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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

Farmington Hills to dedicate greener City Hall next week

Farmington Hills' new city hall -- with a range of energy-efficient features -- will be shown off at an open house and re-dedication ceremony next week.

The celebration comes after an 18-month renovation of what had been a hodge-podge of buildings and additions to the original 1950s building. It hardly made for efficient working or energy-saving conditions. The new city hall boasts a laundry list of new, green features -- glass, skylights and translucent wall panels to let in daylight; a 40-well geothermal heating system; solar thermal hot water heating; solar photovoltaic system; a green roof; native landscaping; and many other features.

"We tried to make this building as sustainable as our budget would allow," says city management assistant Nate Geinzer. "Using less energy also saves us money, and allows us to use those dollars in other places."

He estimates that the project is about 95 percent complete, with a few punch list items still to be taken care of. No cost savings quite yet, but models of the project estimate the city will save about $30,000 in energy annually off of the previous average of $80,000 each year. The heating system is also estimated to be 68 percent more efficient.

The project came in just under the $8 million budget, with the solar photovoltaic panels covered by a block grant, and the rest allocated by the city over time so as not to raise taxes. The price works out to have about a 20-year payback with energy savings, according to the models.

Geinzer says the old building, built in the 1950s, had leaky roofs and old wood windows -- "You could practically fly a kite in the office," he jokes. Plus, between the original building and six or seven different additions over the years, he estimated, the hall used 14 different HVAC systems. "That alone was worth going to one geothermal system," he says.

The city hall also serves as a means to educate the public and to give them ideas about what they can do in their own homes, he says. He hopes to track energy savings live on the city's Web site and via other informational postings throughout the hall.

The public space has also seen other improvements, including wider corridors, and the work space is more efficiently organized.

The city is working toward LEED gold certification for the project; the design submissions are in and construction items are soon to be submitted. The city will probably know by early next year whether the building has accumulated enough points.

The re-dedication will be next Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 5:00 p.m. The city hall is at 31555 Eleven Mile Road at Orchard Lake Road, and has public parking access from both Eleven Mile and Orchard Lake roads. To learn more, click here.

Source: Nate Geinzer, Farmington Hills management assistant
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Clawson to wrap up streetscape project in time for holidays

Clawson's downtown streetscape project is in the home stretch, with only the finishing details to go before winter sets in.

Clawson Downtown Development Authority director Joan Horton says the project could wrap up as early as next week, with brick work and some other fine-tuning still yet to be done. Several dozen cement planters will be installed as soon as the ground beneath is complete, and trees and bike racks are in place. Behind-the-scenes components, such as irrigation, are also being double-checked.

"One good thing about it not all happening at once is that you appreciate every element as it appears," she says. "We've gotten great feedback. People like the lights. They're happy to see bike racks in, the trees back in. The business owners love it because of the expanded parking."

As an indirect result, several proprietors have updated their street-facing storefronts, since people are now using the front doors more frequently. Although it's too late to actually plant anything in the planters, next spring should bring about the flowers and green trees.

Horton says she'd like to look at LED lights down the line, having purposely selected lightposts that could be easily retrofitted.

"We'd like to see more walkable community, more bike-friendly, so we have some plans to get that in place," she says. "We would like to see some mid-block crossings, so people can cross at places other than 14 Mile and Main. As with anything there's always more steps -- it grows and it changes so there are always additional things we want to do."

Improvements also included repairing sidewalks and reducing some curb cuts. The $1.2 million project is being funded in part by $760,398 in recently awarded federal Transportation Enhancement funding. For updates, click here.

Source: Joan Horton, director of the Clawson Downtown Development Authority
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

East Dearborn DDA launches survey for potential art space

A partnership between the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority and national nonprofit Artspace may bring about some creative art space for the community.

But first, you have to take the survey.

Artists working in all media, and those involved with arts organizations, are asked to take a survey to help Artspace developers understand the living, studio, and business space for the greater Dearborn area's art community. The survey went live earlier this week with a public launch and will continue through Jan. 4.

Melissa Kania,
a spokesperson for the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority, says in an e-mail that Dearborn has a deep-rooted and well-established arts and cultural community, including the Dearborn Symphony Orchestra, Artist Society of Dearborn, and the Dearborn Community Arts Council, not to mention attractions like The Henry Ford and the Arab American National Museum.

The idea of a shared art space came about about two years ago, when former EDDDA executive director Michael Boettcher engaged Artspace.

"These activities contribute to the continued growth of the arts community, thus enhancing the cultural and economic vitality of the surrounding community," Kania says. "We invited Artspace to Dearborn to begin the process of building community support for the creation of affordable live/work space for artists and arts organizations and nonprofit organizations -- creative businesses, if you will."

The survey's primary goal is to feel out the size of the market for affordable live/work space, as well as the need for working studio and rehearsal space.

"An Artspace project would be a catalyst for redevelopment as well as a critical need for artists and their families," she says. "The impact of an Artspace project could be profound in Dearborn, particularly where multiple vacant or underdeveloped and underutilized sites exist and where a creative community has already taken root. These kinds of projects often provide a sign of progress that can act as an additional incentive for other kinds of development."

She can take questions about the survey at (313) 943-3141.

Source: Melissa Kania, East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Northville trail will connect city to township

When walkers, runners, and bikers explore a new trail planned for the Northville area, they might just learn a thing or two at the same time.

After two years of planning, Northville Township, the city of Northville, and Wayne County have a plan and funding for the Northville Bennett Arboretum Trailway, a non-motorized trail that will connect the city and township. The path will begin at Verona Lane and Sheldon Road, where the current Northville Township pathway system ends, continue along Sheldon through the Bennett Arboretum, cross into the city, and end near where Sheldon intersects with Seven Mile Road.

Jill Rickard, Northville Township staff engineer and project point person, points out that not only will the trail connect the city to the township, it also provides access to the county and township park and bike system, including the Rouge River and Hines Drive, a popular cycling route. "It does provide some good interaction between the park systems," she says. "The township and city have been trying to connect for years."

The project, funded partially by parks millage funds and a recently-awarded $450,000 Rouge Program Office Grant, will include an elevated boardwalk, block retaining walls with native plantings, and a bridge over Johnson Creek that will allow for accessing educational information about the creek. The boardwalk will provide a viewing platform for a wetland that straddles the city and township lines.

Rickard says the path will also be a good way for visitors to learn about the surrounding areas, and about the green features planned, such as permeable pavement, the benefits of trees, and how native landscaping can prevent erosion. She expects that at least five informational kiosks will be displayed with such information.  "This provides an excellent opportunity for an educational, instructional way of doing that," she says.

She hopes to put the project out to bid in February, begin construction in the spring, and finish by next fall.

Source: Jill Rickard, Northville Township staff engineer
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Auburn Hills earns award for riverwalk plans

The vision of a riverfront park system linked to a regional trail network was enough for the city of Auburn Hills to take home a planning award for its Riverwalk master plan.

The city was awarded the Planning Excellence 2010 Award from the Michigan association of Planning last month. Brian Marzolf, Auburn Hills' recreation director, says the idea of a park-to-park trail has existed in the city's master plan for about 15 years, so itís exciting that it's finally coming to fruition, especially with the latest vote of confidence.

"It's been talked about and been a vision in people's minds over time, but as most good planners know, you can't build anything unless you build a plan," he says. "This is a great step for us to get that plan in place. We're getting closer to actually create something exciting."

The Riverwalk will eventually connect to downtown, and to the regional Clinton River trail, which runs through Oakland County. "It creates more connections, and more opportunities for people to use them," Marzolf says.

Marzolf says the city is in the process of doing the legwork necessary for the project, including gaining some easements between the existing Riverside and River Woods parks, and securing funding for the project. He hopes to have select design consultants by spring, bid out the project next fall, and be constructing the Riverwalk by 2012 and 2013.

To come up with the plan, the city solicited input from residents, business owners, elected officials and planners. Among its features will be landscaping and infrastructure that will improve the riverfront's environmental quality.

Source: Brian Marzolf, recreation director, City of Auburn Hills
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Local sculptor sees his "Pyramid Earth" relocated to Oakland Comm College

Local artist and Oakland Community College faculty member Kegham Tazian is leaving his mark on his employer, after an art piece of his was moved to the Orchard Ridge Campus.

Tazian, a Farmington Hills resident and also the first art faculty member hired by the Orchard Ridge Campus more than 40 years ago, created the eight-foot tall "Pyramid Earth" for TRW Automotive, an auto supplier in Sterling Heights, about 15 years ago. When the plant closed, one of his students happened to know someone who worked there, and was able to connect the piece to his art professor. That student, Charlie Neff, paid for the sculpture's transportation and granite base, Tazian says.

The sculpture is an interpretation of the globe, a relief of the western hemisphere on an upright background.

Tazian says everyone wants to leave their mark, whether it's helping others or creating something that will be around long after you're gone, and art is how he does so. Plus, being on display at a college gives more people the chance to enjoy it, he says.

"I think it enhances the environment," he says of public art.

Tazian teaches sculpture, painting, design, and drawing among his classes at OCC. He has other pieces on display at the college and throughout metro Detroit, including the Farmington Hills Library and St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Dearborn.

Source: Kegham Tazian, artist and Oakland Community College professor
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Geothermal system saves Plymouth Cultural Center, Ice Arena big bucks

Plymouth is putting its ice arena's high gas bills on ice.

With its first gas bill after the installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system, the Plymouth Cultural Center and Ice Arena's savings are already running into the thousands of dollars. Steve Anderson, the city's recreation director, says the 2008 and 2009 September gas bills were $4,600 and $4,100; last month's was about $800. "We're excited to see how things pan out," he says.

The whole system is expected to be fully functional by the end of this week. The ice arena has been up and running for about two months.

Anderson explains that the system's efficiency not only costs less, but makes for better skating conditions. With smaller, more efficient compressors that kick on only as needed, the whole system doesn't fire up unless necessary. "Because they're smaller capacity units with multiple phases, they're only using what they need," Anderson says.

"Hockey likes hard, fast ice, and no standing water, which means the puck stops," he explains. "When we lay 140-degree water and it's snap freezing in 30-40 seconds, the surface is faster, the puck won't hit water, and it creates a better surface for the user."

Plus, the arena can now use the heat taken from the water elsewhere in the building. "The Zamboni puts down 140-degree water, and that's energy we've already paid for," he says. "We're (now) pulling heat out of the ice surface and sending it to other parts of the buildings."

Geothermal is seen as the top-of-the-line energy efficient heating and cooling system. There are other geothermal ice arenas in the United States and Canada, but this is Michigan's first.

The $1.1 million project was paid for by the city's general fund. Anderson gave credit to the city commission for being proactive and replacing an aging system, original to the 1972 building, that likely would have been due for an upgrade soon anyway. Electric bill savings will be apparent during the hotter summer months.

The facility, at 525 Farmer Road, houses an ice rink, meeting rooms, banquet rooms, and recreation department offices.

Source: Steve Anderson, recreation director, city of Plymouth
Writer: Kristin Lukowski
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