Recreation, infrastructure improvements highlights of 2021 in St. Clair Shores

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published December 17, 2021

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Looking back on 2021, St. Clair Shores City Manager Matthew Coppler said he felt the year was a continuation of the city making its way out of the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Coming out of the pandemic from 2020 was more, kind of, solidifying things that we learned about ourselves, operationally, what we could do, what we could do more of,” he said. “I think it actually strengthened, in some ways, some of the businesses in the community.”

Mayor Kip Walby said he thought the city “functioned pretty well” during the pandemic, but the need for remote work options showed what information technology improvements were necessary for the city to succeed.

“We’re updating ... our whole computer system there, so we have more flexibility,” he said. “We found a hole, and it’s been a plus to fix that using COVID money, actually.”

Coppler said the mayor and city council’s efforts to expedite temporary outdoor seating for restaurants who needed more space for customers to spread out and to meet the demands for open-air seating ended up leading to permanent improvements in many cases.

“It changed a little bit of the character of the city toward the positive,” Coppler said. “People taking advantage, during the summer weather, of those opportunities.”

Walby agreed that was something City Council “did right.”

“The majority of these bars have taken advantage of it, and it’s been a real success, and we don’t plan to change,” he said.

He was also excited that 2021 brought the opening of the Kroger on Harper Avenue at Nine Mile Road.

“That property had been vacant for quite a while. (It) definitely enhanced Nine Mile and Harper and the south end,” he said.

A large project begun by the city and the Tax-Increment Finance Authority (TIFA) in 2021 was the pier project at Blossom Heath.

“That’s a continued investment that the TIFA has been making in the Blossom Heath area, and the city’s commitment to not only improving the recreational amenities for residents, but also looking forward to bringing new people into the city from the outside,” Coppler said. “That pier is definitely something that you’re not finding anywhere else in the Lake St. Clair area.”

Walby said the improvements being made at Blossom Heath, from the Beach House to the planned pier, which began construction in the fall, have been a “tremendous success.”

The year saw a slew of improvements made to other parks throughout the city, as well. The city spent money earned through the tax foreclosure home rehabilitation program to pay for new playgrounds at numerous neighborhood and lakefront parks in 2021.

“It was a big investment in quality of life for residents,” Coppler said. “People really started to use our parks even more than before. It is an investment that people do take advantage of.”

Investment has also been made in the city’s infrastructure over the past year, Coppler said, with the less visible but no less important money spent on the city’s water and sewer lines. St. Clair Shores continued the aggressive replacement of lead service lines throughout the city and has nearly finished the replacement of the lead lines it had on record.

“Once we were able to get moving again, (Department of Public Works Director) Bryan Babcock and Russ Miller and the Water Department started moving forward very fast to get a lot of those taken care of,” Coppler said.

A grant through the Michigan Department Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) for drinking water asset management is going to help the city identify which of its service lines still need to be replaced.

The grant will pay for the city “to go out and effectively start doing that inventory to check what the lines that are unknown — which we think we know but the state categorizes as unknown — so we can get a clearer picture of what’s still out there,” he said. “We believe ... there’s a lot less of the lead and galvanized lines in our inventory than we think and that, again, will help the quality of our drinking water.”

Staffing challenges from 2021 included the short-term departure of the city’s finance director, who subsequently returned, and the departure of Assistant City Manager Bill Gambill. Coppler said he believed the city would be filling that position soon.

“We’re getting those brought back into full force again,” Coppler said. “That’s going to help us, going forward, addressing some of the goals that we have for the upcoming year.”

The Police Department also experienced a change in leadership with the retirement of Police Chief Todd Woodcox.

New Police Chief Jason Allen “just picked right up and is helping evolve the Police Department going forward, as well,” Coppler said. “We lost an incredible leader, and we’re very fortunate that we’ve got another incredible leader within the department.”

Much of the top command staff in the department has departed over the past few years, Coppler said, but the new leadership team is continuing the internal vision and growth that was begun under the prior administration.

St. Clair Shores also hired a new Community Development Director, Denise Pike, in anticipation of the retirement of longtime director Chris Rayes in January.

“I think that’s going to help prepare us, going forward. She’s become very instrumental in working with the TIFA, looking at the DDA (Downtown Development Authority) ... moving us forward from the (standpoint of) economic development, planning,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunities coming up. We have some very large, vacant structures and areas that are great opportunities that CDI will be working on to get filled.”