Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter Gives Last State of the City Address
(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 16, 2019)
Ferndale, MI – After nine years serving as Mayor of Ferndale, Dave Coulter will not be running for another term.
He announced this decision at the State of the City Address Tuesday evening at the Rust Belt Market. Mayor Coulter previously served as County Commissioner.
The State of the City address included many of the city’s most recent successes, including the review of the Police Department, improvements in civic tech, the start of construction for the mixed use parking deck known as “the dot,” as well as business and development news.
He also talked about the changes the City has seen since 2009, before the prosperity the community is currently experiencing.
After welcoming officials and staff, and thanking fellow council members, here is what Mayor Coulter had to say (for those who prefer to watch the video, click here:
“Like I said, this is my ninth year in office. I took the oath of office as Ferndale’s mayor in January of 2011. And I admit, closing in on a decade has me feeling a little bit reflective. I’ve spent some time thinking back to the Ferndale we were when I first took office, all that has happened along the way—both the good and the not-so-good… “challenges and opportunities,” as we call them—and how we’ve grown and evolved to become the community we are today.
When we talk about change in Ferndale, some things come immediately to mind; they’re clear, you can look out your window and see them. New businesses downtown… an entirely new business corridor in the northeast Iron Ridge district. Parks with modern play equipment, clean green spaces, and walking paths. The city’s first mixed-use parking development, The dot, being built as we speak.
Other changes aren’t seen at all; but they can be felt through their ripple effect. Like, you may not know that we now have a fully staffed Police Department committed to the modern philosophy of community policing, but you probably feel it when you walk downtown, or in your neighborhood, and you feel safe. And you might not have studied our sustainability plan, but you’ve seen that we’ve changed most of our streetlights to LED, which is environmentally safer and will save considerable money down the line.
There is one of these “ripple effect” changes that I’d like to talk about in more detail, a relatively new addition that is essentially important to how the city plans and works. If it sounds big, that’s because it is. We don’t talk about it that often, because, honestly, it’s just not that sexy. But we’re going to talk about it tonight. It is………. our strategic plan.
Now, I know that plenty of organizations do strategic plans, and I also know that plenty of strategic plans get put in binders and filed onto shelves. They haven’t always been my favorite activity to participate in. What’s different about Ferndale’s plan is the creation of what we call Critical Success Factors—seven essential components that we must do well in order to succeed as a city. Even the largest, most perfect city staff and council can’t achieve everything; we have to decide what’s most important. And that’s what we’ve done. Now, staff’s work, as well as my goals and those of my colleagues on Council, are prioritized based on whether they meet one or more of these success factors. We implemented this almost two years ago and it has helped this large group of passionate but sometimes disparate people move forward, launch new ideas, and serve residents and businesses, TOGETHER.
So tonight, as we talk about the state of our fine city, I’d like to do not department by department, but through the lens of our Critical Success Factors. In Ferndale’s current state of progress and growth, I think you’ll find it helpful to hear about the city’s strategic priorities.
Critical Success Factors
The first of these success factors is Economic Prosperity. It says that: Ferndale has an energetic downtown and an expanding, innovative industrial district. Entrepreneurs look to Ferndale to start and grow their businesses and contribute to a balanced and stable economy.
I’m sure we remember all too well the Great Recession of 2009 and the economic devastation that followed. Home values dropped nearly 50%. Business owners struggled to keep their doors open. The City felt it, too: police officers and firefighters were laid off… departments operated with skeleton teams. Honestly, my first few years as mayor were some of the most challenging years this community has seen in recent memory.
But, as with all hard things, we shouldered through and learned some lessons. One of the positive ripple-effect changes that came out of this tough period was the start of multi-year budgeting, an idea I learned from Oakland County government and that I worked to launch with our City Management and Finance team. It allows us to concentrate on the money we have now while forecasting two, three… up to five years into the future. Why is this important? Say we look at the 2019 through 2020 Public Works budget… we don’t see any big changes on the horizon, so we figure—no need to budget extra. But, if we had looked ahead to 2022, we might see that a major infrastructure improvement would be necessary, which in turn would require the replacement of some equipment and a new staff member. That information allows us to make slow-drip increases over several years, and small cuts from other areas, so we can avoid an unexpected spike in financial requests. It’s planning with a full picture in front of us, and it’s credited, at least partially, for the City’s recent credit rating increase by Standard & Poors from A+ —considered upper medium grade—to AA- today —a high-grade. This is critical to making keeping the costs down for things like infrastructure and the dot.
I can also say that, despite the challenging years after the recession, the City of Ferndale has seen an incredible $67 million in private investment over the past nine years. And the uniqueness of the Ferndale experience shows in our business success stories.
We’ve seen the complete turnaround of the building located at 965 Wanda—from an uninhabitable, vacant shell to the space it is today, thanks to Jeff Denha. Over several years, it was completely rehabbed with 100,000 square feet of new industrial space and now houses the expansion of Jeff’s company, Brass Aluminum Forging. It’s also home to Valentine Distilling Company’s expansion, allowing Rifino Valentine to keep his business—which has grown into an award-winning international brand—here in Ferndale.
Search Optics has made its regional office here as well. Christian Fuller, the company’s chief relationship manager, oversaw four years of work redeveloping buildings to create the urban campus that now houses Search Optics, Incubizo Co-Working Space, and Voyager Restaurant—a total of $3 million dollars in private investment.
And just this year Alleah Webb—a graduate of the BUILD Institute—opened Drifter Coffee in the Iron Ridge innovation district. The BUILD program helps people who have visions for new small-businesses plan and launch here—in Alleah’s case, it helped her go from a popular mobile coffee trailer to a brick-and-mortar business that opened to rave reviews.
Stories like these are why I started the Mayor’s Business Council eight years ago. I’ve met quarterly with Ferndale business owners and creators to talk about policies, share ideas, and make space for new opportunities and partnerships—like bringing the BUILD Institute here to Ferndale. With so much creativity and success coming out of these last nine years, I can only imagine what the next nine will bring.
Our second Critical Success Factor is Supported Infrastructure, which is exactly what it sounds like: Ferndale cares for the infrastructure and assets that provide critical services to the community. Ongoing maintenance is funded and planned for in both the operating budget and capital improvement plans.
Ferndale may not be geographically huge, but we’re dense—we’ve got a LOT of streets, sidewalks, water mains, drains, and sewers. Which in turn means pretty much constant care and maintenance of these things…
To ensure that our water continues to be clean and safe.
To remove snow and ice from 75 miles of local and major streets and roads.
To design and repave our streets to address wear and tear, and to make them safe not just for cars but for people on bikes and pedestrians of all ages.
To scope drains to find and repair blockages and tree roots—BEFORE they become problems that lead to water backing up in your basement.
In fact, since our Department of Public Works began their video scoping program in 2015, they have had ZERO incidents of in-home flooding from water or sewer backups. We used to get dozens—or more—every season. This once relatively common issue has all but been eradicated.
Which seems like the appropriate time to call out our DPW team. This winter has been one for the books: bomb cyclones, snow emergencies, and stretches of record-breaking bitter cold. And, while we took care to make sure that our employees weren’t exposed to dangerous conditions, I’m proud to say that our city never once closed its doors. DPW crews were there every day and every night, repairing water main breaks, cleaning downed branches, removing snow, salting roads, and making Ferndale safe for us all.
Speaking of safety, our next Critical Success Factor is Safe, Protected, Engaged Community. It says that: Our residents flourish in a safe and welcoming environment where public safety is foundational to community health. In the case of our Police and Fire Departments, this is literally the case.
I want to start by taking a moment to recognize Chief Kevin Sullivan, who has served with our Fire Department for more than 25 years, the last nine as Chief. He submitted his letter of retirement last week, which we regretfully accepted, but he has agreed to remain available to advise and help with transitions, and we couldn’t be more grateful. Chief Sullivan is/is not here tonight, and/but I wanted to lead a round of applause in honor of his 25 years of service and leadership.
Also, sincere thanks to Fire Marshall Jack Pesha for stepping up as the interim Fire Chief and leading the team forward as we work to fill Chief Sullivan’s very large shoes.
Even through their changes in leadership, the Fire Department has had a big year:
I’m happy to report that the car seat safety program—the single most requested service by our residents, by the way—is back! Three of our firefighter-paramedics received the training in 2018 and the Fire Department is again offering one-on-one safety consultations free of charge. There’ll be a larger event coming soon as well, an open house where we invite families to meet our firefighters and receive car seat inspections, so be on the lookout for that.
Last September, following the devastation down-south left behind by Hurricane Florence, Firefighter Lt. Ron Makowski deployed to North Carolina to assist with water rescues. Over his eight days there, he participated in 13 rescue missions… evacuated 43 flood survivors… and rescued 34 animals. Lt. Makowski has since retired, but this is the kind of selfless behavior we have come to expect from our Fire Department, and we applaud him for his service.
The department also held their first-ever breast cancer awareness fundraiser, led by Mona Markabani and Jared Berousek. Throughout the month of October, firefighters “went pink” for the cause, wearing—and selling—specially-designed pink fire shirts. The campaign raised a total of $1,200 for the Shades of Pink Foundation.
The Police Department had quite a busy year as well. Last September I had the honor of taking part in the swearing-in of Vinny Palazzolo as the City’s 17th Chief of Police. His first year as chief… well, let’s just say that it’s been a full one. In addition to serving donuts, packing Thanksgiving food boxes, and running the torch for the Special Olympics, Chief Palazzolo oversaw the completion of an external assessment of the Police Department. KRW Associates, a highly regarded firm out of Colorado, visited for a week and looked closely at the department’s policies and practices. The final report showed exactly what we hoped to see: that much of the work the team has been doing is at—and more often above—national best-practice standards. And that shows in the work we’ve seen this year:
For example, Chief Palazzolo led an initiative that brought life-saving Jacobs Kits to every classroom in the Ferndale School District. They’re stocked with easy-to-apply tourniquets and other essential medical supplies and can save the life of a child or teacher in the unlikely case of a school shooting or other traumatic event.
One of our most familiar faces, Sgt. Baron Brown, was honored as the 2018 Diversity Champion by the Community House Race Relations and Diversity Task Force. He was cited as being a person who works to create significant impact to others and helps to ensure that all people in the Ferndale community feel included and empowered.
The report also noted several areas where our Police Department can make improvements. Chief Palazzolo and his leadership team have spent a lot of time studying these recommendations, and out of that came the goal of seeking accreditation by the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police—a strenuous two-year process that says our police department has the highest-level service-delivery, leadership, and team accountability practices in the state. They’ve also implemented a new Leadership Advisory Council, which includes non-law enforcement members of our community; launched an open data portal on their website; and just released the department’s first-ever Fair and Impartial Policing Report.
It’s easy to talk about the successes and heartwarming stories, but the true character of a team is revealed when they’re faced with opportunities to learn about themselves and make changes to their policies or culture. This is the kind of attitude I’ve come to expect from our Police Department, and I’m proud of that.
Let’s pivot now to our fourth and fifth Critical Success Factors:
Accessible Transportation Options, and
Strong Regional Partnerships
There’s a reason why I’m choosing to present these together. They say: We prioritize safe and accessible transportation options within our community for all users, from walking and biking to driving and transit; and we recognize our role as convener and connector of local and regional partners that contribute to the City’s success.
As leaders, we make decisions for our cities every day… but we also think beyond borders to the larger communities we’re a part of. I’ve always said our issues don’t end at our city limits. We’ve worked closely with the Cities of Oak Park and Detroit, the 8 Mile Boulevard Association, and the Woodward Action Association, to name a few, on multi-modal street developments that go beyond Ferndale’s city limits—connecting our business communities and creating partner destinations for residents and visitors.
Last summer, for example, Livernois Avenue was a priority for both Detroit and Ferndale. We delivered a much-needed repaving of the stretch of Livernois between 8 and 9 Mile, bringing changes that make it easier for people to drive, walk, and bike—things like protected bike lanes, high-visibility striped street parking, and mid-block crossings. At the same time, Detroit was seeing investment in the Livernois and 7 Mile area—a project called 7.Liv that’s bringing mixed-use housing and walkability to the Avenue of Fashion. The end result, we envision, will be a friendly, welcoming thoroughfare—no matter which city you’re in.
And this year, Oak Park breaks ground on a plan to make significant improvements to Nine Mile Road. Phase 1 begins this summer, and you can expect to see a “road diet”—going from four lanes to two, angled commercial parking, bike lanes, new pocket parks and green community spaces, and more. Our Community and Economic Development and Public Works teams have worked closely so there’s a smooth transition where Ferndale ends and Oak Park begins… or where Oak Park ends and Ferndale begins, depending on who you’re talking to.
You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that each time we tackle a new road resurfacing project, we make changes to support transportation options other than just cars—namely bicycles. You may also notice that Royal Oak, Oak Park, Detroit, Berkley, and other cities are doing the same thing. That’s because bike lanes aren’t for this outdated vision of cyclist athletes—ALL kinds of people are biking in our community—commuters, senior citizens, families. So I’m excited that the MoGo bike share program will be here, and in five other surrounding cities, this July. This means safe bikes available for all, in a bunch of convenient locations. You just download an app, get a low-cost pass, and you can rent and return bikes from any area kiosk. We believe that reliable, low-cost transportation should be available to everyone, and we’re happy to work with our partners at MoGo to make that a reality.
And in maybe the biggest, or at least the most visible news, we happened to break ground this February on a little project called The dot… perhaps you’ve noticed? I know this project, and our promise to deliver more parking for the downtown, took some time. And I think some questioned that. But that’s actually something I’m really very proud of. One thing you can say about us in Ferndale: we know what we want. It was critical to those of us on Council that we listened to all of you, and we got a plan that was right for our community. We wanted parking, ground-floor retail, and office space for daytime traffic, and we didn’t move ahead until we got it. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible support of our partner, the DDA. Their knowledge and communication with the business community, financial support, and assistance with temporary parking solutions, like Lyft and valet, was critical to the success of the project.
We also can’t talk about regional partnerships and transportation without shining a spotlight on Councilwoman Piana. If you aren’t aware of the work she’s doing on this community’s behalf at the state and regional level, allow me to say it on her behalf. She’s currently serving as Board President of the Michigan Municipal League, talking at the state level about how to bring accessible transit to Ferndale and beyond. She’s also advocating for state finance reform—a critically important issue for all Michigan cities as we struggle with flat, or even negative, investment at the local level.
Talking about partnerships and connection brings us to the next area of focus: Healthy, Connected, and Invested Neighborhoods, which says that: Ferndale has a variety of housing choices for every age and income level interwoven with an integrated park system that serve as focal points for engaged neighborhoods.
We’ve been saying it for years, and it’s clear from everything I’ve talked about tonight, and what we see happening in our neighborhoods and business districts: Ferndale is a city on the rise. Entrepreneurs and makers want to create here. Businesses want to open here. People—young people, senior citizens, and everyone in between—want to live here. That’s a great thing! Ferndale is a welcoming community—if you want to be here and help contribute to our success, we want to open our doors to you. So the question we spend a lot of time thinking about is: how do we preserve the magic? How do we keep Ferndale a city for all ages, all incomes, all races and sexual orientations and abilities?
It’s a big question, and there isn’t one definitive answer—it’s something we’ll be talking about as long as the demand is there. But a huge step was the inclusive housing policy we adopted in 2017. We now require developers of all projects with 25 or more housing units to reserve at least 25% of those units for affordable housing. It’s a way to ensure that we keep the diverse mix of people that makes our city so special, and it’s one of the decisions made by of this City Council that I’m most proud of.
We’ve got a strong advocate for this in Councilwoman Leaks-May. She’s spearheading Ferndale’s move to become a certified “Community for a Lifetime” by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Aging and Adult Services Agency. I know this is a passion of hers, and her focus on inclusion is something you’ll be hearing more about in the coming year, so stay tuned.
While we’re on the topic of progressive development, I want to focus for a moment on one key word in this critical success factor… Healthy, Connected, Invested Neighborhoods… CONNECTED. We have some of the most actively engaged people of any city I know, which is awesome. And in response to that, we’ve built a benchmark community engagement process. Nine years ago, we didn’t have so much as a Facebook page. Now, for the average development project, we have a news media notification process… we print and mail postcards, letters, or FAQs—sometimes all three… we hold community info meetings… send surveys… allow the public to provide project feedback in person and online. We even have staff to answer your questions in the Facebook Forums. Why is this so important? Because this City Council—and I’ll highlight Councilman Martin here, who also serves on the Planning Commission and is incredibly invested in the City’s development process—listens to EVERYTHING. In all our projects, from the dot to Baker College, it’s critical that we make space for everyone who wants to, to be heard. Community feedback is as much a part of our decision making as any other component, and I think it’s what allows us to make sound, smart decisions, and to keep Ferndale a community for all.
And now to a different kind of development, and one of MY biggest passions: parks. Back in 2013, I formed the Blue Ribbon Parks Task Force to start looking at our community green spaces. I don’t think it’s out of line to say that our parks were pretty dreary back then. Old equipment, not much activity, and targets for graffiti and bad behavior.
The story of how we’ve brought our parks back to life is one that’s unfolded over years, not months—but that’s often how this goes. The Blue Ribbon Task Force led to the creation of the Parks and Recreation Committee, which—under the great leadership of Councilman Pawlica—remains active today. And you, the Ferndale community, shared in our vision and invested in parks by passing a $2 million dollar parks bond in 2015. Over the course of the last three years, our incredible Parks and Rec and DPW teams have completed Phase One updates in nearly all of the City’s parks. I think the pictures speak for themselves. [Quick 5-7-second break for before-and-after photo slideshow.]
Now, we move into Phase Two. Geary Park’s updates began yesterday—by the end of this summer you’ll have new walking paths and a skate park. We’ll be meeting with the community next month to finalize the amenities you all want to see in Martin Road Park. We’ve got new soccer fields in the works, basketball courts, gardens, accessible paths, and—at long last—a splash pad. Thank you all for your patience and support as we worked through our Parks Master Plan and took the time to design the right parks for each neighborhood. I assure you, the results will be well worth the wait.
And finally, we come to our last Critical Success Factor, and the most foundational: Organizational Excellence. It says that: City government recognizes that leading a modern community requires a commitment to internal quality and financial prudence. We are committed to innovation and continuous improvement in the pursuit of excellence.
Sometimes, after a length of time of working for an organization and serving a community of people, you realize that you have achieved more organizational excellence than you realized. The team is capable. The culture is strong. You’re confident in the group’s ability to move forward and face a new set of challenges and opportunities under new leadership.
That’s the case for our fearless leader, City Manager April Lynch. After nearly eight years at the helm of our city, and 25 years in government management, she made the decision this February to step away and allow the team to thrive under a new leader. We’re in the process now of determining who that new leader will be, and we’re incredibly grateful to Assistant City Manager Joe Gacioch for serving as Interim. He took the role during the height of the budget and strategic planning processes, and as The dot broke ground, and it’s been a heck of a ride these past few weeks. So to Joe: thank you.
April’s transition was as genuinely positive as an exit could be. We congratulated and thanked her, and we wished her well in her new career in higher-ed, overseeing human resources at University of Detroit Mercy. We were pretty heartbroken to hear that she was leaving, but we understood that she had more to accomplish.
With that said, I hope you all will wish me the same sentiments as I choose to step away from my role when my term ends after this, my ninth year as your mayor. I’ve made the decision not to run this November for another term. I say this to you tonight with a lot of mixed emotions. This has been—and I mean this sincerely—the most amazing job and one of the great honors of my life. Not even a job, really, because it’s been such a joy and a privilege working for this city and its residents. Serving as your mayor has been exciting, educational, meaningful, and yes, sometimes really stressful—but overall one of the most rewarding experiences I could imagine. I’ve done my best to live up to the responsibility you placed in me, and I hope I’ve made a difference.
In the end, though, my decision not to run again is, like April’s, a positive transition. I look around at the Ferndale before us today and I’m so grateful for the foundation that has been laid. Council is a united team. Staff is forward-thinking and organized. Leadership is strong. Our community has made huge strides in becoming the welcoming, modern benchmark example of a city that I—and we all—always knew it to be. The ripple effects from the many changes made over this past almost-a-decade will be felt for years, and will carry through as new leaders with new ideas continue to work for the greatest group of people in the world: the people of Ferndale.
While new issues will no doubt challenge our city, the hard we’ve done and the foundation we’ve put in place makes me extremely optimistic that our special town will remain a vibrant and successful one for years to come.
I’m grateful to be a part of it, and I’m glad you’re all a part of it, too.
For more local news, visit the Oakland County Times’s Ferndale News Page.