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Madison Heights City Council members reflect on 2019

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published January 3, 2020

MADISON HEIGHTS — With 2019 done and dusted, the members of the Madison Heights City Council are taking one last look back at last year.

Councilman Mark Bliss said he’s most proud of the Arts Board, which made it into the final four of the Michigan Municipal League’s prestigious Community Excellence Award. The board was recognized for such projects as the outdoor mural on the Jaycee shelter building at Civic Center Park, as well as a citywide photo contest and calendar.

“When I created this board less than two years ago, I had no idea how big of an impact it would have on the community, and I’m deeply appreciative of the hard work of each and every member of the board,” Bliss said. “This board deserved all the accolades they got, and I’m excited to see what we’ll accomplish next year.”

He said challenges included limited budgets and a nearly fully built-out community, and this forced city officials to get creative. The Arts Board raised the money for its own outdoor mural. Bliss said that he also identified nearly $10,000 of waste in the city’s budget and redirected those savings to the projects of citizen-led boards.

“They came up with great ideas like major tree plantings, movies in the park, and a public art show that will all be implemented in the new year,” Bliss said.

“I believe 2019 will be remembered as the year we finally jump-started economic development,” he continued. “We made staffing and policy changes that … were rewarded with huge increases in redevelopment that brought millions in investments and hundreds of new jobs to our city. While not every resident will frequent every new business, their investments, increased taxes and jobs will positively impact everyone in the city.”

For Councilwoman Emily Rohrbach, 2019 was the year when she first joined the City Council, surging to the front of a crowded field as the No. 1 vote-getter in the November election.

“I have to say that I absolutely loved campaigning for City Council,” she said. “The campaign gave me the opportunity to personally meet and speak to so many people who call this city home. … The campaign was an adventure, and now I’m looking forward to buckling down and getting to work on behalf of everyone in the city.”

She said she’s encouraged by the brownfield redevelopment plan that the City Council passed recently for Landmark, the company renovating the plaza where BJ’s Wholesale Club is located at the corner of 12 Mile and John R roads. The tax breaks will help the developer to remediate and reconstruct the site, attracting more upscale tenants.  

“If we want to entice new businesses to come to the city and invest in rebuilding the infrastructure … we need to provide the incentive,” Rohrbach said.

She said that she hopes 2019 is remembered as the year voters turned out to change the makeup of the City Council “to a more progressive and responsive group.” However, she said that 2019 will also be remembered for the contamination that leaked out of Electro-Plating Services.

“I am committed to getting answers about what happened and holding those responsible accountable,” Rohrbach said.

For Coincilman David Soltis, 2019 saw progress in the areas of crime prevention and social justice.

“The city is really making a huge difference with our continuation of the SIU (Special Investigations Unit) and the crackdown on all the illegal activity and human trafficking in our hotels,” Soltis said. “In terms of helping the most vulnerable, I was able to acquire current data on Madison Heights child maltreatment and abuse for the last four years in a presentation to council to highlight the current situation for children living in Madison Heights. The numbers were an eye-opener and illuminate the need for the city to act.

“In that transparency came the idea of helping single moms with socioeconomic resources by starting a bank for diapers and baby supplies,” Soltis said. “I underestimated the need, and so we have expanded to include Hazel Park. All three school districts are now involved, as well as 4C’s Child Care, and all are fantastic participants.”

Roslyn Grafstein, the new mayor pro tem, said Madison Heights’ embrace of the medical marijuana industry with two landmark deals — Holistic Industries and Alternative Rx — holds great promise for the city.

“This growing industry is part of the overall economic plan to revitalize vacant industrial areas in the city and is an important part of the city’s urban renewal plan,” she said. “As an inner-ring suburb, there is very little land left for us to develop. Much of the vacant land we have is contaminated. We have old industrial buildings that are no longer being used. Because of remediation costs, new development had been slow in coming to the city.

“Now, Holistic Industries is making a $20 million investment at the vacant Fairlanes Bowling property for its Michigan headquarters,” Grafstein continued. “Once complete, there will be an emphasis on local hiring and training, with more than 50 job openings for both hourly and salaried employees that include attractive benefits packages. This investment in our city is another step forward in the continued economic development of Madison Heights.”

She also highlighted the council’s unanimous approval of a comprehensive noxious weed ordinance that encourages native plantings and natural planned landscaping with guidelines to control the spread of weeds. The city now has five registered waystations for monarch butterflies to help support these important pollinators, and Grafstein wishes to see more.

Like Rohrbach, Grafstein also sees the value of brownfield redevelopment plans as a lure for redevelopment. She said the tax relief granted to businesses such as Landmark — the developer of the Madison Center shopping center — should be seen as a net gain, boosting tax revenues by 10%, and that the development at 12 Mile and John R restores a functionally obsolete building with a $38 million investment that will ultimately create an estimated 300 construction jobs and 225 full-time jobs.  

“In my mind, 2019 was the year we invested in our future,” Grafstein said. “Between the new BJ’s store, the brownfield application and the two new medical marijuana facilities, the city is setting up to benefit from over $60 million in investment. This will translate into increased commercial property taxes, more jobs and more people coming to our city.”

For Councilman Robert Corbett, the most veteran member of the council, 2019 was a year of divisive issues but also clear-cut progress.

“For good or for bad, the introduction of the marijuana industry to Madison Heights will have significant long-term implications for the community. The immediate impact of tax revenues and image alteration for the city are the obvious and short-term impacts,” Corbett said. “Madison Heights also continues to attract significant and on-point economic development. Restaurants, bars, ethnic bistros and, most notably, the retail project at 12 Mile and John R highlight the city’s work in restructuring its economic base.

“The downtown development district is also growing,” he said. “While not all initiatives took off, overall growth along the entire John R corridor, I think, has been impressive. The opening of Ima and Tienda Mexicana in the 14 Mile and John R area were real coups for the city’s images as a dining and entertainment destination.”

He said approval of the 2019-20 budget was “extremely tricky,” with city services lagging due to personnel shortages.

“The council worked hard, argued more than a little, and at the end found innovative cost-saving efficiencies to help address these issues,” Corbett said.

He also noted that 2019 marked the retirement of City Councilwoman Margene Scott.

“She was historically its longest-serving member, and she will be remembered as a watershed moment,” Corbett said. “Margene bridged the 1990s to the nearly third decade of this century. Her contributions are immeasurable. Her absence will be felt ever more keenly the further we go along.”