October 20, 2018

West Branch’s Rising Tide moving swiftly as it approaches nine months

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WEST BRANCH — West Branch City Manager Heather Grace said the community is making good strides as Project Rising Tide approaches the nine-month mark.

Project Rising Tide is a collaborative program spearheaded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Talent Investment Agency and Michigan State Housing Development Authority. Collectively the three agencies form the Talent and Economic Development team, known as TED.

According to the Rising Tide website, the TED team has committed its assets to help specific communities in the state to “empower them to shape their future and maximize economic potential.”

After Grayling graduated from Project Rising Tide in February, the torch was passed to West Branch when it was selected as the next city for the program.

Through Rising Tide several needs have been identified in the city, such as housing for

middle-income earners, attracting and retaining talent, downtown growth, consistent branding and sufficient childcare providers.

Grace said two of the areas she identifies with personally are the housing and childcare needs.

“I am closely torn between the housing and the childcare,” she said. “Both affect quality of life for people that are here and for economic development to attract people here.”

During a May meeting, the housing discussions touched on topics such as local zoning ordinances, incentives to build new housing units, the creation of market-rate housing options and more.

Grace said one of the challenges with housing is the gap between subsidized housing and other available housing, adding that many of the jobs in the area are above the threshold to qualify.

“We are kind of working hand in hand with the housing issue by doing our Redevelopment Ready Communities program, which has identified prime sites for redevelopment in the area,” she said. “We are trying to two birds, one stone it and say, ‘OK, let’s assess our redevelopment priority sites and see if any of those would be useful to turn into housing that would meet our demographic needs for housing.’”

Grace said the group is trying to move that along and connect the potential sites and developers. She is trying to work with the Environmental Protection Agency on several sites, including the former bicycle factory property, to secure funding to encourage developers.

“We are going to attempt to get the owners of the properties and potential developers and all the state agencies that can provide assistance all together at the same time so we are not talking circles with each other,” she said. “We can talk with each other and collaborate to make it more of a realistic possibility we can move this forward in a timely fashion.”

A key element with Project Rising Tide is the realization that when multiple groups and agencies work together it can expand timelines and sometimes cause projects to stall or fail.

“That is the part I am most pleased about Project Rising Tide is they have identified that that is a lot of times the problems,” Grace said. “Sometimes the multi-layers of various state agencies trying to work with governmental regulations at the municipal level and also trying to work with the private developers and private owners, there is not always meshing. We need to cut through some of that red tape and that is what they are trying to do for us.”

There is no dollar amount attached to Project Rising Tide. Instead, the project makes various agencies and private industries more accessible to the local municipalities to guide them to the end goal.

“It is a good thing,” Grace said. “I have always felt that sometimes when you get something for nothing you don’t respect it and it doesn’t mean as much to you as if you earned it or if you put some of your own hard work or money into it yourself. They are trying to make this affordable for us, but not that we get this free by not putting in any effort or money into it.”

The program requires both sweat equity and money from local municipalities and entities.

“They want us to pay a certain portion for some of the things they have identified, like the branding initiative,” Grace said. “They may pay for all of it but they haven’t decided. We will probably pay for all of the implementation of it, like the signage.”

The program is trying to get the city of West Branch, Ogemaw Township and West Branch Township downtown development authorities together.

“We had some proposals,” Grace said. “Initially we had some good buy-in during our last Rising Tide meeting. The proposal would be to do a joint DDA plan that would look at a collaborative effort to maintain a business corridor rather than having three entities who don’t talk to each other, don’t collaborate on anything and are all going in different directions.”

While Rising Tide focuses on the city, West Branch’s geographic size limits what development can occur within the city. Grace said that is why cooperation with the nearby municipalities makes sense, because everyone in the county benefits from the development regardless of the taxable entity where the development is located.

“We know that we are not an island and we cannot grow without them growing,” she said.

“I have seen a lot of people thinking outside of the box and they seem to be grasping that not only are all these issues interconnected but we are interconnected,” Grace continued. “If we work together that interconnectedness pays off.”

Grace said during a recent Brownfield Development ranking project, she wanted the former Turner Gas Station property considered for the highest priority because of its visibility and the development opportunities. According to the EPA, brownfields are sites where expansion or redevelopment “may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

“I feel like there is more developable adjacent properties that will spring up, so the economic development for the region as a whole including the city will be of larger impact,” she said. “I am not saying I don’t want (the bike factory) to happen, because I do and it would be excellent, but that one would have a bigger economic impact.”

Because the city is beholden to its taxpayers, such improvements can be a challenge to make a reality, but Grace said through education and discussion everyone can get behind adjacent development as well.

“We have to make sure at the end of the day we not only do our best to look out for our individual taxpayers, because that is our fiduciary responsibility, so we have to be able to explain to them in an articulate manner why what we are doing is justifiable and does in fact benefit them,” she said.

Grace said before the program had started, the city was working on fixing some issues in its zoning ordinances, but the work is continuing under Rising Tide.

“At the end of the day that is what I want to see, is results,” Grace said. “We have been having excellent conversations identifying problems, but I want to see boots-to-the-ground action occurring so we can say, ‘Look, we actually accomplished something.’”

Also included in the plan is making West Branch a Green Community, with the city encouraging developers to use green energy. Grace said the city is also looking at using green energy at some of its facilities.

Grace said the city had previously had a housing study performed, but under the Rising Tide program, the city will have an additional study that will be turnkey-ready for developers.

“We hand this to developers and it gives them everything they need to get their financiers or the bank and show it’s a sustainable project,” she said.

There isn’t a scheduled event set for the public at this point, but Grace said the Ogemaw County Economic Development Corporation should be announcing the date during the Economic Outlook Oct. 23, which is scheduled to discuss health care in the county.

The Rising Tide program doesn’t have a fixed duration; instead Grace said the state determines the duration with activity and involvement. The program typically lasts between one year and 18 months, but there is the possibility that the project could last longer depending on the need.

“As long as we are showing strides of good improvement and we are getting closer to where we need to be, they will stay on to help us get some goals accomplished,” she said. “If not, they will end it early.”

To view any documents related to the city’s involvement in Project Rising Tide, visit mirisingtide.org/westbranch.

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