Human-Centered Solutions, Recovery, & Roadways Part of Ferndale Mayor’s Annual Speech
(Crystal A. Proxmire, July 19, 2021)
Ferndale, MI- Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana gave the annual State of the City Address at Affirmations Community Center on July 13, with dozens of community members there to listen and to mingle afterwards. She spoke about economic recovery efforts following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other ways the city has been working for its residents. Below is Mayor Piana’s speech, and we’re hoping to add video soon!
“When I graduated college, I worked in a Mexican restaurant. Sometimes, I opened it in the morning. I would be the only person there. I don’t know if you’ve ever been the first person on a job, there’s something special about it.
A room, hours earlier, was packed with boisterous patrons. (in my case they were drinking margaritas). That room now sits solemnly, but the energy of the night before still hangs in the air; you can almost see it in the rays of the early morning sun.
In a way, this memory and experience reminds me of Ferndale. We were packed last February 2020, and in March, many things are closed for the night.
But now it’s morning. The coffee’s on. There’s energy in the air. Employees are coming back, a little groggy, perhaps, but ready to get to work, and there are customers ready. to. eat.
Hey Ferndale. I’m your mayor, Melanie Piana, and I’m here to talk to you about us. Ferndale is a town of dreamers and doers; a town with big ideas and an even bigger heart; we are a town of passionate people, who don’t always agree, but who want the same thing – a city we can all be proud of.
Just like working in a restaurant, running a town takes a team to get the job done, and everyone involved is crucial to our shared success. I don’t need to tell you that the last year and a half was a challenge, but I can tell you how proud I am of this community for stepping up together to get through it. And while we are always keeping an eye on the pandemic, and now the Delta variant and its continuing impact, it’s also time to make progress a priority.
But who drives a city’s priorities? The People do. You do.
Maybe it’s with your vote or in a public statement before the council; perhaps it’s volunteering for a board or task force, or even running for office. When you speak, we listen – I listen. – and tackle these priorities with confidence because we know that it’s our community pushing us towards progress.
We are emerging from the tail-end of this pandemic in a different world than we did at the beginning. I feel different. Maybe you do too. Perceptions about what is possible have changed. How we work has changed, what we expect from each other, too.
But Ferndale’s priorities didn’t change. If anything, the last year has only made it more apparent that we are heading in the right direction – however bumpy that road may be.
It’s a challenge worth facing. Ferndale’s future is rooted in Social Equity, Public Health, Partnerships, Climate Resilience and Human Connection. Tonight, I’m here to talk about the state of our city, where we’re headed, and the people, priorities, and progress that helped us get us this far. I’d like to start by acknowledging some of the people making it happen.
Sometimes public service can be a thankless job. If you read the community forums, you might think the city was run by Gozer The Destroyer and Stay Puff. It’s not. Rather it is run by an incredible team of people who work every day to make Ferndale the place we want it to be. People like our city manager, Joe Gacioch, and assistant city manager, Kyle Pollet, who lead our talented city administration team.
They are the reason we have community-driven strategic priorities and consistently deliver on them. Thank you to every city employee for showing up, being intentional, and problem-solving for the community. I know you are exhausted, but your hard work and dedication can be seen across our great little city. I so appreciate all of you for sharing your unique talents with all of us. I’m proud to be on Team Ferndale. It’s an honor to stand before you and talk about the progress this city has made.
I will start with Public Health.
Last year, our Department of Public Works stepped up to lead the way on the lead service line replacement program. By council request, their replacement program was more aggressive than every other community around us. By doing so, council minimized spike increases in water rates and put public health first.
Thank you to the city council for approving a $10M loan to do more than EGLE’s 7% replacement standard. This year we will replace 13% with more planned next year. What’s next for this program is watching the American Recovery Plan infrastructure dollars that prioritize lead line replacement nationally. These federal funds may help reduce the replacement schedule from 20 years to just a few. I remain hopeful.
Fire & DPW
And let’s take a minute to acknowledge Public Works AND the Fire Department for the tenacity they’ve shown in dealing with our recent storms.
We’ve seen an increase in these kinds of fierce weather events—the ones we used to call hundred-year rains or floods, except they’re happening more regularly because of changing weather patterns—one of the reasons why I’m such a champion for climate resiliency. As we work to solve climate change locally, these storms continue to increase in both number and intensity. And that’s why a tough, talented response team is so critical.
Even the quick-moving afternoon storm we had a week and a half ago caused power outages and spot flooding. Our Fire department received 20 calls for downed power lines and multiple requests for elevator rescues, fire alarms, and a structure fire.
As a result, we saw a spike in calls for medical emergencies. The Fire Department has a full-service medical response unit with trained paramedics, so when you call 9-1-1 for a medical emergency in Ferndale, chances are one of our firefighter paramedics will come to assist you.
And then there were the heavy rains on June 25 and 26, the ones that caused so much flooding in Wayne County. Honestly, I feel Ferndale got lucky. Those rain clouds didn’t hover over us as they did in 2014. We are in a game of weather roulette.
Northwest Ferndale—including the Housing Commission apartment building on Withington – found themselves without power for an extended period during some of the worst heat of the season.
The Fire Department jumped into action to provide wellness checks on all the building’s most vulnerable residents – senior citizens, those with medical concerns, and residents on oxygen. They quickly helped transport those in need to a city building with air conditioning and power for their medical supplies. Thanks to the men and women who do this critical work and the leader who oversees it, Chief Teresa Robinson.
In January, she came to Ferndale and has shown herself to be a tremendous asset to the Fire Department and City. I’m also very proud we hired our first female Chief, continuing to diversify our municipal workforce.
Parks and Rec:
We learned how critical parks are to elevating public health, too. Access to recreational space nurtures strong neighborhoods and healthy kids.
Our parks and rec staff saved the Geary/Wanda park improvement projects. The council cut the budget as part of COVID and asked staff to reduce the scope and re-bid the project. Both parks are under construction with new ADA accessible walking paths, play equipment, Pavillon, and improved landscaping. I hope to make these projects whole again with some ARP funds expected.
And the final project from the $2M parks bond is the Splash Pad; the pandemic also impacts its progress. We will have bids in late Fall for construction to start in early spring of 2022, hopefully, ready for summertime fun.
What does this all mean? We know that people will come when the city invests in our parks with new activities and improvements.
The skate park is a prime example of how this new amenity is getting kids out of the house. A few weeks ago, my neighbor across the street, Donna, was holding the hands of her granddaughters as they practiced getting on a new skateboard. These young girls saw other children skateboarding and wanted to learn. That’s the influence of a park investment.
Thank you, Parks Director, Lareina Wheeler, and the parks and rec team for your excellent work.
8 Mile and Woodward Intersection Partnership
A critical project for me as mayor and City Council has been improving conditions at the 8 Mile and Woodward Intersection.
The public health of the individuals residing at the underpass is everyone’s concern, and the public health conditions for Ferndale and Detroit residents that live near the intersection.
I want to thank Detroit Councilman McCalistaer, Mayor Duggan’s office, the 8 Mile Boulevard Association, Oakland County, and MDOT for partnering with us to share their homeless expertise, their financial resources, and the partnership to identify human-centered solutions that assist the homeless. Through this partnership, the city of Detroit funded case management support with a local nonprofit that engaged with the individuals at the bridge to identify the barriers from getting employment, drug, and mental health treatments, and permanent housing.
I thank Councilman McCalister for securing a $25,000 contribution from TCF Bank for this project. I also want to give a special thank you to our Community and Economic Development department director, Jordan Twardy, for spearheading this project and making progress possible. His time as the former Executive Director 8MBA provided the Ferndale team the depth and breadth needed to steer a partnership with Detroit and all of the stakeholders. And thank you to DPW for continual cleaning maintenance at the intersection.
What’s next is construction starting in September to install the mural under the overpass and improved lighting. The project design and installation team are the People of Detroit, Noah Stevens, and mural artist Pat Perry. They developed concepts that connect both Ferndale and Detroit together through rollerskating.
First, I want to acknowledge some new faces you may have seen in our police department, including Police Chief Emmi and Captain Spellman. Our PD has been a leader in police reforms, and I want to talk about our department’s journey and what is next:
How has the Ferndale Police Department changed? How is it a different department than it was five years ago, or even one year ago? In some ways, it hasn’t changed. It isn’t different. We have a department of men and women with a shared mission of protecting and safeguarding our community.
When we call them or dial 911, officers show up quickly, ready to help, investigate, and do whatever is necessary to keep our downtown, neighborhoods, parks, and community spaces safe. What HAS changed is the formalization of this mission.
The Police Department has spent the past five years looking within, assessing, enacting changes, formalizing policies, and spearheading new programs with the goal of strategic, systematic, and continual growth.
So that they can serve as guardians and protectors—not warriors. So that they can find and eradicate any institutional biases. So that they can train, learn, and practice—going through simulation after simulation to ensure that if the worst situation happens, they’re 100% prepared to provide skillful, impartial policing to all. And so that they can be a police department by and for this community—the WHOLE community.
Following the tragic murder of George Floyd last May by a member of the Minneapolis Police Department, citizens across the nation protested and called for stricter Use of Force policies.
When I, and every council member, was inevitably asked about the Ferndale Police Department’s Use of Force, I was proud to share that ALL EIGHT of the policies recommended by the 8CantWait campaign had already been implemented—in fact, the Department has been making these ahead-of-the-curve changes since 2016. And when I say “changes,” I want to clarify: in my time with the city, our police department has always supported these ideals.
Chokeholds, shooting at moving vehicles—these were not our Department’s practices. By taking the extra step to formalize these policies and educate their officers, they make a clear statement to the community that what happened in Minneapolis will NOT happen here.
In the wake of last summer, we also heard a lot about defunding the police. At its core, the message was less a judgment of policing agencies and their work and more a plea to create better and more strategic services for cases that don’t require enforcement—such as mental health crises.
With that in mind, the Ferndale Police Department formed a partnership with Common Ground, Oakland County’s leading crisis services agency. The coalition—made possible by a grant—will put Common Ground in a position to help Ferndale first responders recognize opportunities for crisis management support and connect in-need individuals and families with available programs and services. Common Ground will follow up with referrals and provide a continuity of care—an aspect currently missing from many mental health service calls. And if you’re still unsure, that’s okay.
The trust between communities and the police departments that serve them has been shaken following last year’s events and the history of racism is a long journey of healing.
I invite you to engage by the following ways:
~Review the new bridge to data transparency dashboard created by Oakland County (on the city’
~I invite residents to attend the Citizens Police Academy that runs every October.
~I encourage you to attend a Street corner round Table event with our police department or host one in front of your house like residents Dale and Karen Vigilario safely did during the pandemic last year.
Let’s talk about two other approaches to social equity.
Right now, I call it the “planning trifecta” or Planning Force, like Space Force but for your neighborhood. Because describing the following: we are updating the Master Land Use Plan, the Parks and Recreation Plan, and developing our first-ever Climate Action Plan concurrently. It’s a mouthful.
If you have creative ideas on what to call this “Planning Force Trifecta,” please share with the staff and me. All project names are on the table for consideration.
New this year is a strong focus on planning for equity more deeply. One definition helpful to understand what this means is the American Planning Association’s definition of equity: “The foundation of the planning profession is to create better communities, which means clean air, clean water, decent housing, open space and recreation, safe neighborhoods, transportation options, access to employment opportunities, and good schools in every neighborhood.” This is our focus in Ferndale.
This is a banner year if you want to be engaged in our community to help set the city’s direction for the next five years. For the next 12 months, surveys, focus groups, community engagement meetings, and the relevant boards and commissions will discuss each of these three plans. Each of you can uplift and give voice to what equitable outcomes we need for Ferndale going forward.
Another major priority is the opportunity to make safety improvements on Woodward Avenue, a project steeped in social equity. I describe this opportunity as the “NASA re-entry” moment, meaning we have to hit the re-entry window precisely right, or we will burn up ( meaning the project won’t happen).
Our window opens next year when MDOT is re-paving Woodward – it’s a once-in-a-decade, generational opportunity to implement safety improvements on Woodward and improve access to transit – something I’ve been fighting for over 15 years for our city and the region.
For years, residents have told me what’s not working well, how unsafe they feel walking on the sidewalks or crossing at the limited crosswalks we do have. Yesterday, my body had a near miss from a distracted driver who screeched to a halt in front of me as I crossed Woodward avenue at Camborne.
We finally have the chance to implement short-term solutions – and it’s within our grasp!
Frankly, I’m on pins and needles waiting to hear if Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge are awarded all or some or none of the SEMCOG Transportation Alternatives Program Grant to help pay for this transformational project for the region. This is not an easy thing to do, transform a corridor the city doesn’t own. It’s technically difficult. Time consuming. It’s on the city to make its own case why change is possible. But I’m optimistic we will be successful with our partner, Pleasant Ridge.
Let’s shift to our downtown and small business community led by our women-led solid DDA team: Lena Stevens, the Executive Director, and Sommer Realy, Engagement Manager. They are here to get work done. And it shows.
First, I want to highlight the impact on small business support the DDA has provided our small businesses, located within the DDA boundary and for small businesses located on Woodward Heights, Livernois, and Hilton. The DDA’s support helped our local business owners secure over in $150,000 in funding assistance made available to reopen and recover from the pandemic.
I want to elevate and champion one recent grant award because the owner is being incredibly quiet and humble about it. Go Comedy! Improv Theater received $272,000 from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant through the Small business administration. Congratulations to owner PJ Jacokes for receiving this fantastic opportunity to help him reopen his business in September.
Speaking of shuttered venues such as Ringwald Theatre, Magic Bag, Grasshopper, and Boogie Fever took the hardest hit in 2020 due to social distancing requirements. Ringwald has partnered with Affirmations and remains active in this new location. Boogie Fever opened and is as popular as ever. GoComedy is currently scheduling shows and will be a PATIO Zone participant during show nights. Magic Bag has a fully booked schedule. This is what recovery looks like.
I also want to spotlight Le Host, a small black-owned business that has been in our downtown for years. When the pandemic hit, I’m unsure if co-owners, Haith and Henry of Le Host, gave themselves a day of self-pity. Instead, they seized an opportunity to expand in the retail market to provide hair care products for people who wear wigs. Their products are now featured in Walmart stores nationwide and regionally in Meijer. They use every square inch of their space on West Nine Mile for storage and order fulfillment and still find time to donate and give back to those in need.
We also have new businesses planning to open. Here are few highlights:
~Urbanrest opens a second location on West Nine Mile. The city helped them secure $25,000 in a grant from the MI Economic Development Corporation.
~Walking Lightly a woman-owned entrepreneur, opened last year on Hilton. (I dropped $100 on my mom’s birthday gift in June).
~And a grand opening for Good Day Selfie Museum is this Thursday, located on Woodward, started by a young, female, local entrepreneur that attended Ferndale High School.
And we are lucky to have a privately-owned small business retail incubator with the Rust Belt Market. Formally Sorry, Not Sorry, located inside Rust Belt Market, is expanding into their own space on Woodward next to Treat Dreams and Elaine B Jewelry, now called Not Sorry Goods.
And last night at our city council meeting, The Dot developers announced three new businesses opening into the new retail space on West Troy:
~A&Be Bridal Shop, a small bridal boutique store that started in Denver.
~Quix Chocolate, a family-owned business started in Belgium in 1949, is restarted by their great-grandson, a Dutch immigrant to the US.
~My Salon Suite is a franchise that builds small salon spaces within a larger space and rents them to licensed hairstylists, barbers, and others who provide beauty, health and wellness services.
We welcome you to Ferndale.
Let me acknowledge here the hard work of Joy Wells, the Executive Director, who, during the pandemic, with leadership from their board, rebranded as the South Oakland Area Regional Chamber, or SOAR, expanding their work into Oak Park, Hazel Park, and Royal Oak township. Joy’s leadership has been instrumental in supporting the city’s small business reopening and recovery efforts.
Looking ahead at the possibilities for our downtown, the DDA board of directors and I are focused on all the spots that make things nicer and more enjoyable to hang out in Ferndale.
We are finding new ways to bring arts and parks to the area, starting with the Dot Project and installations of unique pieces that also help people remember where they parked. And with the support of the DDA and the Ferndale Arts and Cultural Commission, we are hosting the Detroit Institute of Art’s Inside/Out 2021 program for the second time. May Instagram be graced with a thousand selfies before the art in our downtown.
This past Saturday, I saw nearly a dozen kids playing chess in Schiffer Park. I was beyond ecstatic to see children hanging out in our upgraded public space. It wasn’t a great place to be before, mostly cement. When we make strategic investments in reimagining a more kid-friendly and people-oriented space, we get more people exploring and hanging out in our downtown.
And more people in our downtown help nurture a thriving business district.
Thank you DDA Board of Directors, all who are downtown business owners, who are giving their precious time to the city, especially during the pandemic. It’s my goal that people will enjoy our parks in new ways, long after my leadership role in the city.
But for that to happen, we need to have a serious conversation about Climate Resiliency.
Specifically, our big hairy audacious goal to become a Carbon Neutral City. I’m proud to be selected as one of the first 25 mayors for ICLEI’s 150 US Leaders to support the United Nations Race to Zero initiative on climate change.
I’m also proud of our city council for becoming one of the smallest cities nationally to take on this lofty goal to reduce our carbon footprint to solve climate change. Ferndale and Royal Oak are the only two cities in Oakland County, and possibly the tri-county region, to set carbon neutral goals with science-based targets. Again, Ferndale is leading the way though we can’t achieve our science-based targets on our own.
More cities across the region need to join us, help us navigate this together, and leverage one another ideas and resources. I will be using my voice to encourage other city elected officials to learn more and join us.
It is far less expensive to invest in infrastructure adaptation than pay for recovery efforts. Don’t get me wrong, upgrading our infrastructure is costly. Still, over a 20-30 year period, we will save money by becoming more resilient to the extreme weather patterns impacting our region.
Our community and city council will be making challenging spending decisions next year after the climate action plan indicates priority policies and projects. It won’t be status quo with equity and carbon reduction as guiding values.
One example is our DPW yard buildings. These old buildings are one of our highest carbon outputs. The buildings are energy inefficient.; they are not modern facilities for a 21st century DPW.
And we have an equity issue because back in the day, someone thought it was okay to build a hallway over a sewer drain that our employees must cross over every day on their way to their breakroom. It smells like poop. Yes, I said poop.
So achieving equitable outcomes is not only a community-wide goal but also an organizational goal for the city administration to make Ferndale’s work environment safer and more modern.
And finally, you have not heard much about the Mayor’s Business Council comprised of our largest and medium-sized manufacturers business owners in the city. We only met in person once, and then, only by Zoom where staff and I got feedback on our Affordable Housing Plan and identified if access to housing impacts their ability to hire and retain talent.
We got feedback on Ferndale Moves and the Woodward improvement project. We asked if any of their employees have problems getting to work because they are unable to afford a car or want to live a care-free lifestyle.
After hearing about Ferndale’s carbon reduction goals and greenhouse gas inventory, these MBC owners want to prioritize sustainability and the circular economy, which is businesses designing and removing waste from their production processes.
I will continue convening these leaders together to have conversations to learn how biz can work for the environment and save money.
Everything I highlighted tonight has been about people connecting. Having conversations. Listening. Hearing. Learning.
It never stopped being about the people, but after 15 intense months of mostly online interactions, it’s time to plug back into humanity. We are all far more alike than we are different, but you wouldn’t believe so based on the polarization happening in this country. Now more than ever, we need to humanize people.
As mayor, I have prioritized taking an hour walk or meeting up for coffee with residents. I come to your house to start the trek, and folks take me on their regular walking route in their neighborhood. People have shared with me their family challenges, health issues, their kid’s struggle with online learning during the pandemic, their next vacation, and their hopes and dreams about Ferndale.
These are my favorite to hear because what they love about Ferndale or their ideas on making our community stronger are in line with our community priorities.
Thank you to all of the volunteers who help make Ferndale the place that it is – whether you sit on boards and commissions, or you are like Greg, a resident that lives along Geary Park who spends his own time picking up trash and looking out for the kids playing in the park. I met him on one of my walks. Being plugged into the community can happen in so many ways.
I want to extend my sincere gratitude to Ferndale’s City Council, Mayor Pro Tem Raylon Leaks May, Councilwoman Kat Bruner James, Councilwoman Laura Mikulski, and Councilman Greg Pawlica. Our community values, strategic priorities, and vision going forward are steered by our values of Integrity, Inclusiveness, Innovation, and Inspired. This is our shared leadership.
All of this is all possible because of their engaging spirit and tireless effort. Thank you for being on this journey with me, with us, the community. Thank you for everything you give to this city. Thank you to your family members too. I know they give up their time to support you and listen to you complain and vent, and share in the joy of the accomplishments you make.
Thank you to Affirmations for hosting our event this evening and to Vibe Credit Union for sponsoring this event. Your partnership helps make things happen here.
And finally, I invite you to join me in supporting Ferndale’s vision of becoming a carbon-neutral, more accessible, and welcoming place to be yourself.
Attend an engagement meeting with the master land use plan, parks and recs plan, and climate action plan, The Planning Force Trifecta. Let your voice be heard because we need you. This is about us!
Thank you for joining me tonight. I’m grateful for your participation.