A welcomed emergency manager?
Local headlines about broke cities tend to focus on Detroit, but little Lincoln Park, Motown's neighbor to the west, is also working to climb across its own financial crevasse and onto the solid ground of stable property values, thriving businesses and nice neighborhoods.
It's Brad Coulter's job to be the city's financial sherpa, guiding Lincoln Park back to the land of no budget deficits – as of July expenses were about $200,000 more than city revenues.
Coulter is the emergency manager for Lincoln Park, an outsider appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in July to figure out how to turn things around. He is the downriver city's equivalent to Detroit's Kevyn Orr. And much like Orr, you'd expect that his job would be trying, as elected officials and residents regard him as an interloper. Surprisingly, in Coulter's case, many local officials are cheering his arrival. One called him "our Alan Mulally," likening Coulter to the CEO who brought Ford Motor Co. out of dire finanical times.
Coulter took a leave from his regular contract work through O'Keefe & Associates
, a turnaround consulting firm, after the state determined that only outside management could return the bleeding-red budget back to black.
Little Lincoln Park and its 37,000 or so residents is an anomaly, however, in the world of insolvent cities. It is smaller than most cites that have fallen into receivership whether in Michigan – Flint and Pontiac are others – or around the country. During its best years it served as a bedroom community for workers in the auto industry, particularly Ford's River Rouge Plant.
Basically, Coulter offers the city a chance at an economic do-over, helping to correct a legacy of bad luck and mistakes, disinvestment and poor zoning. Did the city with an electic downtown that just needs one or two right moves to ignite a takeoff misstep a few years back when it demolished the Mellus Newspaper building instead of going with historic renovation? Will the opening Lincoln Park Lofts in September on Fort Street downtown be the scale-tipper? Are facade and streetscape improvements, small business incentives, a farmers market and downtown events enough to fill vacant shops and attract customers to businesses still hanging on?
Nicknamed the "Crossroads of Downriver," Lincoln Park's moniker has become a metaphor for where the city finds itself today, straddling the path to the future – one toe pointed toward better days, the other headed for more hard times.
Coulter, who has made a career of helping businesses return to the path of financial strength as a turnaround expert, shares his thoughts with Metromode as to where the city is headed.
What did you know about Lincoln Park before you went to work there?
I spent 30 days this past February and March doing a complete financial review of the City for the Michigan Treasury. I had a pretty good idea of what the problems were there before being named the Emergency Manager.
What are your impressions of the city? Good, bad, otherwise?
The city still has good, affordable housing stock and is close to downtown Detroit as well as the airport, Monroe and Toledo. Plus, residents have a real pride about being from Lincoln Park, people care and that's important.
Q: Do you feel prepared professionally to turn Lincoln Park into a place that people want to come to, whether to live, start a business, shop, etc?
Yes, a lot of what needs to be done is just common sense and getting people to focus on a goal. People want to live in a safe community. We need to actively promote the positive aspects of Lincoln Park in order to get the attention of potential residents or businesses.
Q: It sounds like your work in Lincoln Park is not just about righting the books but raising property values and revitalization.
Long term, the majority of the city's revenue comes from property taxes. If property values keep going down, so will revenue. It's imperative that we stabilize and grow property values. That means keeping the community safe, controlling graffiti, and maintaining parks, among other things.
Q: Tell me about your offer to commercial brokers to help them push through roadblocks so they can invest in the city? This has DDA types in your city excited. Could you tell me more?
We have plenty of vacant retail on very busy thoroughfares such as Fort or Dix. I am available to help the DDA
in any way I can to promote the City and get businesses to occupy buildings.
Q: Fort St, Lincoln Park's downtown, what's your vision for it, if you have one?
We need to try and make it more walkable plus get a core group of businesses that can be a draw for people. I'd like to see us limit the number of pawnshops, for example, as these do not add to the downtown environment.
Also, the north end of Fort has a number of Mexican restaurants and stores. We can promote these as a draw for the city. People will drive for good Mexican food.
Q: How long do you expect to be there and what do you hope to leave behind when you're gone?
The term is 18 months although my goal is to finish before that time.
Q: In many communities, where emergency financial managers have been assigned, there has often been a certain amount of suspicion and even hostility. How can you, as Lincoln Park's emergency manager, change that dynamic? How do you convince the community that you, as an outsider, have their best interests at heart?
I like to manage by wandering around. I talk to people at all levels of the city organization, I interact with residents and business owners, and I spend time getting to know what people's priorities are. They may not like some of the solutions to the financial crisis, but they can't say I didn't take their point of view into consideration.
Q: What lessons – good and bad – have you learned from watching the experiences of other emergency managers?
Make sure to allow the elected officials and city staff to function and have input. No one responds to a dictator.
Q: Cities are complicated organizations that require the input, expertise, and checks and balances of many people - elected and professional. How do you as an E.M. gauge your own ability to tackle a problem?
I specialize in dropping into complex, chaotic and financially troubled situations. You have to decide on the priorities and focus on those first, plus hopefully motivate people to pick up the ball and help solve the problems.
Q: When looking over Lincoln Park's situation what idea or approach or policy do you feel was missing in its desire for revitalization?
With the budget and staff cutbacks, the city has lost ground on enforcing housing codes and rental permits. We can't let the city deteriorate and must get tougher on abandoned buildings and nuisance properties.
Q: Do you have a favorite restaurant or hangout in Lincoln Park?
I really like the food at Sabor Criollo
on Fort Street.
Kim North Shine is Metromode's over-achieving Development News editor and a Grosse Pointe-based freelance writer.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography