vacancy rate from 31 percent in May 2010 to 15 percent, says Arthur Mullen, executive director of the Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority.

Mullen says a deliberate recruitment and marketing effort and regular DDA events and activities that draw crowds downtown have paid off. It's "never just luck with these things. You create a welcoming and active district, and investment will follow.  We've been focused on that for several years."

He also credits an appetite among businesses for walkable downtown districts over suburban strip malls.

"Downtowns have been doing much better than suburban commercial strip buildings and malls due to several other reasons," Mullen says.

Plans to bring in more business and more people continue. "We will be expanding the attraction efforts over the next four months with a revamped website, business attraction folder, and direct contacts with prospective businesses."

Source: Arthur Mullen, executive director Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority

Writer: Kim North Shine

Developer plans eco-friendly improvements for former Birmingham schools admin building

West Bloomfield-based developer Jeff Surnow is tackling another project, now that he's about wrapped up the renovation of the old Birmingham post office.

His next project is a former Birmingham schools administration building, at 550 Mills St. He's not quite as far along with that building -- after receiving site plan approval from the city, he then goes through the planning stages, and expects that will take a little bit of time. He's also looking for tenants to commit to moving in.

The older buildings are a little harder to convert energy efficiency, Surnow says, but he'd like to do more of them when the economy picks up. "We're taking old structures and giving them the modern, green technology to bring them up to date," he says.

Surnow would like to make some of the same improvements in the old school administration building that he did in the former post office -- new heating, high-efficiency and low-energy lights, additional insulation, skylights, and more.

Source: Jeff Surnow, The Surnow Company
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

First phase of $25M Inkster Marketplace opens

Tenants will be moving in soon to the Inkster Marketplace, after the opening of its first phase was celebrated last week. The State of Michigan Dept. of Human Services District Office officially moves in Jan. 15, says developer Ron Boji.

The YWCA of Western Wayne County will then move into new space for outreach and community programs and its Head Start preschool program. After that, the old Y space will be redeveloped into a City of Inkster Justice Center, which will house the Inkster Police headquarters and 22nd District Court. That's anticipated to be completed by March of 2012.

The actual buildings are up, the brick is on and the crews are starting on the interior, Boji says. "Everything is going wonderfully. The city's been just a gem to deal with, and the county's been great."

The structure at Michigan Avenue and John Daly Street had previously been an automotive dealership, vacant since 2002. All four parts include 100,000 square feet of office and retail space, and the whole price tag comes to about $25 million, part of which is being funded with Michigan Business Tax credits, neighborhood stabilization funds, and Recovery Zone bonds.

Source: Ron Boji, president of The Boji Group
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Inkster streetscape project wraps up for the season

Save for some trees and landscaping, Inkster's streetscape improvement project for the area of Michigan Avenue and Inkster Road has been completed.

The Michigan Department of Transportation announced in August federal Transportation Enhancement grants, through which Inkster received almost $600,000 in state and federal funding for decorative brick pillars, fencing, benches, decorative stamped concrete, and landscaping. "Everything turned out well," says Kimberly Faison, special projects manager for the city of Inkster.

And although it's gray this time of year and the improvements don't stand out as much, she expects that come spring, when the landscaping starts to grow, it'll be very visible. What's most noticeable now is the stamped concrete along Michigan Avenue and Inkster Road, where there is decorative fencing and a brick pillar design. Two of the corners also have seating areas, and one has a gathering area with a circular walk and will have landscaping in the middle.

Improvements done last year, including ramps and cross lights at pedestrian intersections, made the area more walkable, and the streetscape is also expected to calm traffic. Bus shelters are a part of the expanded project, and the city hopes to receive future funding for a greenway project down the line.

Source: Kimberly Faison, special projects manager, city of Inkster
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Better Buildings for Michigan funds residential energy improvements

A Ferndale neighborhood will be the first of 12 in southeast Michigan to benefit from residential energy efficiency grants through a program that kicks off today.

A Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth program, originally called the Michigan Retrofit Ramp-up Initiative and now Better Buildings for Michigan, is part of a national program that is distributing $30 million across the state. Gov. Jennifer Granholm is expected to officially announce and begin the statewide program today, and is expected to visit a home and assist with an energy audit.

The community-focused programs will target residential areas, selecting neighborhoods based on the age of the home, the area's demographics, and other features, explains Amanda Dentler, Outreach Director for the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. Ferndale is the first city in the area to receive funding, and the office will alternate between Detroit and a suburb for each of the 12 neighborhoods; in all, six regions across Michigan are participating.

A total of 420 homes are selected in each community, and a $50 contribution by the homeowner gets a $1,200 package that includes an energy audit, light bulbs, blower door tests, efficient shower and sink faucets, and more. Dentler says the program is off to a good start -- of the selected homes, about a quarter have been contacted, and half of those have already agreed to participate.

"That's a success for us, considering no one's ever heard of this," she says. "I think we'll get a flood of commitments after the governor kicks it off."

The number of houses selected in a community, at 420, qualifies it to be a metropolitan neighborhood, she explains, and is a large enough population to begin to reduce the carbon and energy use of the area. Each neighborhood will get a six-week sweeps period, with canvassing and outreach, and a liaison afterwards if there's any follow-up or late interest.

According to a Department of Energy document, the goal for Better Buildings in Michigan is to address 11,340 residential buildings and at least 131 commercial, public, and industrial structures across Michigan over three years. It should save 1.2 trillion BTUs of energy, and 19.6 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, while creating 2,063 green jobs, the document says.

Michigan's share comes from a total of $452 million in federal stimulus funds.

Source: Amanda Dentler, outreach director for Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Oakland County makes energy efficient upgrades, saves $4 million

Window replacements, new weather stripping, new heating systems, and heating and cooling system management are all energy efficient improvements that Oakland County plans to make in its buildings.

And with those improvements, savings are estimated at $627,000 a year on utility bills for those buildings, according to a recent audit.

Art Holdsworth, director of facilities management for the county, says that although the audit turned up significant potential savings and improvements, it also determined that the county was already doing a lot of things right. "The audit was very complementary to the campus and what we've been doing here. We've gone a long way toward green activities and energy conservation."

The $200,000 audit, done a few months ago, was paid for by a $4.8 million Energy Efficiency and Conversation Block Grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy. More than $3.5 million worth of energy retrofit projects were identified, of which at least $2.5 million will be covered by the grant.

Some examples of pending projects include tightening building envelopes through new weather stripping, new windows, and additional insulation; replacing inefficient heating and cooling systems; replacing light bulbs; and improving energy monitoring systems, such as controlling on and off times for heating and cooling.

Holdsworth says the Dept. of Energy likes to have EECBG recipients using half their funds by the end of June, so over the next few months, the county will issue requests for proposal for the projects.

"Clearly the energy savings is very important because the county and local governments are seeing their revenues plummet, property devaluation, and so on," he says. "At the same time, if we can be environmentally friendly on top of the energy savings, and pursue them both hand in hand, then that's a real win-win."

With other energy management technology, Oakland County has already saved about $4 million in utility bills over the last few years. These energy savings are part of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson's OakGreen Program and Challenge announced in May to encourage local governments, businesses and residents to reduce their energy consumption 10 percent by the end of 2012. For more information on the OakGreen Program and Challenge, click here.

Source: Art Holdsworth, Director of Facilities Management, Oakland County
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Woodward communities form task force to discuss transportation vision

When it comes to public transportation on Woodward north of Eight Mile, the communities are coming together to make sure everyone is on board.

The Woodward Avenue Action Association has formed a task force of officials from Berkley, Birmingham, Ferndale, Huntington Woods, and Royal Oak, to work together on transit vision. At this point, their goal is to get the communities around the table to discuss what they and the others would like to see, says Heather Carmona, WA3's executive director.

The task force,
she explains, is the WA3's response to the community members who were concerned about the lack of consensus about what transit should be north of Eight Mile Road. With the latest news about the Woodward Light Rail receiving funding, there had never really been much discussion about what was needed or wanted north of Detroit, in Oakland County, specifically in the communities along Woodward.

"Our goal was, how can we bring these elected officials to the table?" Carmona poses. "What shape should transit take on Woodward in south Oakland County?"

Melanie Piana, a Ferndale city councilmember and the associate director of Michigan Suburbs Alliance, which is also represented on the task force, says that among her goals after she joined the council in January was building relationships with the other Woodward communities. "I think it's a good thing any time our cities can collaborate on achieving something together," she says. "Since we all share the same corridor, it makes sense for us to strengthen our relationships and share ideas for goals and visions, and how we would like to see our communities grow."

The members are looking at what the communities share along Woodward, what the cities are planning, and how to better connect them. They're trying to stay away from discussing type of transportation and where the stops would be, taking more of a macro view.

They do agree, though, that whatever transit option is put in place won't just end at Eight Mile. "I think it is a natural progression of the hard work our Detroit counterparts have been doing over the last couple of years, and now we can do our hard work to make sure we can connect together," Piana says.

The task force hopes to have a resolution for all the communities to support before the holidays, and then work on a list of goals and objectives.

Sources: Heather Carmona, executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association; Melanie Piana, Ferndale city council member
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Downtown Belleville wraps up streetscape project

Downtown Belleville had a lot to be grateful for this past Thanksgiving -- it wrapped up its streetscape project earlier this month.

The city celebrated with a procession and games in mid-November, says Carol Thompson, administrative coordinator of Belleville's Downtown Development Authority. "It's beautiful. People really like the improvements on the streetscape."

The city received $458,314 in federal Transportation Enhancement funds for part of the $5.8 million plan, which included a complete revamping of the streets, including below the surface. Sewer and water lines were replaced first, and then the above-ground infrastructure was redone in the area from South Street from Huron River Drive to the railroad tracks and the Fourth Street Square, and Main Street from the bridge to Huron River Drive. The road had deteriorated quite badly, Thompson says.

Above-ground improvements include bigger sidewalks with decorative brick pavers, benches, trash cans, bike racks, and new landscaping, including trees to replace those lost to the Emerald Ash Borer. This was the first improvement to the downtown streetscape since the early 1990s.

Next up for Belleville is decorating the new streetscape for the holidays and recruiting some new businesses for the downtown area, Thompson says. Features such as wayfinding signs and a new gateway sign are also coming.

"It was a tough, big project but we all pulled together," she says. "It's great to be on the other side of it."

Source: Carol Thompson, administrative coordinator for the Belleville Downtown Development Authority
Writer: Jon Zemke

Diversifying economy boosts Oakland County's bond rating

Seven years ago, Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson saw a headline proclaiming that 200,000 jobs had left Michigan. He turned his director of economic development onto a research project: look into what new sectors of business were being developed.

By the next year, they had a program - Emerging Sectors, dedicated to growing new economy jobs.

Now, six years after that program took effect, the county is reaping awards in addition to the jobs now in place -- Emerging Sectors was among the reasons the county's AAA bond rating was reaffirmed on the $3 million Bloomfield Township Combined Sewer Overflow Drainage District bonds and $1.2 million Highland Township Well Water Supply System bonds.

What this means for the taxpayer is millions of dollars in savings. With a higher rating, there's less interest on the bonds, and taxpayers end up paying less. "It's a reflection of the confidence by Wall Street of how Oakland County is managing in these tough times," Patterson says.

And, "It gives me as an elected official bragging rights," he jokes.

Through Emerging Sectors, the county focused on growing the health care sector and worked to diversify the county's job base. "When we're done, we won't be recession proof, but we will be recession resistant because we have diversified our economy among many sectors," he says. "Wall Street saw that."

"It's proof that we can and we will manage our way through these very tough times," he says.

The sale of bonds was approved earlier this year for inspection and rehabilitation of the Bloomfield Township system; the Highland Township system will see 6,500 feet of new water main to connect two well water systems.

Source: L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County executive
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Monroe County Community College breaks ground for new solar energy system

The ground is now officially broken for a 500-kilowatt, $3-million photovoltaic renewable energy system at Monroe County Community College.

The system is part of a 20-year agreement that will provide Detroit Edison's customers with renewable energy from the sun, but also give students at MCCC a chance to see live and up close just how renewable energy works. Plus, the college gets paid as part of its lease for the space.

The solar panel array will be at the rear east side of campus, beyond the Physical Plant building and near a creek, in an area that isn't used right now. Although the solar array won't be part of the curriculum, students will still be able to observe it.

An informational kiosk will be displayed. "That will describe everything about the project -- how much energy it generates, how big it is," says Joe Verkennes, the college's director of marketing.

He says the college's industrial technology division offers programs like mechanical design, mechanical technology, and construction management, and renewable energy is intertwined into all those curricula. "This is helping us weave this into our programs, and we have a vision to develop some kind of alternative energy program in the future," he says.

The college hosted a groundbreaking on Monday. It also recently received used equipment from DTE Energy for a separate solar project.

The installation is part of Detroit Edison's pilot SolarCurrents program, which calls for photovoltaic systems to be installed on customer property or rooftops over the next five years. The investment is expected to generate 15 megawatts of electricity throughout southeast Michigan.

MCCC is the first educational institution to participate in the program, and its installation will be Detroit Edison's largest SolarCurrents installation on a college campus.

Source: Joe Verkennes, director of marketing, Monroe County Community College
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Northville wraps up streetscaping for winter

Improvements to downtown Northville are going slowly but surely, and are about to wrap up for the season before cold weather really sets in.

Northville has been in the midst of a streetscape project -- improving sidewalks, street lighting, benches, trash receptacles, street trees and landscaping -- in the area of Main and Center streets. This work is consistent with the work the city has previously done on its Town Square project, and replaces a 32-year-old streetscape, parts of which were outdated or deteriorating.

Downtown Development Authority director Lori Ward says sidewalks are completed and all streets are open to traffic. The landscaping will be completed in the spring, she says.

"It will be wrapped up by end of the month," says Ward. "It always takes a little bit longer to complete a project than you hope."

The city actually completed more of the 2010 phase than anticipated, moving up in the timeline some new barrier-free ramps on Main Street. Also among the improvements are two electric car charging stations, which are now being readied for the coming units, and light fixtures that will have high-induction lighting. The bulb has a 28-year lifespan and it still draws less power than a typical bulb, she says.

Northville was one of three communities to receive Michigan Department of Transportation grants, which provide for investments in trail and streetscape projects, to help fund the project. The $1.3 million price tag is split between $685,880 in federal funds and equivalent matching funds from the city.

The city has been keeping residents informed of the progress at the DDA's website, where weekly updates are posted.

Source: Lori Ward, director, Northville Downtown Development Authority
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Lake St. Clair water trail gets grant funding

Paddlers and others who enjoy Lake St. Clair will benefit from a grant to develop a coastal water trail.

The $10,000 grant will give a boost to the Lake St. Clair Tourism Development Program for a kind of "blueway," like a greenway but in the water, for paddlers. The funds are part of a Coastal Community Development grant from Michigan Sea Grant, and are part of a federal program to educate people on issues surrounding coastal areas, as well as the creation of a trail map.

Kristen Grifka, Lake St. Clair tourism development specialist for Macomb County, explains that blueways typically run close to the shore, especially near a lake, and they can be marked. Maps show the blueway route so paddlers can figure out good places to launch, interesting things to see, and safe harbors.

Grifka has found that as boating gets increasingly expensive, more people are turning to kayaks or canoes to get out on the water. "It's gaining in popularity, particularly in the state of Michigan," she says. In fact, the Tip of The Thumb Heritage Water Trail draws people from as far away as Europe, she says.

She's expecting a reconnaissance-type trip next week to travel the shoreline to begin the mapping, and to continue lines of discussion with paddlers and other lake-minded people to be sure they're mapping out the area as well as they can.

"We're very excited," she says. "The thing that I think is very cool about the trail is there are a few people who have a vision for Michigan making a state-wide water trail. This would be a connector between a trail that is planned for the St. Clair river, and the trail already on the Detroit river. It's part of a bigger vision."

The trail will run along the coast of Lake St. Clair, and will be suited for open water kayaking and other paddling sports, much like how the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail, Clinton River Water Trail, and Thumb Water Trail already are.

Source: Kristen Grifka, Lake St. Clair tourism development specialist
Writer: Kristin Lukowski
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