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January 29, 2013

Utica mayor boasts of survival, expansion during economic downturn

By Brad D. Bates
C & G Staff Writer

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Utica mayor boasts of survival, expansion during economic downturn
Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan speaks during the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Heritage Luncheon Jan. 23 at the Cherry Creek Banquet Center in Shelby Township.

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan’s message at the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s annual Heritage Luncheon was simple, yet spoke volumes

Utica is hanging in there, baby.

“Staying Utica was our biggest achievement,” Noonan said at the luncheon Jan. 23 at the Cherry Creek Banquet Center. “You know the poster of the cat sliding down the wall? Well, that’s what we feel like most of the time. We’re hanging on by our toenails.”

Noonan cited continued drops in revenue as one of the main reasons it was a challenge to maintain Utica’s standing as a full-service city in 2012, and she said it looms over everything her city seeks to do in 2013.

“We’ve already gone down 28.5 percent, and I’m sure we’ll pass 30 percent,” Noonan said of her city’s revenue losses. “When you take out almost one-third of the revenue you’ve used for so many years, the hurt is big.”

The luncheon, which featured Noonan, Shelby Township Supervisor Richard Stathakis and Sterling Heights Mayor Richard Notte fielding questions from Chamber Board Chairman Clark Andrews, saw all three communities in agreement on the trials they have and will face.

“There’s no question about it — 2013 is going to be a challenge,” Stathakis said. “Revenues are going to be down to their lowest point, so we’ve got to be creative.”

Noonan discussed with the members of the chamber and panel ways in which her community has been “creative.”

“We reduced spending, we changed how we do things, we tried to significantly eliminate overtime from all of the collective bargaining units,” Noonan said.

“We asked our employees to contribute 5 percent more to their pensions. We left department heads with a pay freeze, and we’re trying very hard to contract out any and all services that can provide the kind of services we give our residents.”

One of the major issues facing Utica, like Sterling Heights and Shelby Township, is paying rising labor costs as state and local revenue continues to decline.

“Our first strategy is to pray; we do that very consistently,” Noonan said. “Our second strategy is a little more realistic. We are renegotiating all our collective bargaining agreements this year — they all fall due. And we will stand very firm on wages, benefits, health care, pension, and we may reduce hours for non-union personnel.

Survival wasn’t the only achievement Noonan spoke about at the luncheon, though.

She also bragged about the development of the riverfront in her city’s historic downtown, the advent of two new festivals and the successful return of the ice festival.

“If you haven’t gone down Auburn Road recently, you will find one of the most beautiful riverfront parks you’d ever imagine, and you can always wander under M-59 over the river to our other park on Van Dyke,” Noonan said of Memorial and Heritage parks, respectively.

“Being the little guys, we have to work harder,” Noonan added.  “We are working very hard on that quality-of-life issue (of) making us a walkable community. We know we have one of the few historic downtowns, and we’re playing it to the hilt, so we have to do the best with what we’ve got.”

Noonan said she was proud to report that the development of her downtown and Utica Downtown Development Authority were paid for with state and federal grant money and matches from the DDA.

“Our last three years, while it’s been economically very challenging, we brought in $2.6 million in grants,” Noonan said. “None of our general fund tax money has gone into those (improvements).”

And she said that, while it’s been slow, the development of the downtown and other commercial districts in Utica have shown signs of a rebound.

“More businesses are coming in and more calls about vacant spaces,” Noonan said. “Many businesses have been reluctant to spend money, but when they feel more confident, the consumers and business owners, that is indicative that the future looks bright.

“We know 2013 can only be better,” Noonan added.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brad D. Bates at bbates@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1029.