Dale Bishop, with Youth for Christ, stands outside the room at the Blue Building in Hazel Park where a fire is believed to have started Jan. 6, on the second floor. CityEdge Church shares the building and was maintaining a food pantry there for the poor. The food was compromised by the fire, but the Hazel Park District Library and local businesses collected goods to help the church bounce back.  

Dale Bishop, with Youth for Christ, stands outside the room at the Blue Building in Hazel Park where a fire is believed to have started Jan. 6, on the second floor. CityEdge Church shares the building and was maintaining a food pantry there for the poor. The food was compromised by the fire, but the Hazel Park District Library and local businesses collected goods to help the church bounce back.  

File photo by Deb Jacques


Looking back on the year in Madison Heights, Hazel Park

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published January 2, 2018

 Riders enjoy the Orient Express rollercoaster at the Madison Family Spring Carnival, which was held at Madison High School the last weekend of April. 

Riders enjoy the Orient Express rollercoaster at the Madison Family Spring Carnival, which was held at Madison High School the last weekend of April. 

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Connie Firestine, master gardener and librarian at the Hazel Park District Library, stands in front of the old-fashioned card catalog the library received for its Seed Library, which launched March 4. Patrons can take home organic and heirloom seeds to grow in their gardens.

Connie Firestine, master gardener and librarian at the Hazel Park District Library, stands in front of the old-fashioned card catalog the library received for its Seed Library, which launched March 4. Patrons can take home organic and heirloom seeds to grow in their gardens.

File photo by Deb Jacques

 Ori Cunningham, 4 1/2 years old, goes down the water slide at Red Oaks Waterpark Aug. 23. He was visiting from New York.

Ori Cunningham, 4 1/2 years old, goes down the water slide at Red Oaks Waterpark Aug. 23. He was visiting from New York.

File photo by Erin Sanchez

The year 2017 had its share of promising developments, whether it was Madison Heights working with other communities to crack down on crime across borders, or Hazel Park continuing to develop its business sector, including the opening of the Tri-County Commerce Center.

It also said farewell to several hometown heroes, including former Madison Heights Mayor Ed Swanson, Lamphere Schools Board of Education Trustee Bill Dixon, former Madison High coach and professional wrestler Jim Myers, and longtime Hazel Park volunteer Harold Brenizer. 

But 2017 also said hello to new faces, with City Council challengers emerging victorious in highly contested races during an election year that also saw a major bond proposal defeated in the Madison Public Schools district, and a site sinking fund replacement approved in the Lamphere school district. 

 

Progress and setbacks

The year began with a wave of relief for local officials after the state Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Snyder signed Senate Bill 1068, which spares Madison Heights from paying a hefty local share for the upcoming expansion of Interstate 75. 

While concerns still remain about the timing of the project, in which the Michigan Department of Transportation will widen and improve I-75 from Hazel Park to Auburn Hills, the city no longer has to cover the estimated local share of about $4.25 million for all three phases.

MDOT also announced that the project’s construction period has been cut nearly in half — wrapping up by 2020, or about 10 years sooner — thanks to a shift to private-sector contractors. 

As roadwork sped up in 2017, two local churches in Hazel Park faced disasters: A fire broke out Jan. 6 at the Blue Building, home to both CityEdge Church and Youth for Christ, and a windstorm March 8 ravaged the iconic steeple at Landmark Community Church. 

CityEdge temporarily relocated to Hazel Park Junior High and collaborated with Cellarmen’s, Hazel Park Recreation and the Hazel Park District Library to collect nonperishable food items replenishing its pantry, Chris’ Closet. The library even agreed to deduct overdue fees in exchange for food donations. Landmark, meanwhile, collected money to repair the steeple, which was blasted by winds reaching 60 mph, sheering two walls like paper. 

Another faith community, Central Church in Madison Heights, did a different sort of rebuilding, raising more than $10,000 to help a homeless man, known simply as “Ray,” start over in life. The man had been found sleeping under the carport a year prior, and the church welcomed him in. He became the church’s groundskeeper, and by the spring of 2017, the community had raised enough funds to help him get settled in a trailer home in Hazel Park. Ray is reportedly doing well. 

The Hazel Park District Library launched its Seed Library March 4, where residents can take home organic or heirloom seeds to grow plants with no genetic modifications. In addition, the library launched its ancestry program, giving patrons access to more than 7,000 databases through the website ancestry.com, helping them trace their lineage. And starting in the summer, the library opened an extra 12 hours a week, resuming Monday hours thanks to the passage of a millage proposal last year that granted the library an extra half-mill of funding. Library taxes now cost the average household in Hazel Park about $50 a year, up from $40. 

On Feb. 2 — exactly 75 years to the day that it became a chartered city — Hazel Park opened its Historical Museum, located at 45 E. Pearl Ave. in the city’s original library, built in 1940. The museum features more than 400 framed photos and 100 artifacts spanning the city’s history, with some items dating back to the late 1800s. 

Madison Heights moved to Next Gen 911, a new countywide system in which residents can call for help in other ways by sending text messages, pictures and videos. During the summer, the city launched its new mobile-friendly website, as well. 

In April, Judge Charles Goedert, of Hazel Park 43rd District Court, unveiled the renovation and expansion of the courthouse and adjacent City Hall, a $2.2 million project covered by a modest increase in civic infraction fees of $15, so there was no direct cost to law-abiding taxpayers. The new courthouse features a second courtroom, accessibility improvements, enhanced security and more, and also gives the staff more space. The court also offered amnesty to those with overdue tickets from May 15 through the end of June. 

The city of Madison Heights resolved a lawsuit in Oakland County Circuit Court with the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority, or SOCRRA, on May 17. SOCRRA had filed a lawsuit against the city for barring access to SOCRRA’s transfer site at 29470 John R Road. The city had padlocked the facility following the discovery of more than 50 code violations. The recycling giant ultimately agreed to address the safety issues and dismissed its own lawsuit. 

The Hazel Park Growers and Makers Market reopened to the public at Green Acres Park on Sundays from July 9 through Oct. 22. The vendors at the market include local farmers and artisans. The city also opened Hazel Park Legacy Fitness Park — a park within a park — in the northwest corner of Green Acres Park. The “legacy” in the name refers to the Truba family, well-known in the city for volunteering. The park features a variety of exercise equipment that people are free to use. 

One of the largest developments in Oakland County was completed in 2017 in the form of the Tri-County Commerce Center, located at 1400 E. 10 Mile Road, at the corner of Hazel Park Raceway. The building spans 575,000 square feet and occupies 36 acres of land, and is one of the largest buildings in Hazel Park’s history. The property was previously an overflow parking lot for the raceway, and prior to that it was a landfill for the city of Highland Park. 

Extensive environmental remediation was required to clean up the polluted site. The developer received $9 million in brownfield tax credits from the city and then spent $36 million building the light-manufacturing and distribution center. Plans for the project were announced in October 2015, with discussions going back a year prior. 

The city of Hazel Park estimates that the Tri-County Commerce Center will generate about $300,000 a year in new taxes for the city. That number could jump to $600,000 in annual taxes once the brownfield tax period ends in 20 years.

Among the first tenants at the complex: e-commerce giant Amazon.com and automotive supplier Bridgewater Interiors LLC. They have since been joined by LG Electronics, which will be manufacturing the battery for the Chevrolet Bolt EV at the facility, a move that will create nearly 300 new Michigan jobs. LG will be the largest tenant at the complex, investing $25 million, supported in part by a $2.9 million capital grant under the Michigan Business Development Program. 

On Sept. 25, the Madison Heights City Council approved a proposal by City Councilman Robert Corbett to waive the ambulance transport fee for residents, reasoning that the residents are already paying a dedicated millage for Advanced Life Support services, as well as the police and fire pension.

At the same meeting, the council also approved the creation of a new board, proposed by Mayor Pro Tem Mark Bliss, called the Madison Heights Arts and Culture Advisory Board, which focuses on the value that arts bring to the city, the goal being to attract and retain businesses and residents. 

The Madison Heights City Council also recently agreed to cover all staff costs for the city’s Memorial Day Parade — a huge boon for the Parade Committee that will allow the committee to focus its privately raised dollars on enticing new parade units. 

The Madison Heights Police  Department had its hands full in October and November. An officer assigned to the Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team helped execute a countywide drug bust that brought charges against 12 individuals accused of selling heroin mixed with deadly fentanyl that led to multiple overdose deaths. Meanwhile, another officer assigned to the Oakland County Gangs and Violent Crimes Task Force participated in a nationwide effort to crack down on human trafficking that led to 120 arrests and 84 minors rescued, including nine arrests in the city of Madison Heights. 

Later in the year, at its Dec. 11 meeting, the Madison Heights City Council also authorized the assignment of an officer to the Troy Special Investigations Unit, making good on a council goal that will allow the city to team up with the neighboring communities of Troy, Royal Oak, Auburn Hills, Birmingham and Bloomfield Township, cracking down on organized crime across city borders.

Local authorities also found themselves confronted with a hoarder house situation on Hecht Street in Madison Heights, where more than 130 cats were ultimately retrieved, most of them alive, but in poor condition. The surviving cats were rehabilitated at Oakland County Animal Control, and the homeowner was arrested and charged with one count of abandoning or cruelty to 10 or more animals, which carries a possible sentence of up to four years in prison, a $5,000 fine, up to 500 hours of community service, or any combination of the above. The home was condemned. 

Over in Hazel Park, a long-running business closed at the end of the year. The Phoenix Café, open for nearly a decade at 24918 John R Road, announced in November that it would be closing permanently right before Christmas. The owners said they want to follow other creative pursuits. The venue was known for its live music, art galleries and themed events.

 

Farewells and fresh faces

Several community figures died in 2017, and the community came together to celebrate the difference they made. 

Longtime Hazel Park volunteer Harold Brenizer died Jan. 22 at age 82. He made many contributions to his hometown, including 30 years on the Hazel Park Board of Education and 20 years working at the Hazel Park Recreation Center, where he served as building supervisor and delivered meals to homebound seniors and helped transport them to the store, the doctor’s office and more. 

He was also a long-standing member of the Hazel Park Lions Club, a lifetime member of the Clawson-Troy Elks for 58 years, a member of FOP Lodge 130, and involved in many youth activities — scoutmaster for Cub Scouts, softball coach, wrestling club, the Hazel Park Quarterback Club, the Hazel Park Booster Club and more. 

A room at the Recreation Center will be dedicated in Brenizer’s memory in early 2018. 

Jim Myers, known internationally as professional wrestling superstar George “The Animal” Steele, and locally as a long-time coach at Madison High, died Feb. 17 at age 79. In the ring, he played the role of a heel, a villain who tore up turnbuckles and wrestled with such figures as Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. But in his private life, he was a father figure to the students he coached on the football and wrestling teams at Madison High.

Myers himself was an accomplished athlete prior to coaching, one of a few nationwide to have received varsity letters in four sports during each of his four years in high school — 16 varsity letters in all. As an adult, his fame even brought him to the silver screen alongside Johnny Depp in the 1994 Tim Burton film “Ed Wood,” in which he played Swedish wrestler/actor Tor Johnson.  

The namesake of Jim Myers Stadium at Madison High, Myers struggled with dyslexia, which made reading difficult, but he considered it a blessing since it taught him rigor and discipline, and helped him empathize with his students who struggled in school.

Another local legend who was laid to rest in 2017 was former Mayor Ed Swanson, who died Sept. 10 at age 87. He served as mayor of Madison Heights from Nov. 8, 1999, to Nov. 9, 2015 — a 16-year run that makes him one of the longest-serving mayors in the history of Madison Heights, second only to former Mayor George Suarez.

During his tenure, Swanson guided City Council through the Great Recession, during which the city budget had to be slashed by 30 percent, cutting the workforce by several dozen positions through attrition, as well as two temporary layoffs in the Fire Department. 

In addition, Swanson oversaw the expansion of the 43rd District Court, the demolition of the old two-bay fire station, the construction of the new fire station with its five bays, the relandscaping of City Hall, the relocation of the city’s war memorials, the development of the Little House on Hales youth center and more. He implemented the fall festival at the Red Oaks Nature Center and the annual holiday tree lighting at City Hall, and found ways to privately fund these events in tough times. 

The former mayor even found time to be involved with such groups as the Rotary Club, Exchange Club, Jaycees, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Optimist Club and Boy Scouts. He sold newspapers for the Goodfellows and served as a waiter at the annual Harvest Festival for the Intermediate Women’s Club. He had also been involved in numerous automobile clubs. 

In Lamphere Schools, William Dixon, one of the longest-serving board members in the district’s history, fell ill of a lung infection while vacationing with friends in Wyoming and died unexpectedly Oct. 10 at age 66. His 23-year tenure is second in length only to Fred Hill, namesake of Hiller Elementary. At the time of his passing, Dixon, a retired cardiovascular medical technician, was serving as board secretary.

Colleagues and students remembered Dixon as a man who valued person-to-person contact, who stayed in touch with the people he met and who valued the arts, participating in local theater groups and supporting Lamphere Drama. His favorite role that he played was Clarence the angel in Avon Players’ “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 

While 2017 bid farewell to some familiar faces, it also welcomed some new ones to the world of politics with the results of the City Council elections in Madison Heights and Hazel Park. While it wasn’t a presidential election year, the field for both races was quite crowded, with eight candidates vying for three seats (four-year terms) in Madison Heights, and six candidates and a write-in competing for four seats in Hazel Park, moving the city to staggered terms, with the top two vote-getters receiving four-year terms and the third- and fourth highest receiving two-year terms. 

In the Hazel Park race, two challengers won the four-year terms: Amy Aubry, in first, and Allissa Sullivan, in second, with the pair separated by only 12 votes. The two women had run two years prior and lost, but this time they came out on top, outpacing incumbents Andy LeCureaux and Bethany Holland, who came in third and fourth place, respectively, taking the two-year terms. 

In the Madison Heights race, Mayor Pro Tem Mark Bliss took first and City Councilman David Soltis took third. In between them in second place was challenger Roslyn Grafstein, adding a new face and another woman to council.

New leadership wasn’t the only thing at stake in the 2017 election season. Both the Madison and Lamphere school districts had major millage proposals up for vote, and the two experienced very different outcomes.

By a margin of 3-to-1, voters turned down a $29.2 million bond issue by Madison Schools that would have increased taxes in order to move the students from Wilkinson Middle School to a new middle school that would have been constructed at Madison High — a project that would have also included an athletic facility with an indoor track for the public, and improvements made to Sunset Park. It was an attempt to complete the district’s “One Campus — One Community” vision, in which the high school, middle school and elementary school would all be together in the 11 Mile area. The totals were 26.55 percent for the bond (476 votes), and 73.45 percent against it (1,317).

Voters in Lamphere Schools, meanwhile, approved a building and site sinking fund replacement by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. The sinking fund replacement will allow for critical maintenance and repairs. It will not increase taxes, since the district will finish paying off a 20-year bond for projects done in the late ’90s. In fact, homeowners will actually save money on it — an average $50 in savings per year for a house with a taxable valuation of $50,000 ($100,000 overall).

The replacement is for 3 mills each year for 10 years, bringing in about $2 million a year, which will go toward repairs and renovations for roofs and parking lots, enhanced security and energy efficiency throughout the district, new carpeting and technology upgrades inside the buildings, and upgrades to the playgrounds and athletic facilities outside. 

The totals were 65.43 percent for the replacement (1,355 votes) and 34.57 against it (716).