Ferndale State of the City Address

Ferndale State of the City Address

(As given by Mayor Dave Coulter, Thursday, March 29, 2012)

Thanks, Rufino, for that introduction and for hosting us here at Valentine Vodka, Ferndale’s newest success story but certainly not our only one, as I will mention in a bit.

I’d also like to thank Jennifer, Jay and all the people at the Ferndale Area Chamber who helped organize this event.  The Chamber has been a strong partner in Ferndale’s success for the past 75 years, and another example of organizations working to make our city great.

I have to mention Jerome Raska – owner of JR Blumz by Design – who is the immediate past Chair of the Chamber but who for 5 years did so much for this organization.  In fact, Jerome, City Council on Monday unanimously passed a resolution thanking you for all you did at the Chamber and for our city – please come up and accept it with all our thanks and best wishes.

Speaking of Council, I want to recognize my fellow members; Scott Galloway, Mike Lennon, Melanie Piana and Dan Martin.  This is a team of dedicated elected officials and I’m really grateful to be working with each of them.

I’d like to thank all the city staff who came today to meet with our business leaders and chamber members.  I have to confess – it’s easy to look good when you have talented people working for you, and your willingness to be here is just further proof of that.

In particular, I don’t know how many of you have had a chance to meet our new City Manager – April McGrath – but if we on Council did one thing right last year, it was hiring April, and I’m sure when you get to know her you’ll agree with me.

Finally, I’d like to thank the residents of Ferndale who are here or may be watching on television, not only for your interest in the city, but also for how kind and supportive you’ve been to me since I became the Mayor 15 months ago.

You know, to me Ferndale isn’t just a city, it’s a community in the truest sense of the word, a place where strangers feel welcome and neighbors feel like family.  When I moved here 21 years ago, I lived on West Cambourne near Woodward and I remember one morning hearing all this noise outside my window – bands and sirens and crowds of people.  I decided to check it out, and what I discovered was my first Ferndale Memorial Day parade.

To this day, I believe that parade is part of the reason I decided to stay here in Ferndale.  The friendliness, the warmth and the sense of community I saw that morning has impressed me for more than two decades.

The kind of community where folks see a need and roll up their sleeves to help – like when neighbors came together to help each other during the power outage last year.  Or, when an amazing group of residents had the bold idea of proving free healthcare to the uninsured, and they created FernCare – a treasure in our city.

But recently, our community has been severely tested – like many of your own families have – by the worst economy in a generation, since Ferndale Mayor Ray Dickson probably gave a similar speech like this during the Great Depression.

The challenges we face can’t be overstated.  When I became mayor, Ferndale had double digit unemployment and a deficit of nearly 2 million dollars, because falling property values and foreclosures led to dramatically less tax revenue for the city.  And, many of the ways to cut costs had already been done by Council, things like salary and wage cuts, changing the retiree health care for new hires – even closing City Hall one day a week.  Still, the 2 million dollar deficit remained.

So, given all of that as a backdrop, it would be easy to be discouraged about the state of our city.  We’ve been through a lot, and I sense we’re a little beaten down about it.  But when you take a closer look at the actual data, I believe there are very clear signs that the worst is over, and there’s lot of a reasons to be optimistic.  For instance:

  • While overall property values are still expected to decline for perhaps another year, foreclosures in Oakland County actually fell by nearly 2,000 last year.  And, some property owners are even starting to see their values begin to rise again. This isn’t good enough for those underwater on their mortgage, or worse, still facing the devastating experience of foreclosure.  But it’s promising news for Ferndale families, and for a city that relies on property taxes to operate.
  • In addition, more people in Ferndale are finding work.  The unemployment rate in this city, which was 13% just two years ago, has fallen to 8.2% last December.  Again, its small comfort if you’re one of those who are still unemployed, but at least we know your odds are finding work are finally improving.
  • Another fact: our city remains safe, and is getting safer.  The Police Chief tells me that Part 1 FBI crimes in Ferndale are down 12% in the last year, and this continues a trend that has seen these crimes decline an amazing 42% since 2007.  At a time when the economy and the increased activity downtown could have actually led to more crime, we’re seeing just the opposite.

Speaking of public safety, let me pause here a minute, because I can’t say enough about the dedicated members of our police and fire departments.  We negotiated contracts with both these bargaining units last year – contracts that had been unresolved for too long – and both groups took pay and benefit cuts – as did the city’s other employees, by the way – to help share in the sacrifice that we’ve all made.  They have the toughest jobs in town, and I’m truly grateful for their partnership with us.

There’s other data, too:

  • Our downtown is thriving, a remarkable achievement given the economy we’re in.  The DDA staff and board of directors have done a terrific job of keeping the vacancy rate downtown under 6% and still attracting a vibrant mix of businesses – and events – that have made Ferndale a regional destination.  You know, it used to be that malls were putting downtowns like ours out of business, but now most malls would be thrilled with a vacancy rate like ours.
  • Another fact: our city budget is balanced – not just this year, but for next year, too, thanks to our new two-year budgeting policy.  And for that I have to recognize the voters of Ferndale, who approved a Headlee Override millage last May that allowed us to balance those budgets without drastic cuts to our core services.  Once again, they demonstrated a willingness to invest in the future of our city.
  • And speaking of our city’s finances, not only is our budget balanced, but we have achieved an impressive credit rating of A minus from the bond rating agencies, partly because of a healthy fund balance that’s over 20%.  In these times, I can tell you that those are numbers most other cities would love to have.
  • We’re also working together in new partnerships that can help us deliver better services for less money.  For instance:
    • We contracted our Animal Control services to Oakland County last year, saving taxpayers more than $100,000 annually.
    • We negotiated a new fire contract with our friends in Pleasant Ridge that preserves this long-time partnership and the revenue it generates for Ferndale.
    • And, we’re working with the Ferndale Public School district  – not only to explore ideas to save costs, which are important – but also ways that we as a city can help contribute to the overall success of the district – because at the end of the day, our fates are tied together and our interests are the same.  We won’t have a first class city without first class schools, and we’re committed to having both.
    • Bottom line: Ferndale is open to partner with anyone who can help us offset our costs and deliver great service to our residents.

So, I believe all these facts and figures I’ve just mentioned help support my claim that tonight, the state of our city is getting stronger.  Times are still tough, I want to be clear about that, but we’re doing better most, and we’re poised to do even better.

In fact, I believe there’s an even more compelling story to be told tonight about why Ferndale is well positioned to not just survive but to prosper from the recovery that is just now getting underway.  We’re taking important steps now – many of which may not be apparent to the average person – but critical steps never-the-less to ensure the future health of our city.

Because I believe you can’t simply cut your way to prosperity.  Oh, we’ve done plenty of cutting to be sure.  In the 2 years before the Headlee Override, we cut $2.7 million from our budget.  And with property values falling another 6% last year, we’re not done cutting, either.

But ultimately, its growth that leads to long-term success, and its growth that we’re planning for now, even as the last of the brutal economic winds beat against us.

When I became Mayor, I said that I wanted to make Ferndale the friendliest, easiest place to open or expand a business in Oakland County.  Because attracting businesses, and the jobs and revenue they bring, is critical to growing our tax base, supporting our outstanding services, and attracting new residents and visitors to our city. 

For instance, commercial and industrial properties account for 15% of the total land area of Ferndale, but they generate almost a third of the city’s tax revenue.  I think our homeowners can appreciate that the more we grow this sector, the less the financial burden will be on them.

But it’s easy to say you’re business-friendly – lots of places do that.  In Ferndale, we’re actually changing the very way we operate to make it real. We’re changing how we work – behind the counter – to deliver services and ideas that help people – our customers – do successful projects here.

For example, we recently became a pilot community for a program called One Stop Ready – one of only five communities in Oakland County, by the way – a program designed to reduce delays and cut red tape for businesses.  This was a natural fit for us, of course, because we were already certified as a Redevelopment Ready city.  So, what do these fancy program names mean?

Very simply, that we’re working to respond quickly to economic development opportunities that present themselves, because you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression with a business owner.  We’re determined to change the mindset of local government from one of being the enforcer of rules and regulations to one of being a problem solver – helping people prosper in our city.

And, it’s working.  I can’t thank Rifino enough for his introduction tonight, and he said more powerfully than I can the impact these changes can have.  Thanks to his passion and hard work – together with the support of our economic development team – we’re blessed to have a true Michigan success story headquartered right here in Ferndale.  Rifino, we look forward to being a partner in your growth for many years to come.

And, he’s not alone.  You may have heard that we are now home to the world’s largest producer of fresh salsa.  In fact, Garden Fresh Gourmet, which just opened its new word headquarters on East 9 Mile Rd, is in the process of making more than $13 million in new investments in Ferndale, investments that over the next two years will keep 300 current jobs here and add another 75 new ones.  That’s great news, and Jack Aronson and his team deserve all the attention they’re now getting.

But there’s also lots of new and expanding companies that don’t make headlines – – but they do make smiles on our faces at city hall.

In just the last six months alone, we’ve seen over 210,000 square feet of manufacturing spaced get leased, bringing new life to previously vacant buildings. In fact, the percentage of vacant industrial space has gone down from over 25% last year to just over 10% now – the lowest it’s been since 2007.

In total, more than 60 businesses opened or expanded in Ferndale last year.

Although it seems like longer, it was just last year Rifino opened this company, and already he’s planning to expand.  And, I recently talked with Frank Chazzano, owner of Chazzano Coffee Roaster on East 9 Mile, and his biggest challenge now is how to manage the growth he’s having.  Oh, and he also said he brews the world’s best coffee, and who am I to disagree with that!

But not all our successful companies are new ones.  Long time businesses are growing again, too.  Businesses like:

  • Allied Printing, which is reinventing itself from a traditional printing company to a leader in the digital print and intelligent mailing sector.
  •  Or Gage Products, which is growing thanks in part to the improved auto industry, because they’re a global leader in paint area solutions for that sector.
  • And Ferndale Labs over on 8 Mile Road, which is the type of medical related company that Oakland County’s Medical Main Street Program is trying to attract – and we already have them right here in Ferndale.

Together, just these three companies alone employ more than 300 people in our city.

Let me be clear about why this is so important.  Economists have said that success in the future will be won by those cities that can attract entrepreneurs and young people – the so-called Millenials.

I’m not sure the official age of a Millenial, although I’m pretty sure I don’t quality.  But, we’re studying what it takes to attract them to Ferndale, because they will help lead the long term success of this city.

And what do they want?  Well, a lot of the things we all want:

They want a vibrant, walkable town.  Check.

They want a town that is safe, diverse and inclusive.  Check.

They want clean, reliable public transportation.  Ok, we’re working on that one, although I’m encouraged by the progress being made to finally create a Regional Transportation Authority that can make rapid transit a reality in southeast Michigan.

And finally, Millenials want the flexibility to work in new ways and on new ideas that not only make money, but can make a positive difference in the world, too.

And that is what we intend to offer them.  A city that supports and encourages their ideas – and who knows, maybe an idea as powerful today as Henry Ford’s Model T was to his generation.  And if that idea is coming, I’d love it to be born right here in Ferndale.

In fact, to help encourage the involvement of these young people, Ferndale is a member of the Millenial Mayors Congress, a group started in 2009 to gather their ideas and suggestions.  I’m happy that Brendan Frey, Ferndale’s representative on the Congress, is here tonight.  Thanks, Brendan, for all your hard work.

There’s also another way, however, that we intend to make Ferndale even more responsive to the needs of the job creators of our city, and tonight I am excited to announce a brand new initiative that I believe will do just that.

If I’ve learned one thing after more than 9 years in public office, it’s that the old days of government being the solution to all our problems, usually by throwing money at them, is long gone.  We can’t afford it, and it didn’t always work, anyway.

But, I also strongly believe government still has an important role to play in solving our problems – and, a role it is uniquely qualified for.  Because every major success that I’ve witnessed in those 9 years has been the result of collaboration – of all the affected parties coming together and lending their unique strengths to solve their part of the problem to get to a whole solution that works for everybody.

The trouble is, these are often groups that don’t work together on a regular basis.  They may even have competing interests.  Someone needs to bring them to the table and focus them on a common objective.

And that’s a perfect role for government.  As a convener – as a facilitator – to bring together the folks that will bring forth the best ideas.

So tonight, I’m announcing the creation of the Mayor’s Business Council, an advisory group intended as a way for our local business executives, together with government officials and educational leaders – to collaborate and identify strategies that will create an environment for businesses – and jobs – to flourish here.

The main qualification for membership will simply be a commitment to this city and to supporting the success of our businesses.  Members will be senior executives of Ferndale’s most prominent companies, government officials and educational leaders.

The Business Council will be a sounding board for public policy decisions.  We’ll also ask state and federal legislators to be actively involved and give regular updates – and to hear our ideas, too.

Finally, the Business Council will help provide input in the development of the City’s first comprehensive economic development strategy – our blueprint for success in the future.

The group will meet regularly, maybe twice a year at first, and I’ll ask all of our department directors or their designee to attend, as well – because it’s critical for our staff to hear directly from these leaders.

Oh, and just to be clear, given what I said about our shrinking budget – I’m not asking for a dime of taxpayer dollars for the group, so if we want food at these meetings we’ll have to take up a collection or something.

We’re still in the process of putting the Business Council together, so look for more on this soon.  But I’d like to recognize, Derek Delecourt, whom many of you have worked with as our new Director of Community and Economic Development. He will be the primary city liaison to the Business Council.

If this works, it will be because folks like Derek and our business leaders, not me, made it happen.

CONCLUSION

So, will all this planning pay off for Ferndale?  Well, this much I know:  tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today – and putting our heads down and simply trying to weather the current storm is not an option, and it’s not a plan for our future.

I have to admit that when the census came out last year I was a little disappointed to see that we had declined slightly in our population.  I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised.  I know that households are getting smaller, and families with 3 or more kids like I grew up in are getting pretty rare.

But the census also told another story.  Ferndale is getting more diverse, and I think that speaks to our ability to attract folks of all backgrounds.  And, even as the region as a whole is aging significantly, we’re still attracting a higher- than-average number of younger people, people- as I’ve mentioned – that represent our future.

So I will tell you that I was very excited last week to see the population projections from SEMCOG for the year 2040.  Now, 2040 may seem like a long way off, but really it’s only 28 years – and the older I get the more I realize how quickly that goes.

SEMCOG predicts the growth of SE Michigan to be about .8% overall – less than 1% – and for Oakland County to grow by about 3.7%.  For many surrounding cities, the projection is actually for continued losses.  In Ferndale, however, SEMCOG see a population gain of 5.4% – significantly higher than even for Oakland County as a whole.  And one reason cities will grow, SEMCOG said, is if they have strong neighborhoods and amenities to attract and keep the better educated work force needed in the future.

In Ferndale, we’re now in a position to be leaders well into the future because we’re standing on solid ground today, and – we’re focused like a laser on creating a community that meets the needs of those future residents and businesses who will someday call Ferndale their home, too.

I’m excited to be a part of it, and I’m thankful that you’re all a part of it, too.

Thank you very much.

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