MADISON HEIGHTS — The clock tower on the southeast corner of 11 Mile and John R in Madison Heights has become an iconic sight for the city, a familiar fixture that feels like it’s been there forever. In the scheme of the city’s history, it’s relatively new, built in July 1999 and dedicated in June 2000. Since then, it’s continued to be maintained, with its latest restoration being the most extensive yet.
Venice Contracting was hired to power-wash the structure, prime and paint it, and do something a bit more unusual — the addition of bird-netting to keep pigeons out of the inside frame and decorative bell. Bird droppings are the primary source of corrosion for the structure, and make the bell and crossbeams look unpleasant.
The clock tower was the first project by the Madison Heights Southend Downtown Development Authority (DDA), which spans a cross-shaped district — Gardenia and John R to the north, 10 Mile and John R to the south, Lorenz off 11 Mile to the east, and the I-75 service drive off 11 Mile to the west. The DDA has nearly 300 parcels, 260-270 of which are businesses.
The DDA formed in 1997. At that time, Madison Heights City Council assessed the value of all the parcels in the district and came up with a base value. Since then, any increase in value has been funneled back to the DDA — tax increment financing that pays for various projects benefiting the district’s stakeholders.
For example, there’s the sign grant program for adding or replacing business signage and removing nonconforming pole signs. The program is public-to-private matching — up to $10,000 at one point. If new signage costs a business $20,000, then the DDA would chip in $10,000; if it costs $5,000, the DDA would chip in $2,500; and so on.
For removing nonconforming pole signs, the DDA covers the entire cost.
Another big project has been the façade improvement program, with a cap amount of $5,000 public-to-private matching on windows, lighting and more. The goal of both grant programs is to attract and retain businesses by helping them defray the cost of improving their appearance and visibility. This, in turn, increases property values and the tax base.
Creating a more unified look is another strategy. The DDA provided permanent address plaques to each business at no cost, creating a common thread between them in the form of 7-inch numbers that are easily visible from the street.
The program was well-received — so much so that businesses outside the downtown have asked the DDA board about it.
The DDA also backs two major events: The Around the Globe in Madison Heights Taste Festival and Cultural Show, and the Art Challenge. This November, the two events will be combined into one. By showcasing the many restaurants and other businesses in the DDA, the events raise awareness for all the city has to offer in the south end.
“The DDA provides many valuable services to the community at large — and to City Council, in particular. It’s a sounding board for us on a number of issues regarding the development of that area,” said Madison Heights City Councilmember Robert Corbett.
“They really are the sparkplug for future redevelopment of the area,” he said. “I think any increases in property values in the future will be largely traced back to what they’ve been able to achieve with their projects today.”
That belief keeps the DDA going, at a time when property values have dropped so much due to the economy in recent years that the DDA budget is now around $40,000, down from $300,000 seven years ago.
They’ve become more reliant on private funding but haven’t given up on doing what they can for their stakeholders. This includes maintaining the clock tower and DDA-branded waste receptacles throughout the district.
“We have limited resources and staff time, but one of the things about Madison Heights is we’re very resilient and passionate,” said Linda Williams, the city’s economic development coordinator. “We take care of our neighbors, and we’re very diverse and engaged with projects that make sense.”
She noted how it all started with the clock tower, which continues to mark each hour with one of four short melodies, depending on the season.
“I’m sure the neighbors that live around there know them all by heart. Actually, I know the businesses do, since one of my (DDA) board members is there on the corner and will remind me when it’s time to change the music,” Williams laughed. “It keeps the time and plays music at every hour. The tower is something that people recognize now, and it makes them take pride in that corner and in our city.”