More Than Arson: A Two-Part Report on Saginaw Blight Part Two: Pros and Cons of Focusing on a Target Area

    icon Jan 11, 2007
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With urban aid that started during the 1960s, Saginaw city leaders for the first time are concentrating on a single neighborhood for isolated effort.

Pro: Maybe we will see better results in a smaller zone, instead of spreading the resources all across town. Con: But what if the target neighborhood isn't my own neighborhood?

The area surrounding St. Mary's of Michigan hospital, known as the Cathedral District, quietly emerged early this year as the singular "revitalization area" for the immediate future.

City Council members, based highly on prodding from newly hired staff, established the new policy with such little fanfare that not a single soul from outside the target area protested publicly.

But this is a vital change of strategy as Saginaw looks beyond last fall's three-week criminal spat of arson, in order to cope with the larger long-term question of how to improve conditions.

Development Director Odail Thorns Jr. came on board 16 months ago. He inherited an office map with color-coded pins that represent hundreds of demolitions and rehab jobs through the years.

"We have fewer resources and we need to spend them more wisely. We decided we need to go into smaller areas one at a time, clean them out, and really make an impact," Thorns says.

City Manager Darnell Earley, hired permanently this year, is on the same page. He says a "more focused" effort will lead to "tangible and visible accomplishments."

Amos O'Neal is the City Council's delegate to Cities of Promise, a new state initiative that first will focus on the Cathedral District. "For years, we've been using this scattered approach to dealing with blight all over the place," O'Neal says. "We need to take a different approach."

Many different targets

The lion's share of aid through the years has gone to the East Side, but most of the near West Side also has qualified at one time or another.
Besides the Cathedral District, other target areas have included:

* The sprawling northeast zone on both sides of Interstate 675, up to about Fourteenth Street.

* A far-smaller south end neighborhood sandwiched between Wickes Park and the abandoned South Side Business District along M-13.
* A southwest section that surrounds the commercial strip where South Michigan bends into West Michigan.

* The central West Side zone from Mason/Woodbridge to the river, which could become the "Covenant District" if Covenant Health Care one day gets as involved as St. Mary's.

* A small northwest pocket north of Davenport, and north of Stone School.

If you live in these neighborhoods, you won't get completely erased from the city's aid map but you'll get far less attention, at least for the next year or two. The next 110 abandoned houses on the removal schedule; for example, all are in the Cathedral District. Most are behind the hospital along streets such as Warren, Weadock and Park. City Hall won't make demolitions elsewhere unless a severe fire causes an emergency safety condition.
Longtime neighborhood activist Christina Jones lives in East Side territory near Janes and South 12th, a few blocks from Houghton School. Her neighborhood south of I-675 remained fairly solid into the early 1990s, but since then it has became as blighted as any in the city. As many as eight vacant structures are on single blocks, but Jones is about a mile from the outer edge of the Cathedral District, and so now the prospects of immediate help are less than ever.

"We can't give up, just because the city chooses to focus on another target area," Jones says. "We have to concentrate for now on other concerns like after school programs for the children, support groups, prayer groups."

Elizabeth Hansen resides near the Courthouse in the West Side's Heritage Square area, which contains a few too many upper incomes to even qualify for federal aid. She also chairs the Human Planning Commission, which advises the City Council.

"It's nice to have a target area, but when it isn't your own neighborhood, you feel left out," Hansen says.

She has crossed the river to aid Global ReLeaf with a block-by-block environmental survey of tree conditions in the St. Mary's area, so she has seen the Cathedral District first-hand and she fears a turnaround will require more than two years.

"It makes sense if you can go in and get something done and then move on, but it's disappointing when it looks like some neighborhoods never get targeted," Hansen says.

More like running a business

Thorns came to City Hall from an uncommon background for a municipal administrator. He was a top Delphi Steering executive. If you're UAW, don't blame him; he wasn't on the Steve Miller level. But he was up high, retiring in 2001 as global director of half shafts and aftermarket. He has won praise in many quarters for bringing a business sensibility to a key City Hall position.

"There was a big gap in our operation in terms of revitalizing the neighborhoods," Thorns says.

For example, inspectors three years ago barely had time to conduct a "windshield survey" of blight. They drove the city's 300 miles of streets and recorded 507 abandoned houses. Thorns ordered a more comprehensive study with help from college interns and came up with more than 700 vacant homes, along with hundreds more eyesores (and potential arson targets) such as garages and sheds.

"We may have been underestimating the problem," he says.

City Council nominees on the November 2005 One Saginaw reform slate, Bill Federspiel, Amanda Kitterman, Andrew Wendt and Greg Branch joined Larry Coulouris as newcomers. The approach under Earley and new Mayor Carol Cottrell has been to drastically shorten the council meetings, and to settle top issues in more of a behind-the-scenes style.

A typical meeting now is 90 minutes.

When the controversial Roma Thurin and Dan Soza were on the council, the typical standard was closer to 5 or 6 hours. "This is not because of any clandestine effort to get things passed," Earley says. "This is more due to a businesslike approach to getting things done."

And so when O'Neal last December spoke of a need for a tighter target area and proposed the Cathedral District, the conversation was brief. Thurin and Soza no longer were around to pose multiple questions, such as, "Why exactly should we pick the St. Mary's area?"
Nobody else asked.

O'Neal said the East Holland and Remington one ways, with large amounts of both motor traffic and blight, should be included in an effort to improve the city's image. He received his wish, with Holland and Remington as the Cathedral District's south boundary. Other borders are East Genesee Avenue to the east, Janes Avenue (and the edge of downtown) to the north, and the river to the west.

In the middle of the zone, St. Mary's of Michigan has made major contributions in the Cathedral District. Neighborhood Renewal Services has organized a public-private home lending pool to serve the area, and Habitat for Humanity for two recent summers has built there. The first-year Saginaw County Land Bank Authority will focus in the Cathedral zone, aiming to keep abandoned houses and lots out of the hands of slum land speculators.

"We started with this area because there is a lot of activity going on already," O'Neal says. "Holland and Remington are main arteries that are highly visible to the public, and St. Mary's is a key stakeholder."

Suddenly a major player

Many residents recall when the St. Mary's entrance was along South Jefferson rather than South Washington. Visitors would have to dodge speeding traffic after they parked. Then, in the hospital rooms of loved ones or friends, they would peer out the windows and see widespread nearby blight. Past civic leaders such as Henry Nickleberry say the hospital came close to moving out of town.

Hospital officials decided to stay and started making investments, but mostly within the campus. Some neighbors remained suspicious. The main turnaround came during the middle 1990s with the arrival of Sister Dinah White as director of mission services.

Sister Dinah persuaded the St. Mary's board and administration to invest more than $2 million of the hospital's own money in the surrounding area between 1997 and 2004. A good chunk was to raze or repair nearby houses in need, creating a sort of buffer to surround the campus. But the hospital went beyond with services such as the GreenHouse Gathering Place family support center, a youth community center, mobile medical clinics at sites such as the East Side Soup Kitchen, and neighborhood health outreach workers.

This was a precursor to investments of the Shaheen family and others across from the new front entrance, aided with tax breaks and brownfields.
When St. Mary's local cash started to run dry a year ago, Sister Dinah helped land $318,300 in grants from the regional Daughters of Charity headquarters. She has relocated to a new assignment out of state but her successor, Paul Bauschatz, is carrying on with a followup $900,000 grant request. He leads a coalition that hopes to raise a matching $5 million from government, business and foundation sources.

"We do projects as simple as cleanups and flower plantings," Bauschatz says. "We need to concentrate on what we must do to reverse the downward trend, and to change the image people will see when they drive in. It's a continuation of our corporate social responsibility."

A consultant is helping neighbors and civic leaders come up with plans for such basics as housing and business development, education and recreation. One idea is to create model "legacy blocks," which in other words are target blocks in a larger target area.

For instance, Patrick and Azalee Williams have acquired and maintained a stunning total of 11 vacant lots surrounding their historic home in the 900 block of Emerson near Central Middle School's football field.

"We have nearly 4 acres right here in the middle of the city," Patrick Williams says. "Rather than have blight around us, we purchased it and revitalized it. This is a family neighborhood. We could live anywhere we like, and we choose to live here.

His wife makes another point." It's a good, sturdy home. You couldn't build this kind of house nowadays," Azalee Williams says.

Federal aid shrinks

City Hall receives about $3 million annually in federal block grants; a sum slashed slightly more than 50 percent from the peak years of the mid to late 1990s. About one-third goes for housing. Other sums are for an array of projects that range from parking ramp upgrades to small business loans. The annual topic of community policing versus youth social programs has stirred debate for nearly a decade, but this category is restricted to 15 percent of the total.

Thorns says few of the abandoned properties in the Cathedral District or elsewhere are in good enough shape to be saved. He estimates the city would need $8 million to remove all the vacant structures, and that doesn't even start to count slum rentals that become abandoned almost day by day.

But city leaders say they no longer can afford to use local funds for demolitions, so they have switched in recent years to federal block grants. The sum has averaged about $400,000 during the past four years, a far cry from that $8 million in need.

Cash-strapped state government, which can't run deficits like the feds, kicks in smaller sums such as a recent Cities of Promise $225,000 allotment to tear down abandoned eyesores. City leaders are sending the cash straight to the Cathedral area. They also are seeking more state dollars for home-fixup aid, and for sidewalk repairs near schools. They are aiming for a project to catch neighbors who dump trash and garbage on vacant lots, or who strip medal siding from properties. At the same time, they are crossing their fingers with hopes that a new Democratic Congress in Washington might help send a little more gravy toward Saginaw.

"It's a pleasant surprise to see people rallying," Thorns says.

Mark Neumeier has served since 1988 as director of Neighborhood Renewal Services, a federal project based on an early 1970s Pittsburgh model that merges residents with bankers and local government. First-time owners have purchased hundreds of houses. Success has come not just in the Cathedral area but across the West Side through the Home Ownership Program (H.O.P.), which has featured familiar yellow and black for-sale signs. Funds are shrinking but the effort continues.

Neumeier looks beyond the target neighborhood strategy, dreaming that Saginaw somehow could become a federal target city for the whole nation.
"We have all the problems of a big city, but we�re small enough to be a place where the feds could adopt us as a model with some pilot projects. We could get the Saginaw Community Foundation involved and maybe the big ones � Kresge, Kellogg, Ford," he suggests.

"All I know is, we need to do something. The arsons were so bad that my brother-in-law in Louisiana read about them. Saginaw made the news wire services, but not in the way we want. The housing conditions have become so bad that despite all of our work, I'd have to say at NRS that we're back where we started 18 years ago."

Choices aren't easy

Questions loom. Can targeting really make a Cathedral District difference within a year or two? If so, what would be the next target area? And then the one after that?

To some extent, many city leaders in all sincerity seem to wish to keep their cake and also eat it. They repeatedly say that while focusing on the St. Mary's area, they don't wish to disregard others. That's a tough balancing act.

"We're not going to say that all work goes into this one area and nothing else happens anywhere else," O'Neal explains. "We can't just put ourselves in a box like that. We can still address emergencies elsewhere, but we need to maximize our resources in one area."

Thorns and O'Neal see future West Side hope near Covenant Health Care. The hospital's community commitments of $100,000 for Bliss Park and a "Walk to Work" home sale promotion for employees are more modest so far than those by St. Mary's. But more potential exists.

"When we move to Phase 2 and Phase 3 with new target neighborhoods, we'll be looking for other key stakeholders," O'Neal says.

This leads to a deeper dilemma. What will become the fate of those areas that no longer have strong stakeholders or anchors, devastated areas where homeowners who maintain pride often are surrounded by blight on all sides? They pay taxes too. Should they face less hope that City Hall someday will finally remove the eyesores?

O'Neal makes an apple tree metaphor. He says an area with strong partners, such as the Cathedral District, is akin to a lower hanging apple that's the most fundamental to pick first. An area such as Covenant is like the tree's middle part. A heavily blighted zone such as Christina Jones� territory near I-675 is among the high branches where apples are most difficult to reach.

"No neighborhood is too far gone. The high apples may just take longer," O'Neal insists, but some officials say with regret that they aren't so sure.
County Treasurer Marv Hare, leader of the land bank, says he wonders whether his childhood northeast area near Johnson and North 13th  - a mile east of The Dow Event Center  - still has a future.

"When there are so many abandoned houses and lots, it really can get expensive for a land bank," Hare says. "The area where I grew up, I don't know whether that's still savable. If we don't target neighborhoods that are still viable, then we won't get very far."

Chief Inspector Jim Hodges says some areas are so beat up that City Hall on occasion has spent federal grants twice at the same houses.

"We gave them rehab grants 15 or 20 years ago (for about $20,000), but they still deteriorated so badly that now they're on the demolition list (for about another $8,000)," Hodges says.

Thorns maintains that Saginaw has no "dead" neighborhoods.

"But there are some," Thorns adds, "where I am sure we would have a lot of questions before we went into them with major resources."

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