Hazel Park: A Point of Pride

Hazel Park City Hall

Today, Metro Matters learned that Bridge Magazine, an important policy magazine with statewide reach, recently visited Hazel Park to do a story on Land CURE, the City of Hazel Park’s innovative nonprofit that acquires tax delinquent homes from Oakland County, rehabilitates the homes, and sells them to owner-occupants while enhancing Hazel Park’s property values and comps. We wanted to congratulate Hazel Park on the upcoming article and for being one of the most innovative cities in the Metro Detroit region, and were reminded of a little love letter to Hazel Park that we have in our queue.


Hazel Park could be the poster child for challenges faced by inner ring suburbs, not only in metro Detroit but across the country. As development sprawled farther and farther from the urban core, Hazel Park suffered from the same disinvestment that racked Detroit. Some of it looks the same, too: Aging infrastructure abandoned in favor of new construction; highways built and expanded through neighborhoods; empty storefronts ignored as wealth shifted outward, toward office parks, strip malls, and parking lots. Some of it looks different: unlike Detroit, Hazel Park lacks expansive vacant land on which to rebuild its tax base. Unlike Detroit, Hazel Park does not have the attention of national media, the tech startup community, or state or federal government.

But what Hazel Park does have is an effective, responsive, and creative local government. As business picks up in Hazel Park, it’s easy to attribute this success to the trickle-down impact of investment in Detroit. Rents are rising in Midtown; Ferndale is similarly filling up; so other inner ring suburbs begin to look attractive for restaurants and companies seeking affordable urbanized places to call home. Certainly, Hazel Park is benefitting from Detroit’s moment in time. But behind the scenes, there’s a much more inspiring story—a story that can help other communities still working toward stability.

The story begins with a community that likes to go against the grain. In fact, it probably starts much earlier than I can attest to. But I think of 2002, when Hazel Park City Council passed a resolution opposing the statewide ban on gay marriage. Despite the recent Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage across the United States, there are still communities in metro Detroit that decline to pass anti-discrimination ordinances. But more than a decade ago, when popular opinion was not on the side of equality, Hazel Park officials proclaimed that their community was in favor of equal rights for all. That’s classic Hazel Park governance: forward-thinking and often fearless.

Six years later, the recession threatened Hazel Park the same way it threatened most of the older, built-out municipalities in our region. Property values plummeted, promised state revenue sharing was slashed, and a fiscal cliff loomed large. At the bottom of that cliff was the state’s new promise: an emergency manager whose primary function was to balance the books. So Hazel Park got to work, and they are still working.

The city restructured departments and began operating with far fewer employees. They renegotiated union contracts. They pursued grants for energy efficiency projects that would free up more money to spend on critical operations. They established a Promise Zone, which covers college tuition for an associates degree for any graduate of Hazel Park High. Lacking the authority to create a land bank, the city helped create the nonprofit Land CURE, which works with private investors and the county treasurer to take homes off the auction block, rehab them, and then sell them to owner-occupants at full market value. All of these efforts were transformative for Hazel Park’s fiscal forecast: once at risk of emergency management, they are now on solid ground.

One theme that comes up again and again in learning about these efforts is the teamwork, not just within government but between government officials but also between those officials and the people they work for. For example, unions came to the table knowing they’d have to work harder for less pay in the near term but with trust in the City to negotiate in good faith. Now, thanks in part to their trust and patience, Hazel Park could soon be in a position to alleviate the sacrifices made by those unions.

Even more broadly, the community at large put their trust and dollars into Hazel Park’s plan of action. Residents continually voted to approve millage increases that were critical to keep the city operating. In fact, they voted to tax themselves at the maximum rate allowable by law in the state of Michigan. When they hit that ceiling and the City sought an exemption, they voted to tax themselves even more. When they hit that ceiling, they voted to approve a shared public safety millage with the City of Eastpointe, a creative solution that allowed them to tax themselves even more. And it didn’t just eke by—fully 75% of Hazel Park voters affirmed the city’s plan. This enthusiasm to self-tax is pretty special in our current political climate, which often paints taxes as inherently infringing upon freedom.

That collective investment in Hazel Park’s future is now paying off. The city is now welcoming Mabel Gray, metro Detroit’s newest trendy restaurant; Cellermen’s, a meadery and brewery; and Hardware Studios, a recording studio. Less glamorous but perhaps more important is a light industrial and distribution operation that is replacing an empty parking lot and brownfield on top of a former dump. The 573,000 square foot space could be the largest redevelopment project in Oakland County, and will provide a much-needed new source of tax revenue.

Local government is not often considered a hotbed of innovation. For all the energy and optimism in metro Detroit right now, we often proudly work around government rather than with (or within) it. But as a Millennial looking to put down roots, Hazel Park makes an excellent case for itself as a place to both enjoy my single years and eventually raise my family. And that case isn’t just made by exciting new hotspots or the prospect of affordable housing close to the action. It’s made by the community and government who have, together, laid the groundwork for a healthy, sustainable, vibrant Hazel Park.

Other communities struggling to thrive can learn from the Hazel Park approach. Long-term viability isn’t about cutting corners or nabbing a few new businesses. It’s about collaboration between smart government and engaged residents. In Hazel Park, that dynamic has outlasted hard times and proven successful. I have confidence it will endure regardless of trends in urbanism. It should be a model for all of metro Detroit, and a point of pride for all of us who call the region home.

 

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