City Council, Saline Main Street Talk About Improved Collaboration, Communication

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City of Saline and Saline Main Street leaders left a summit talking positively about plans for more collaboration and communication Monday evening.

Members of Saline City Council, government staff, officials from Saline Main Street and officials from the state and national Main Street organization met for a work session at city hall.

Three factors served as important backdrops to the meeting. First, Saline Main Street has now spent a decade working as a private but government-supported non-profit organization dedicated to downtown revitalization. Before Main Street, the city employed a part-time "Downtown Director" who worked with the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce, the now defunct Saline Downtown Merchants Association and community volunteers to host events like Summerfest and Oktoberfest. Secondly, this meeting was being held to allow the city and Main Street to talk about their expectations of each other as they move forward. Council and Main Street were supposed to have this discussion several weeks ago, but that meeting was monopolized by the fire code issues that moved the concert series and several events off of South Ann Arbor Street. Thirdly, relations between city council and some Main Street officials have been tense at times over the last two years, as the city council has not always given Main Street what it felt it needed to support downtown businesses during the pandemic.

When members of council and Main Street finally sat down at 6 p.m. Monday, the conversation was cordial and many pleasantries were exchanged.

Mayor Brian Marl opened the discussion.

"We think it's valuable and timely to have that larger more focused discussion on the future Saline Main Street, their events and activities, and how they intersects with the city's goals and objectives."

Main Street Director Holli Andrews, along with board president Jill Durnen and trustee Rebecca Schneider, went over the history of the organization.

Schneider pointed out that Main Street was borne out of city government.  Before Main Street, the city employed Art Trapp to help promote downtown with events and activities. He was paid with funds from a dwindling city Economic Development Corporation fund. As the money nearly ran out, then-Mayor Gretchen Driskell worked with members of the EDC board to launch the Main Street program. Schneider and Durnen were among those board members.

Norma Ramírez de Miess, VP of Main Street America's Revitalization Services, noted the tenure of Saline Main Street's key officials - including Schneider, Durnen, Walter MacNeil and Shelly Rankin.

"What you see here tonight, with this group of board members that are property owners, business owners and residents, and that has been in place for 10 years, is impressive. I am so impressed with the sense of ownership that your community has in its downtown," she said. "That is manifested by the four members that are serving and giving dedicated effort to Saline Main Street, but also the students that participate in the banner program, the residents that volunteer at events. If there was anything that I saw throughout it was that strong sense of ownership."

Early in the meeting, Mayor Marl suggested an idea to improve collaboration and communication between the city and Main Street.  The revitalization organization has four main committees. Marl suggested that the city council have representation on each committee.

That idea was well-received by council and Main Street.

"I think it's a good idea. We've done it before, when we first began the organization," Durnen said after the meeting. "With changeover in people and with COVID, that representation got lost. It's a good idea. I think when we're together in the deep discussion, on both sides, that we all benefit when it comes time to make a decision."

In addition, Marl said, the city's economic director Ben Harrington will be having weekly meetings with Main Street Director Andrews.

Ramírez de Mies had another suggestion. She suggested that the city council view Andrews as they would any other city department head. It was an interesting suggestion. It's well known  Andrews wishes council held her counsel in higher regard.

After the meeting, Marl and Durnen were asked about that suggestion. Many towns, after all, have adepartment head dedicated to downtown.

Durnen recognized the legal difference between the city and Main Street, but said she thought the city could benefit from Andrews' guidance.

"I think it's important to differentiate the city from the organization for sure. But I think the respect level that they give their department heads is something that they should provide Holli, as well, because she brings a lot of expertise to this job," Durnen said. "(Council) needs to believe in what she says."

Marl agreed to the city needed to do more to engage with Andrews but stopped well short of agreeing the city should view her as a department head.

"Certainly we can do more to engage and involve Holli Andrews and/or the director's position in key staff meetings and in specific initiatives," Marl said.

Much of the discussion during the meeting centered on the importance of sitting with each other at the council table more often.

One of the interesting questions came from Councillor Janet Dillon, who asked whether Saline Main Street should continue to operate as a private organization.

Leigh Young, a senior Main Street specialist with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, noted that there are 27 Main Street communities in Michigan. 23 of them use their Downtown Development Authority, a part of their government, as the Main Street board.

Only four are private. Saline, which didn't have a DDA when Main Street was formed, is one of those four private Main Street organizations in Michigan.

Being a private organization, among other things, means the director is not an official government employee. It also means Main Street spends a lot of time and resources raising funds to host events, recruit and retain businesses, help businesses improve their property, etc.  It also means the organization can't rely on government funding and employees to get everything done. It harnesses the power of the private sector and volunteers.

 Ramírez de Miess said the private sector model has challenges but does more to create the public-private partnership that benefits a community.

"We invite you to really see this as a partnership and a collaboration. Take Main Street out of the picture whenever you have any doubts or questions about the value of Main Street," Ramírez de Miess said. "What city would not want their business owners to come together and work towards the improvement of their areas? What city would not want to have that partnership of the private sector?"

Laura Krizov, a coordinator with Michigan Main Street, has been with the organization since 2003. She said Saline's success is held up as a model to other communities who are considering a non-profit organization.

Despite the tension that's been witnessed at the council table over the last two years, it's clear that members of city council support the downtown revitalization organization. Marl said the city is getting a great return for its annual investment of about $56,000 - which represents about a third of Main Street's budget.

"There's a tremendous amount of money time, passion and volunteer hours being put into our downtown.  It's generated some phenomenal successes over the past 10 years," Marl said. "Now it's clear that we need to do more, that there needs to be more collaboration, more communication. I think both entities are committed to doing that."

Saline Main Street is knee-deep in planning for Oktoberfest. They're also planning to improve the 109 Cultural Exchange, Main Street's home on Michigan Avenue, so that it can host more people during theater productions which could bring more people downtown.

While Main Street personnel will be busy with that,  Ramírez de Miess threw out another possible goal - suggesting the city could pursue becoming Michigan's third "Great American Main Street" community.

Each year, Main Street America recognizes exceptional Main Street communities whose successes serve as a model for comprehensive, preservation-based commercial district revitalization with the Great American Main Street Award

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