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2015: A year of visions and contrasts

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published December 30, 2015

 The Sterlingfest Art and Music Fair celebrates with a beach ball toss during its opening day July 23.

The Sterlingfest Art and Music Fair celebrates with a beach ball toss during its opening day July 23.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes

The year 2030 is a popular destination on the city of Sterling Heights’ visionary timeline for the future, and the year 2015 served as an entry point for making some of those dreams come to life.

However, the year also had its share of competing ideas, conflicts and controversies — whether they came from a new website, a new city logo or a challenger slate of City Council candidates. The following are a few of the major stories that affected Sterling Heights in 2015:

1. The incumbents stay on
All seven incumbent members of the Sterling Heights City Council kept their seats in the Nov. 3 election, which allows them to serve for two more years. In doing so, they defeated a slate of seven challengers, several of whom regularly attended council meetings and criticized city actions.

Mayor Michael Taylor, who was appointed to the mayoral spot in 2014 after the death of former Mayor Richard Notte, overwhelmingly beat challenger Paul Smith. Taylor had 13,265 votes, and Smith had 3,066 votes, according to official results posted on the Macomb County clerk’s website.

In the nonmayoral races, Joseph Romano had the most votes, followed by Barbara Ziarko, Deanna Koski, Nate Shannon, Doug Skrzyniarz and Maria Schmidt. The candidates who did not make the cut were the challengers: Joseph Judnick, Jackie Ryan, Jazmine Early, Moira Smith, Sanaa Elias and Verna Babula. The election’s overall turnout within the city was about 19.4 percent.

After the election, some of the challengers cited the fundraising advantage of the incumbents, which partially came from political action committee money. But Taylor said it was the residents, not money, that played the decisive factor in the election. He said it ultimately came down to a match between two competing visions of how to govern Sterling Heights, and the incumbents’ vision won.

The campaign season was also the backdrop for anonymous campaign literature that posed itself as supporting Elias and Early. However, the two candidates condemned the fliers as false and misleading due to misrepresenting their views on immigration.

2. Planners reject mosque proposal
The Sterling Heights Planning Commission unanimously rejected a special approval land use plan Sept. 10 that would have built a mosque in a single-family residential district in Sterling Heights.

Had the proposal been approved, the house of worship would have been positioned on the north side of 15 Mile Road between Hatherly Place and Davison Drive, or, more broadly, between Ryan and Mound roads.

The American Islamic Community Center, which has a Madison Heights location, would have used the mosque. The building would have had a size of about 20,500 square feet, and the applicant promised not to air an audible call to prayer.

Proponents said the mosque plan fulfilled zoning qualifications and that they were within their constitutional rights to have a mosque built, citing the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Some public speakers at Planning Commission meetings identified themselves as Muslims and said the location would be closer for them to attend. They also said the mosque would promote diversity in the community.

On the other side, some residents opposed the idea due to concerns over traffic, noise, falling property values, and lack of conformity to neighborhood aesthetics or proximity to a fire station.

The Planning Commission originally postponed a vote on the mosque’s special approval land use plan in August. When the body took up the issue again in September, City Planner Don Mende recommended that the city deny the application over building size, nonconformity and parking issues.

Applicant Jaafar Chehab, from the AICC, said a proposal rejection would violate his constitutional rights. Nevertheless, the commission voted to unanimously reject the proposal. After the vote, cheers and applause could be heard from some people in the audience who opposed the mosque proposal.

The Planning Commission was supposed to have the final say on the decision, and the Sterling Heights City Council said the issue was out of its hands. After the Planning Commission’s vote, a statement from Mayor Michael Taylor attributed the panel’s decision to “objective land use criteria” and not religious beliefs.

3. Vision 2030 begins to become reality
In January, Sterling Heights officials revealed a new city logo, which is shaped like a shield and incorporates blue and green into its color scheme. A river-shaped curve that bisects the shield looks like an “S” or an “H,” depending on one’s perspective. The logo also has an accompanying slogan, “Innovating Living.” The design came from Identity Creative, a consulting firm that was paid $7,500, according to City Manager Mark Vanderpool.

But in February, some residents criticized the logo and said they preferred the old, H-shaped one. They criticized the cost of replacing the logo and said the new one reminded them of the Girl Scouts’ logo. Vanderpool said the new logo was part of the 2030 Visioning Plan’s call for branding and marketing reforms. That visioning plan was originally drafted by stakeholders and approved by the City Council in 2014.

In May, the city formally launched its redesigned website, which was built with the help of a company called CivicPlus for a first-year cost of $92,000. Officials also considered the new website part of the 2030 Visioning Plan, adding that the old layout had been around for approximately a decade.

The website has a new menu layout and new features, such as a greater focus toward integration with social media. But some residents  criticized the new website over navigation difficulties. Sterling Heights Community Relations Director Bridget Doyle said the city appreciates feedback in order to tweak the page for accessibility.

The city also hired Social COOP Media to grow social media outreach on behalf of the city through popular sites like Twitter and Facebook. In May, the City Council paid Social COOP $20,000 for a six-month term. 

A Social COOP representative announced in the fall that it had success increasing public engagement and followers with Sterling Heights’ social media pages.

According to city officials, one of the visioning plan’s big successes was the opening of the Dodge Park Farmers Market in June. Officials described the market as a possible “placemaking” destination that could entice families to visit and stay in Sterling Heights.

The farmers market, which ran on Thursday afternoons and evenings until the end of October, reportedly attracted more people than city officials had expected. The market also hosted special activities like a pie-baking contest and a pet parade.

4. City’s industrial base faces sunny future
Sunnybrook Golf Bowl Motel ended decades of being an entertainment destination in Sterling Heights when it shut down at the end of September. The business’s website said the venue originally started out as a golf course in 1936 and grew from there.

After Sunnybrook closed down, the city of Sterling Heights and the Detroit-based real estate and investment firm Sterling Group announced in October the upcoming development of an industrial enterprise park. The development will be located where Sunnybrook’s golf course used to be, by 17 Mile Road and Van Dyke Avenue.

According to Sterling Heights officials, the future 144-acre development would be the city’s largest real estate project since 1976, the year that Lakeside Mall was established. In October, Sterling Heights Senior Economic Development Advisor Luke Bonner said the enterprise park could further boost the city’s property tax revenue.

The city expects technology and manufacturing firms to eventually set up shop, and according to a Sterling Group representative, well-known hotel and multinational companies have been in contact regarding the property. The firm expects a spring groundbreaking, though it added that the enterprise park’s development could ultimately take a few years to come to full fruition.

5. Council, administrators face transitions
In January, Councilman Nate Shannon — who ran for City Council in 2013 but did not make the cut — was formally appointed by the City Council and sworn into office. Shannon filled the vacant council seat that opened up when Michael Taylor was promoted from mayor pro tem to mayor in 2014. Both Shannon and Taylor kept their council seats in the November election.

During the summer, Sterling Heights Department of Public Works Director Sal Conigliaro retired. The city’s operations manager, Michael Moore, was then appointed to interim director, and he officially became the acting DPW director after the City Council voted in approval in November.

Near the end of 2015, Sterling Heights Police Chief Michael Reese announced his retirement. Reese began serving on the force in 1978 and was promoted until he became the chief in 2008. Although Reese’s retirement was set for Dec. 11, he used vacation time to leave earlier. He was set to work in a new position as police chief for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Police Department.

Police Capt. John Berg was promoted to interim chief while the Police Department gets ready to conduct a nationwide search for a long-term replacement for Reese. Berg said he plans to become a candidate for the position.

Throughout the year, the city also regularly swore in firefighters and police officers — often a few at a time. City officials credited the 2013 passage of the Safe Streets Proposal for funding the new hires.

6. Proposal 1 fails
In early May, Michigan voters went to the polls to decide whether or not to pass Proposal 1, which would have amended the Michigan Constitution to increase the sales/use tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, as well as increase the gas/diesel fuel tax to adjust for inflation, and eliminate the sales/use tax on gas and diesel fuel to raise revenue for roads.

Voters chose to say no to Proposal 1, 1,404,779 votes to 350,742. Voters had voiced their complaints about how there was too much extra stuff in the amendment and how complicated the law was as written. Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, said in a previous article that the rejection of the law was a clear message from voters.

“As far as I am concerned, five months were just wasted,” he said in the emailed statement.

During the reporting of results, Gov. Rick Snyder released a statement on Facebook, saying that making Michigan’s infrastructure safer still is a “top priority.”

“Doing nothing isn’t an option, as the costs are too great. Michiganders need to be able to get behind the wheel and not worry about dodging potholes or seeing plywood to catch crumbling concrete under overpasses.”

Michigan lawmakers moved swiftly in November to approve a package of bills that supporters say will raise $1.2 billion annually for repairs.
Proponents of the plan, which cleared the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives Nov. 3, mostly along party lines, say it will fund repairs through $600 million in increased fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, tempered with tax credits and $600 million in unspecified cuts to the state’s general fund. Opponents say the cuts will likely come at the expense of funding for education and local government.