“Well, we got trouble. Right here in River City. With a Capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Pool.” - The Music Man
Anyone trying to traverse the river in Bay City over the last few weeks is aware that we, indeed, are in trouble. It isn’t the pool halls and pubs on either side of the river that are the problem. We are simply at a point where our infrastructure is aging toward obsolescence, public finances are parched, and our multiple levels of government are hard pressed to figure out how to get anything done about it.
It’s a mess - as we all posted on social media about it while waiting for the lights at the Lafayette Bridge.
There are a number of things that play into the current situation and I’d like to offer up to you a consideration of several “P words” that might offer some insight into the issue, along with ways forward that might work for this community.
First, I’d like to contrast a couple of key words for you; two that are often treated like synonyms. Prosperity and Progress.
Bay City has known prosperity. If you drive around town you will see evidence of people who were doing very well for themselves. The city is, more or less, an architectural museum of a City that had a long run of good fortune, lasting a hundred years or better. It is easy to walk through these neighborhoods and past storefronts that have been there “forever” and imagine a time when things had a little more bustle to them. Many people living in town can remember these times and talk about them with nostalgia.
I want to contrast that with what some might call “progress.” For instance, the MDOT sponsored projects to rebuild Broadway St and Salzburg Ave in the last ten years. Both projects took far longer than expected, which is – ironically - almost an expectation at this point.
The bigger issue is the net negative affect these projects had on the neighborhoods through which they run. When they ran long, and existing businesses were affected – or even bankrupted – we were told that the improved road would allow the areas to bounce back quickly.
Instead the exact opposite has been true. Empty store fronts sit along both routes. The only thing that has picked up is speeds and traffic enforcement on each.
Though now settled, long time business owners like The Ideal Party Store were given a ludicrous ruling that would have prevented drivers from turning into the parking lot of a new store that they had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money building.
This worries many of us as we face two years of closures as the Lafayette Bridge is rebuilt and a solution in found for the City owned bridges. This will not be the last time we are down to two – or fewer – bridges.
What we want less than anything is a gleaming new bridge that connects two devastated neighborhoods. Consider, for instance, the fate of the old Lighthouse Bar, located at the foot of the Lafayette Bridge. While this building is historic, its value was destroyed, and its future put in the question when the bridge was first installed. It is obsolete as it now sits. With what I once called a “two comma” project (a project in the millions) happening kitty-corner from it; there is no sense leaving that building without a long-term disposition.
It’s poor planning and how opportunities are lost.
A Few More P Words
If there is another P word floating around that should concern us, it’s privatization. First, if you want the short argument on why this is a bad path, Google three terms and then just skip to the next section. “Aramark.” “Prison food.” “Maggots.” Now apply that to our bridges.
The trouble with this P word, just happens to be another: Profit. In many languages the word translates roughly into “what you kept in excess of what you needed.” Think about that in terms of your tax (or toll) money.
I have a friend who works in investment banking who explained it like this: There are a number of ways that these kinds of projects are financed. Almost all of these are available to municipalities and government entities. They just have to show a way to be able to pay it back. They’ll take the meeting, balk at their ability to pay it back or sell the project locally, so they look for other options.
A private development firm will then pitch handling the project for them. The thing is, they use the same financial vehicles that would have been available to the community, except they still manage to make a profit.
One way to profit is they contract to keep whatever agreement they have on the asset far past the point when the asset is paid off. Publicly financed projects have to be maintained, but you eventually own them.
There are other methods that private companies use to make sure their projects are profitable. Google “Florida bridge collapse” and come to your own conclusions on that.
I am a Bay City resident by choice. One of the things that impressed me about the town when I moved here is what I call the “Spanky and Our Gang” quality about the place. Someone says “Hey, Gang! Let’s throw a show!” And then there’s a show.
Bay City has a history of independence. Our solutions have always come from within. If you look around our business districts there are names and families associated with many of the businesses, new and old, large and small.
A solution to the codependent problems of infrastructure and a return to economic prosperity will rely on a couple of things. Planning and participation.
One of the issues with the big State sponsored infrastructure projects is that the secondary effects are simply not their problem. When local roads deteriorate as people struggle to find alternate routes or when businesses shutter, it’s a result that was not in the white paper that got the project approved. Expecting them to act any differently on this front in the future could be classified as wishful thinking.
Here are a few things that may help, though. Bay City-style, stuff we could do.
First, you can participate. Personally, I serve as a member of the Bay County Land Bank Authority. We work with other local entities to address blight, under-developed and abandoned properties. Some of these are properties that have been through the foreclosure and auction process more than one time. I feel we’ve done some good things with the Land Bank and have some exciting developments on tap.
MLive.com recently ran a piece indicating that there are more than a dozen openings for volunteers and members of commissions and boards in the City. A complete list can be found here. You can volunteer for these positions and enjoy some of the same sense of satisfaction. It makes you part of the solution and a voice that carries more weight than the average critic of public policy.
Further to that point – every single job that has responsibility for big ticket budget items and infrastructure in Bay City has turned over more than once in the last dozen years. They post these openings. If you really think you have solutions, you can apply. If you have the qualification, you will be considered.
Very simply, you can get involved. It’s better than being a critic.
We actually have one model that is worth looking at in the City that is a local example of self-help. The Downtown Development Authority, which encompasses the Washington Street Shopping District along the East Side of the River, is organized in a way that allows them to act collectively. This includes control over parking in the district. While this issue is topical due to the Federal Court decision that ruled chalking tires a “search,” we can also see the DDA was able to resurface the streets within its perimeter. It’s the type of thing other areas in town need to analyze as they find their own way out.
The parking fee issue will work itself out. No matter what the outcome, an organized entity will have a better chance of dealing with it than disparate special interests.
Several of the candidates running for the City Commission have suggested the formation of non-governmental and non-profit entities that would allow the neighborhoods they represent to organize themselves, apply for grants and government funds and implement other ways of raising the revenue need to maintain These are ideas worth looking into.
(Concerning candidates, there will be competitive races for three seats on the City Commission and for Mayor on the November ballot. The Review will be covering these races as we get closer to Election Day.)
Here is one idea that we could apply that would take a little planning (and maybe a little pressure).
The bridge closures made clear how traffic patterns shift to adjust. When the Lafayette Bridge shuts down, there will inevitably be more traffic flowing through the Broadway and Garfield corridors. These are among our most at-risk areas.
Projects aimed at reopening some of the storefronts and rehabbing structures along these roads would allow them to take advantage of the increased traffic flow. The influx of revenue during the detour periods just might be enough to allow some of these businesses to stay afloat once traffic patterns adjust back to “normal.”
These kinds of small, incremental developments are a great foundation. It’s easy to imagine something that looks a lot more like prosperity in this regard and a lot less like “progress.”
In the meantime, talk to your neighbor. Talk to fellow business owners. Give Darla, Alfalfa and Buckwheat a call. It’s time to get our show working on the roads. We’ve got this if we can just approach this problem like the Old Gang.
16th November, 2023