Hopefully we are about to witness a new day in Pontiac, the rebirth of the city as the deserving county seat of Oakland County, a future that was supposed to be the city’s around the time the Phoenix Center was named; a much-delayed rise from the mythological firebird’s ashes that has remained mired in difficult circumstances. So at Detroit Metro Mashup we want the citizens of this fair city to take a ride atop the Phoenix with us, to saddle up and see the sites, to help guide Pontiac’s course from the here and now into what follows.
With this blog posting we plan to begin a conversation with the leaders of downtown Pontiac. Our goal is to help the residents understand the plans that are being developed and their potential impacts on Pontiac as a community with diverse needs, interests, and disparate economics. We also want to find out why certain types of things that are obviously bad are not being addressed. This is not an attempt to focus on the negative, because we expect lots of positive things will come in the responses and in Pontiac’s future, Slow’s BBQ, for example. This is just our gentle push towards openness and community participation through the vehicle of our observations. We will pose several questions and considerations to city leaders and ask them to respond. We hope that this discussion, along with the numerous positive things that we know are happening, will give the citizens of Pontiac a new window into their home town and the opportunity to help steer Pontiac’s course.
We at DMM have covered quite a few events in Pontiac, MI, over the years and have met or are acquainted with most of the folks involved in the downtown area.
There is a huge interest in renovation and revitalization and a lot of hard-working people have been investing time, energy and money, including federal grant money, into the effort. Hopefully a modern version of the city, that reflects the vital Pontiac that so many knew and loved growing up, will be the result.
Although we DMM'ers have encountered a lot of the movers and shakers, there are only a few of them that we know reasonably well. We’re definitely not on the inside; we’re more like electrons swirling around the nucleus of the Pontiac atom, with only a slight probability of being in the right orbital at any given time to get the latest scoop. After a couple of years, we’ve finally circled the nucleus enough times to get some questions together.
DMM wants to support the local Pontiac-building efforts; I’m a Pontiac resident after all, and supporting SE Michigan is the entire reason for Detroit Metro Mashup. But we’re always noticing things, making observations, keeping track in our heads, and wondering, “Why?” and “When?” and “What might be the repercussions?” and occasionally, “What the Hell,” of various decisions that are both being made and not made by a relatively small group of people. We actually hope to rattle the cage a bit and possibly shake some skeletons out of Pontiac’s closets so they can be buried and rest in peace once and for all.
Pontiac was only recently weaned off an emergency manager, who apparently thought it was a good idea to sell off the city to the highest bidders, who were sometimes, allegedly, the EM’s acquaintances. Although seemingly helpful in the short term for city finances, and providing a window of opportunity for the EM to “exit stage right,” as Snagglepuss might say, eliminating the city commons is a really bad way to manage city finances over the long haul and an impediment to those who actually have to run the city afterwards. It’s like eating your seed corn and your milk cow because you are hungry right now. You might be satisfied after you eat them, but you’re going to starve in the future.
Now we have a new Mayor, Ms. Deidre Waterman, with what might be called “old Pontiac” connections, along with a Pontiac Downtown Business Association (PDBA) that is wielding greater economic and political power with every full moon. It might be useful for those of us who are more out in the fields and mud flats, rather than inside the castle walls, to know how we fit into this picture and whether democracy or its opposite, oligarchy, is in the offing for our city. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t think a kingdom, along with associated fiefdoms and masses of serfs, is the plan for Pontiac, but given certain types of economic approaches in tandem with human frailties (greed, avarice, desire for power, etc.), this is certainly along the spectrum of possible outcomes if certain guarantees aren’t in place. Besides, hey, aren’t we almost there already from the populist perspective?
So DMM has decided to begin posting some of our questions and observations in hopes that the people in the know, (i.e., the “Pontiac Inner Circle,"to be stenciled along with a Banksy’s signature rat, above the castle moat if we end up with a ruling class), will reply and help us understand how the process of Pontiac revitalization is unfolding. We’ll invite the Pontiac Downtown Business Association to respond, along with Mayor Waterman’s office, downtown building owners, Pontiac business owners, and anyone else who might have answers and be willing to write up a blog posting for DMM as a response. Also, any other interested persons can comment, via the link at the end of the blog post or by requesting to do so in the blog at email@example.com. We will largely pose the same questions to each of these leaders, with some possible modifications as their responses come in.
We open this conversation with Mr. Glen Konopaskie, President of the Pontiac Downtown Business Association (PDBA) who has been provided an early version of these questions in advance so he can make thoughtful responses. Thank you very much Mr. Konopaskie!
So, on with the questions:
Why is it so difficult to get businesses licensed and up and running in Pontiac? It seems to be a problem with getting permits. I’ve heard it over and over again from a diverse number of personality and business types. What exactly is the problem? Microbreweries are becoming really big businesses in Michigan, for example, with huge draws to the local communities that host them. We’ve spoken with former brewers who have told us that the city soaked them financially for the permits so they just gave up. Is this true? As a former Emergency Mayor myself (also appointed by a governor, from a time before Emergency Managers were considered cool), it makes me nervous when permits seem to be nearly unobtainable in a city that is trying to regenerate itself. I’ve heard allegations of corruption. Is that possible? I hope not, but I’ve heard disturbing rumors and it’s not like SE Michigan cities are known for being squeaky clean. Understaffing? Laziness? Those possibilities are a lot better than corruption, but it is still a problem that needs to be immediately managed. What needs to be fixed and how can we fix it?
Buying and Evicting
It seems that a lot of buildings are being bought and then nothing happens, other than eviction of the current occupants. For example, the Blue Note was operational, the building was purchased, and now it’s gone; the same for J.D.’s Key Club/Dueling Pianos next door. Whiskey’s still seems idle with nothing in the storefront.
We’ve no first hand knowledge, but JD’s and Blue Note were rumored to be evictions. Why? Is the lack of new functioning businesses in these buildings related to the permit issue or is it a matter of no additional investment by the owners until returns from downtown Pontiac are more certain? Is this building squatting? Is remodeling going on? Are we waiting for someone to make the first big investment in a business that doesn’t include federal historic grant money and can remain successful? In Detroit, Dan Gilbert is soliciting businesses nationwide to his downtown buildings. Why can’t our building owners do the same? If they are, please tell us about it!
Selling Our Schools
Recently the Oakland Press confirmed that the Board of Education entered into an agreement with Pontiac Investment, LLC out of Southfield (seriously? Pontiac Investment of Southfield?). The plan is to sell them eight empty Pontiac schools at the fire sale price of $800,000. This rivals the ludicrous deal for the Pontiac Silverdome done by the EM. Bear in mind that each of these school properties is about a city block in size and you will realize what a remarkable deal the buyers are getting and just how much the citizens of Pontiac stand to lose.
Couple that with, “The Board of Education did not meet directly with the buyers and is unsure of who they are,” said Secretary Caroll Turpin, and you have to ask whether this is any way to revitalize a city or operate a school district.
As another slap to the face of Pontiac citizens, “The district declined Thursday to provide the purchase agreement for the vacant schools on the basis that it hasn’t yet been signed.“
I will tell you as a resident of the Seminole Hills Historic District, our neighborhood would all hate/fight the destruction of Washington School (pictured) to make way for the cheap and shoddy housing that is being introduced into so many subdivisions around the city periphery. Why is this purchase happening in this manner and how can the occupants of Pontiac who aren’t fortunate enough to be on the school board address their concerns? As leaders of our city/community, please clarify your position with regard to this agreement and explain the pros and cons as you see them. It would help everyone to "follow the money.”
Business District Maintenance and Health Codes
What needs to be done to make certain that entire blocks of the city aren’t shut down by electrical failures, because possibly negligent building owners don’t bother to repair the sewer systems exiting (supposedly exiting anyway) their basements? How was food being even being served at that coney restaurant? Are there no health inspectors?
Two of us from DMM ate there once and noticed a very odd, sickening smell surrounding the booth and never went back. The food seemed fine, but the nose definitely was not fine. Now we know what it was, but wonder why it was and what was/is being done about it other than emergency electrical fixes by DTE. When your basement fills with sewage, you shouldn’t be feeding people there; you should probably lock the doors and call a plumber. This is a health as well as an economics problem. Do we have any code enforcement? Does Oakland County?
So the parking meters have been acquired and some installation has begun, but what is the overall plan? From what we understand, some sort of deal was made between PDBA and a private company for leasing the meters and their installation. We at DMM have discussed these meters at length and think that meters during business hours (8:00 AM to 5:00 PM) are a good idea, but cringe at the idea of Pontiac operating them in the evenings. If the idea is to lure people in from surrounding areas for evening recreation, both Royal Oak and Birmingham have parking garages with two free initial hours of parking and plenty to offer for entertainment. Good luck getting those people to Downtown 51 Grill, Slow’s, or The Strand if you’re going to charge them for parking after hours. The idea is should be to get people downtown, not dissuade them. Particularly if you expect them to park atop the hillocks of snow that that occupied downtown recently and should have qualified it as a ski resort (see below). What is going to be the hourly rate for the meters and what are the hours that require payment? Will either the PDBA or the city ever own them? How long is the lease? Does the deal with the meter company prevent us from reopening the Phoenix Center parking?
Snow removal is a real problem in the downtown area (well, not just the downtown area, but that’s another story). We love going to Downtown 51 Grill for the amazing food, beers, and ginger soda drinks, but during January through March we had to navigate large mounds of snow and ice to get from the street parking to the building. It was slick, treacherous, ice and snow and at least a week old, probably two, likely three. There had been plenty of time for snow removal at any rate. This wasn’t confined to Downtown 51, but was the norm for all of Saginaw Street, with some areas being much worse. Frankly, as a Pontiac resident, I was embarrassed by it. I’m not familiar with the relevant local ordinances, but shouldn’t there be a plan to get parked cars off the street and have a large snow plow make it safe and convenient to actually frequent the downtown businesses? Isn’t this supposed to be part of what our taxes purchase? This relates to the parking meters in a big way; you can’t charge people for that sort of terrible parking. Tarred and feathered parking meters, or meters burned at the stake, would be a dismal site.
The Phoenix Center
Status Update? Are we keeping it or tearing it down? If tearing it down, why? There’s an awful lot of parking space in there. If it’s to be torn down, who’s to pay for it? The demolition would likely cost as much as renovation, without the benefits. As idyllic as opening the river sounds, it is going to be incredibly difficult and expensive. At least the Phoenix Center is paid for as it currently stands.
Structural Integrity? We’ve heard that the structure’s engineering report was not good. We’ve also heard allegations that the Emergency Manager’s staff edited the original report and made it seem a lot worse than what the professional engineers thought. That doesn’t seem right and one has to wonder about motives. Sure it needs some upkeep, but what is there in Pontiac that doesn’t? The falling parking lot wall on Wayne Street appears far more dangerous and no one seems to be tearing it down.
Parking? Reopening the Phoenix Center structure for parking would solve the parking problem. Granted, the people to whom the Emergency Manager sold Pontiac’s parking lots might not want that. It does, in fact, make obvious sense why the lot owners would want it torn down and would certainly welcome the support of the former EM, who also evidently wants the Phoenix Center gone. What do our civic leaders think about having these parking spaces available?
Concerts? The Phoenix Center is an excellent concert venue for the fans. It is a perfect size for rockers and rappers who might be past their arena prime, but who still have big, faithful followings in the area. We should have had concerts there every Friday and Saturday night, perhaps some weeknights, for the past several summers. We saw Rick Springfield, The Gin Blossoms, and Rare Earth (twice) play on the big stage. Other Phoenix Center concerts have included Big Sean, Gwen Stefani, Rick Ross, Chaka Khan, and En Vogue. The Crofoot is successful with concerts, why not resurrect the Phoenix Center? Again, some sort of agenda seems to be screaming from behind the concrete walls.
The Pontiac Silverdome
Seriously, was the deal for the Silverdome the best we could do? A shaky and alleged friend-to-friend pact for probably 20% or less of what the structure and surrounding property was worth and now, according to rumor, Pontiac might have to re-inherit it? The Silver(no)dome is now a deflated broken structure with the only appurtenances that had any memory or salvage value, the seats, stripped out. What is going on with these sweetheart deals that continue to harm the public interest?
City Income Taxes
These are a big joke and one of the important reasons why Pontiac has so many financial problems. One percent of your income no matter how rich or poor you are goes to the City. Are you kidding me? I’m not opposed to income taxes in general, but this one is ludicrous. Why would anyone move here if they knew this in advance? In fact, the only people with nothing to lose by living here are those without incomes. Is that what we want?
There are cities with lots of actual services and highly active downtowns that do NOT have this regressive tax that hurts the poor more than anyone and reduces their spending ability, resulting in less shopping at and support for local businesses. Frankly, had I been aware of this (along with the next issue to be addressed, home and auto insurance rates in Pontiac), I probably wouldn’t be living here. Honestly, why would anyone? My recommendation is to kill this regressive tax right away and put up billboards touting that fact along with Pontiac’s reasonable housing prices. Advertise it on the radio, television and internet. Build our tax base through population increases, attracting tech businesses, and purchasing power rather than the current failed approach. How about we let people vote on repealing this tax? Any comments or other suggestions?
Home and Auto Insurance in Pontiac
My cost is several times as much for home insurance and at least twice as much for auto insurance when compared with our neighbor Waterford (during this writing, it went up again). This, along with the Pontiac income taxes (see above), make Pontiac far less attractive than it should be. Seriously, one can live almost anywhere in the surrounding area just as cheaply, probably cheaper, and that is not what Pontiac needs in order to return to glory. Granted, home prices are good here, but are far less good when everything else is factored in. My suggestion? Either the city should negotiate with the insurance companies to get us out of “red zone” status or we should enter into some sort of deal with an insurance company where if we get an agreed upon number of people signing up they guarantee us rates comparable to Waterford’s or better. If favorable, we could then promote our changing crime rates, our service by a regional fire department, normal insurance rates, and so forth to draw people back to town. There are other possibilities that I can imagine, but I’d like to hear some ideas from the city leaders.
Just where is all the local tax money going anyway? At least patch the potholes and snow plow the major access roads in the subdivisions after downtown is completed. Run the street sweepers. If we can’t get to work, we can’t pay the Pontiac taxes! My guess is the Governor’s sales tax hike is a nonstarter; as of last night a poll had it something like 66% statewide against the tax. Everyone is already wondering where all the tax money currently collected is going. I personally never lived in such a highly taxed state with so few services, so I don’t know where it goes. We need to figure the city road situation out; any ideas?
One never knows when going to downtown Pontiac in the evening (too often also during the day), whether the business you were going to frequent is even open. This is an annoyance when one lives in Pontiac and a major aggravation for people who might drive in from Rochester, Royal Oak, or further. If you own a bar (or grill), please stay open until midnight! Perhaps you’ll develop a following like…you know, a neighborhood restaurant/bar! You don’t need to serve food after 9 or 10 PM, just be available for a place to hang out and have a beer or drink. Reliability goes a long way towards patronage. Also, don’t close on holidays when every other restaurant bar, tavern, speakeasy, and gin joint is open making money. Coordinate with concert venues, such as the Crofoot Ballroom; think what twice weekly summer concerts at the Phoenix Center could do for business!
If you’re a clothing store, post your hours and keep them. If your sign says you are a meat market (and you once were), keep fresh meat and seafood for heaven’s sake. It takes a while to get people in the routine of shopping at your market, but some among us were spending money on fresh foods every week at a certain location until the fresh meat disappeared. Now we seldom shop there for anything other than beer, wine, and the admittedly outstanding sandwiches. Please add back at least smaller quantities and varieties of meat; possibly team up with and jointly advertise with some Eastern Market providers. There is no place in this area nearer than Clarkston to get high quality meat and we are heading into BBQ season. This should be a huge selling point in our area if persistent and consistent.
It just takes a while and a certain critical mass of good businesses to get the outlying populations into Pontiac; that and a dependable business district that is clean, with open shops and restaurants. That critical mass will never be achieved if the hours and advertised products aren’t reliable and available. This is Economics 101, definitely not rocket science. OK, this was as much of a personal rant as a question, I admit it. So, poised as a question, what can you do about it? What are you willing to do?
Drive through any of the surrounding villages, townships, and cities or use your memory of past trips there. Notice anything about the businesses? I do. They have signs, proper business signs that are displayed proudly and invitingly, not crayon on art paper taped in the windows.
Perhaps I’m forgetting someplace, but I can only think of three or four businesses in downtown Pontiac that have good signage, notably Downtown 51 Grill and Lafayette Market, so kudos to you. Can anything be done about this? Pontiac needs to look like a business district, not a preschool art class. Don’t we have code for this sort of thing?
Continue our drive in your memory through the outlying suburbs. Picture Pontiac in the right side of your imagination and, lets say, Birmingham in your left. Besides the previously discussed signs and the differences in building occupancy, what else do you see. That’s right, Birmingham doesn’t have trash scattered everywhere. This is an incredibly inexpensive thing to take care of if each and every building owner/manager would just get out there and pick up the trash around their businesses. Perhaps organize a small group to pick up the trash from the common areas once a week, such as around the bus stop near the Phoenix Center. It’s pretty clear that the city government isn’t going to do anything about it, so everyone else needs to pitch in. Ideas?
Move to Pontiac!
Many, if not most, downtown business owners don’t live in Pontiac. This might be no big deal for business owners in a vital, thriving town, but it’s really an issue for Pontiac. We have unique problems and it would be a real tutorial for those who own businesses here to reside here and grow their experience about the actual impacts of Pontiac life. I challenge each and every one of you to move to Pontiac and show your real level of interest in this city. I do know that our first respondent, Mr. Glenn Konopaskie, does live here, so kudos to him.
OK, Glenn, you’re up!