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With a push and pull tension between neighborhoods and large scale developments long gnawing at city government, incoming Mayor Andy Schor is reshuffling his departments and cabinet leaders to send a message: economic development of neighborhoods matter.
Under his plan, the Department of Planning and Neighborhood Development will be split into two cabinet-level departments: one Economic Development and Planning, the other Neighborhoods and Citizen Engagement.
It’s partially a symbolic move, but it’s also elevating neighborhood concerns, organizations and stabilizations to the cabinet level. The move comes as a direct result of Schor’s door to door work during the mayoral campaign this summer, he said. His consolidation of economic development issues and planning is also a response to citizen concerns, he said.
Ingham County Commissioner Brian McGrain will oversee the new Economic Development and Planning Department, while Andrea Crawford, who was tapped in 2014 by outgoing Mayor Virg Bernero to coordinate neighborhood activities for his office, will lead the new Neighborhoods and Citizen Engagement Department.
The Lansing Economic Area Partnership will continue to represent the city on large-scale development deals. “LEAP is the expert with tools and LEAP does a lot for the city and will continue to do that,” said Schor. He and McGrain said in phone interviews Monday the restructured city departments will enhance LEAP activities.
The incoming mayor said the new Economic Development and Planning Department under McGrain would be a bridge between LEAP and individuals who want to start having conversations about projects.
“I think what he also wants to do is make sure that his philosophy of economic development is the philosophy that guides that relationship. Iit will be up to me to assist in making that happen.
“He’s certainly, of course, interested in attracting new jobs and new employers.,” McGrain said, “But I think he also has an interest in growing what we have here locally, working with small business Good and bad: Colonial Village is seen as a positive example of neighborhood development, while Logan Square may be Lansing’s classic example of the opposite. Mayor-elect Andy Schor aims to bring stronger development outside of downtown.
that’s generated out of the community and helping to make sure that businesses are thriving in all parts of town, in all of our commercial corridors.”
At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood said those corridors were like the front porch. “If it looks like, excuse me for this, crap on the porch, you don’t know what gem might be hidden behind it,” she said.
Wood, who is likely to be Council president next year, said she believes the focus on neighbors and the corridor development is important.
“We know from our experiences with Colonial Village that those businesses helped the neighborhood,” she said.
“People could walk to them. And even with economic downturns, the area was able to remain with more owner occupied housing. That’s good.”
Schor is considering appointing a business ombudsman to assist business in navigating the city’s often complicated and at times byzantine licensing, inspections and occupancy permits processes. Wood said she was not necessarily opposed to this idea, but said she would also like to see the new mayor focus on customer service.
“If it takes pushing 15 buttons to reach a live person, that’s not good,” she said. “If you then have to leave a message, but don’t hear back, that’s not good either. We need a situation where those calls are being returned, even if the employee can’t immediately answer the question and has to do more research. It’s all about customer service.”
Also, he is considering returning code compliance to the planning department. It is handled now by the Fire Department.
While the outgoing Bernero administration has dramatically reshaped the skyline of Michigan Avenue, the mayor has been criticized for doing so at the expense of the southern corridors like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Cedar Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Elaine Wolmboldt, facilitator for Rejuvenating South Lansing, said she looks at the Logan Square, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard and Holmes Road, as an example of blight that didn’t need to happen.
“He’s going to need to find a way to deal with deadbeat landlords,” she said. She was pleased that Schor is following up on his campaign promises to engage the neighborhoods.
“I think sometimes some neighborhoods have been excluded,” she said. “You can’t do that and make it work.”
She said her group is eager to “roll up their sleeves and get dirty” to improve their neighborhoods and the corridors.
Assessing Schor’s intentions, McGrain said, “He is interested in making neighborhoods that work, thinking about the residential in neighborhoods, thinking about the commercial in neighborhoods, making sure that people have amenities in all parts of the town.” An example of integrating a neighborhood need and economic development, he said, is bringing a grocery store to food deserts in the city, like downtown.
“I think a criticism of Bernero that I had heard was always that, ‘What are you doing for the neighborhoods.’ “I think Andy Schor really wanted to respond to that by putting this cabinet level oomph out there, by saying I want to hear actively from the neighborhoods.”
Another community leader, Dale Schrader from the Walnut neighborhood, noted that developing the city is not only about putting cranes in the air. It’s about how the developments are marketed. He said the current policy is a field-of dreams, “build it and they will come” strategy.
“But once they’re here, what’s going to keep them here?” he asked. He said that’s where engaging neighborhoods on their needs, like a grocery store, is essential to creating a different strategy of development that pulls people and businesses into the city.
McGrain said that is an important perspective when it comes to economic development. He noted that without strong neighborhoods featuring a diversity of people and incomes and housing options, it’s difficult to expand the economic base.
“I think if you don’t have a mix of people bringing in a mix of income, shopping at a mix of different places, working at a mix of different jobs; I think it’s problematic,” he said. “I think it’s kind of like the auto industry. With everything concentrated in one place, if there’s a down turn, everybody suffers. I think for this community, I think when somebody moves to Lansing, they’re going to want choice. And if it’s not there, I think it hurts us.”