City Spotlight: “Rediscover Oak Park”

City Spotlight: “Rediscover Oak Park”

(Alyssa Smith, Michigan Suburbs Alliance, re-posted with permission, July 31, 2013)

On July 16, Oak Park City Council lifted the citywide ban on liquor licenses, a law that has been in place for almost 70 years. With no bars, and no liquor licenses distributed to restaurants since 1954, Oak Park has often been seen as a place you pass through on the way to a night out in Ferndale or Royal Oak. Ditching its status as a ‘dry’ city is one of many steps that Oak Park is taking to become more vibrant under the guidance of City Manager Erik Tungate. I sat down with him recently to get the scoop on Oak Park’s past, present and future.

Erik Tungate, Oak Park City Manager and Suburbs Alliance Board VP of Operations


City of Oak Park’s new city hall in progress. Photo: Michigan Suburbs Alliance

After experiencing a heavy economic downturn in the Great Recession, Oak Park became one of the many inner-ring suburbs struggling to get by. When Tungate came on board last year, he created Oak Park’s first Community and Economic Development office. Tungate says the department’s director, Emily Doerr, is “laser focused on community & economic development.” For example, a farm stand from Eastern Market is open every Tuesday afternoon at the community center. Along with hosting business roundtables, Tungate and Doerr are spearheading other arts-related events “to get our artist community up and Street Eatzz Adrunning. Our greatest asset is our residents, and we need to expose them and bring them forward.”

But without an economic development plan, Oak Park cannot provide the resources for residents to help build its business community. That’s why Tungate recently solicited proposals for an economic development study—the first in the city’s history. “It will tell us what our market demographics are from a development perspective, not just a census perspective. It will lay the foundation for whatever economic development structure we decide to take,” says Tungate. The results of this study are expected within six months and will help determine the City’s next steps. Tungate mentions the creation of a downtown development authority or a corridor improvement authority as just a few possible outcomes of the study.

Oak Park’s new City Hall will be energy efficient with geothermal heating and cooling, and LEDs throughout

Economic development is a necessity for a city like Oak Park. In my sit down with Mr. Tungate I gallowaycollenslearned how recurrent the theme of ‘doing more with less’ has become in local governments after the Great Recession, and just how frugal cities like Oak Park have had to become.

For example, Oak Park was the first city in Michigan to have a public safety department with public safety officers (PSOs), who are trained as both firefighters and police officers. As a result, Oak Park spends only about 40% of its general fund budget on public safety, compared with around 70% for many cities who don’t combine, according to Tungate. However, even with this departmental savings, in the last year the number of PSOs was cut from 57 to 45.

Another way Tungate is cutting costs: he recently led the consolidation of more than five city employee health plans into one, an action he estimates saved the city approximately $400,000. Additionally, City Hall is being renovated to be energy efficient, meaning it will be geothermally heated and cooled, and lit by LEDs—long-term savings the city can count on.

But, speaking about municipal money woes, Tungate emphasizes, “it’s not all government bureaucracy and waste. Is there government bureaucracy and waste? Yes. And can some of it be rooted out? Yes. But at this time on our history we are running a pretty lean operation and still getting the job done for our residents.”

So with all this positive change, what is holding this municipality back? “Oak Park has suffered a pretty heavy decline in taxable values, and we’re limited by the state in how we can adjust or what bubble_and_bark_ad_ferndale115revenues we receive,” says Tungate. In addition to proactive development measures like the ones Oak Park is pursuing, state reform is necessary to heal this and other struggling municipalities.

So what’s next for Oak Park? And what should the metro region know about the city? Tungate’s answer: “Rediscover Oak Park. Our doors are wide open to diverse groups that want to come here—we want an engaged citizenry that is ready to move forward. We’ll definitely listen to those with good ideas and do everything we can to put them into practice. This is about running an effective government that brings people together. It’s more difficult during tough financial times but we’ve proven it can still be done.”

Filed under Municipality Member Highlights.

About Alyssa Smith

Alyssa will receive her B.A. in psychology this summer from Indiana University. She plans on going Alyssa-Smith_avatar-96x96to graduate school for a degree in nonprofit management. This summer she looks forward to bringing her voice to Suburbs Alliance, while raising awareness of its causes through blogs, editorials and social media.

The Mission Statement of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance is “At the Suburbs Alliance we foster and support cooperative approaches to the challenges facing Michigan’s metropolitan areas. We believe our communities’ interdependence is our greatest strength and that collaboration is the best path to increased prosperity, sustainability and equity across a region. Through innovative initiatives we organize, serve and advocate for a metro’s mature cities in order to help them be vibrant, healthy and beautiful communities – preferred places to live, work and play.”

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