When developers propose a new grocery store, restaurant, or retailer to their community of interest, things may not go as planned. The project could be delayed several times, the master plan might get rejected, residents might oppose the project, and sometimes, city officials might become difficult to work with.
That’s why Oakland County’s One Stop Ready Program is looking changing the relationship between local officials and developers.
Created in 2013 by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, One Stop Ready provides local communities resources, tools, and training to promote economic development. By teaching city officials customer-friendly, solution-oriented approaches, the development process between boards and commissions is faster and more efficient.
“The goal is to get communities to think like an investor,” says senior planner, Ryan Dividock. “That could be a multinational corporation that’s looking to invest and develop a site in a community all the way down to a resident looking to make improvements on their property.”
Program organizers held a session titled An Investor’s Perspective on July 26 at the Oakland County Executive Office Building in Waterford. The event was hosted by Deputy County Executive Matthew Gibb, with panelists Drew Ciora, owner of brewpub Royal Oak Brewery and restaurant Lockhart’s BBQ in Royal Oak and Lake Orion, Matt Kiriluk, president of real estate company Kirco, and Kyle Westberg, president and CEO of West Construction. The purpose of the meeting was to offer city officials an investor’s perspective on economic development and to explore ways to help build better relationships with community officials.
An Investor’s Perspective is the second part of the program’s One Stop Ready Academy, which consists of three two-hour long learning sessions. The first workshop focuses on economic context, community vision, and management structure.The third meeting is on the implementation of five practices: the pre-application process, Internet accessibility, proactive project tracking, efficient permitting processes, and business and community input.
The session began with the three business owners introducing themselves and sharing with the audience how they got started in their careers. Ciora said he had very little development experience when he opened the Royal Oak Brewing Company in 1995, learning the process of running a business as they went.
“I found this small space off of 4th Street, and the realtor of the building was looking at me skeptically. I was only 25 or 26 at the time, so he didn’t think I could pull this together at all. I went in completely blind,” Ciora said. “Walking into city hall, finding out what to do, finding an architect locally; it was tough. I knew we needed plans, I knew we needed a professional, but we were still kinda stumbling along.”
A large portion of the meeting was dedicated to the challenges of completing a project in a community that is uninterested or opposed to the development and makes the process difficult for investors and developers.
Ciora said one of his most challenging projects was the development of the Lake Orion location for Lockhart’s BBQ. A resident of the village, he said he noticed an absence of new restaurants. When Ciora first proposed his idea to appointed officials, they were not interested, as several businesses in Lake Orion were owned by only two people.
It took several years of persistence and a new village manager to turn Ciora’s vision into a reality. Darwin McClary, who was village manager at the time, offered Ciora the building that housed the village hall and police department. Also, the city planner and director of the Downtown Development Authority assisted the Ciora with his project, creating a downtown liquor license, a tax abatement program, and decreasing the amount of water tapping fees. Lockhart’s had its grand opening in 2015.
“I had all these champions along the way, so I never stumbled or looked around and said, ‘What’s next?’”, Ciora said. “It was a great experience.”
Kiriluk also had initial project difficulties in neighboring Orion Township. When Kirco was developing the Baldwin Commons shopping center, the site was not only in the township but also in Auburn Hills. Kiriluk said the attitudes of the two communities were completely different.
“At the time, Orion Township was a real bear to deal with,” he said. “There were people on the township board that wanted nothing to do with development and growth, and in many respects, it seemed like they went out of their way to try to put up roadblocks and stop the investment. And after that project, we had opportunities to do other things in the community, and we didn’t.”
Kiriluk has since changed his mind about Orion Township as the community has become more open to development. Kirco is in the process of developing a senior citizen facility that is slated to open in September.
“It’s not that you don’t have development challenges, it’s how you deal with them,” he said. “Are we working together as a team to try to figure it out and create an opportunity for everybody, or are we trying to resist the progress?”
Westberg has also experienced challenges with his construction company. When developing the Lafayette Place Lofts in Pontiac, he had to work with two mayors and three emergency managers. Then, when West Construction was in the process of remodeling the Flagstar Strand Theatre, Westberg and his brother, Brent, had to take out loans to complete the project.
“I’m working with lenders, bureaucrats, inspectors; they’re all going to a job and getting paid while my life’s on the line, my wife’s life is on the line,” he said. “All we want from the other side is fairness and being open and honest with us. When you start thinking of us from that realm, you’re gonna come up with open arms.”
While all three business owners have experienced challenges in their careers, they have noticed a growing desire for development in Oakland County. Kiriluk said in the past ten years he has seen “significant improvement” in southeastern Michigan regarding the increase of development.
“This effort today, I can’t thank you enough,” Kiriluk said. “It makes a difference.”
When One Stop Ready started its pilot year in 2013, Ferndale, Lyon Township, the village of Oxford, Rochester, and Wixom were the first communities to get involved. Currently, 23 Oakland County communities are participating in the program, including the additions of Orchard Lake Village, Farmington Hills, and Madison Heights last month. Also, One Stop Ready was awarded by the National Association of Counties earlier this year for Best Community and Economic Program.
Dan Hunter, deputy director of economic development and community affairs, said that the program is helping communities learn and listen to each other. He recalls one of the first One Stop Ready sessions, where officials from Auburn Hills and Pontiac were continuing to have a discussion even after the meeting was over.
“They continued to talk, and finally they left the building,” Hunter says. “I came out 20 minutes later, and they’re still talking. I don’t think communities often do that. This gives them a vehicle to learn from others that are interested in making things better.”