OSCODA – More than 40 people attended the Oscoda Township Downtown Summit on July 9, held at the Warrior Pavilion of Ken Ratliff Memorial Park.
Participants gave feedback to be considered as the township continues in its form-based code (FBC) efforts, and they also heard more details about a potential consolidated municipal services center.
In attendance were area residents, local officials, business owners and more, who heard from Beckett & Raeder, Inc. (BRI) representatives John Iacoangeli and Tim Knutsen.
With the variety of people who showed up, there was a good mix of opinions offered on what Oscoda’s downtown should look like, and what should be incorporated into the area in the future.
In addition to FBC, there are a number of ongoing efforts in the community for which input has been sought from stakeholders. This includes a strategic planning process, as well as the township’s goal of becoming Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) certified through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).
As for FBC, Superintendent Dave Schaeffer has explained that the intent is to first convert the B-1 business district – from Division Street to Evergreen – to FBC.
As reported, Schaeffer said this a completely different concept than the current, text-heavy zoning ordinance. It is a revamp for the B-1 district, and officials want to eventually implement this in the B-2 and other districts, as well.
In a recent memo to township trustees, he stated that the board has heard the need for strategic efforts downtown as a high priority during the Public Engagement Sessions related to the 2019 Oscoda Strategic Plan.
The township board hired BRI to help implement FBC, which he said directly impacts the strategic efforts downtown.
“The township board will now need to engage the public to provide input on where these efforts are headed,” Schaeffer stated.
The implementation of FBC will also impact the township’s numerous redevelopment opportunities that must be prioritized and actively marketed to developers in order to obtain MEDC’s RRC certification, he added.
It was during the summit when Iacoangeli explained that, as part of the FBC efforts, one thing BRI wanted to do was engage the community on helping determine what types of uses they feel are appropriate in the downtown area. Once this is determined, a code can be developed which actually advances expectations.
Iacoangeli also referenced the mission and vision statements, as well as goals which, as reported, were formulated as part of the strategic planning process.
“One of the things I want to point is, as part of their seven strategic goals, we’re addressing two of them today,” he said.
“The first one is create an environment where residents, development and businesses can be successful. And number six is grow the number of residents, businesses, tourists and developers in the township,” he continued. “When we’re doing these types of projects, they are supporting and advancing the strategic planning process that the township started about six months ago.”
For the summit in particular, he focused on the portion of downtown which runs along US-23, from Division to Evergreen. He said this is essentially from the jurisdictional line at the south part of the township, to Furtaw Field, including some side streets and both commercial and residential properties.
Iacoangeli said the current zoning districts for this area consist of residential, commercial/central business district and residential tourist.
“Your primary intersection in this part of the township is the intersection of State and River. I would refer to that as the 100 percent corner; that’s where you get the most traffic, and that’s where you have the one signal,” he noted. “When we took a look at what’s available today, you have a lot of areas both public and private that are available for redevelopment.”
Iacoangeli said that, whatever the group decides to do with the properties, BRI will codify this as part of the zoning code.
He explained that one important element of analyzing the downtown includes looking back at national archives, relative to what used to be in Oscoda.
Based on a Sanborn Map Company map prepared at the turn of the century, there were a lot more piers and activity along the lake in the township than there is now.
“These were maps that were prepared primarily for the insurance industry to prepare or establish insurance policies for various pieces of property,” Iacoangeli said.
He noted that, while some Oscoda buildings were destroyed in the past by fire, many of them also still exist today. “So you do have a historical context to your downtown area.”
The map shows a grid system, which means that the area was developed primarily as a traditional downtown would be. However, when looking at the map, Iacoangeli said he thinks Oscoda has more of the characteristics of a historic village, as townships are typically less dense and more sprawled out.
He said one interesting thing about the way the community was laid out is that the front of the buildings in this area pretty much all line up, and the commercial structures were built adjacent to each other, parallel to the street. This is different, though, as one gets north of Furtaw Field.
According to Iacoangeli, in the southern part of the downtown, the streets are 66 feet wide, the buildings are close to the street, there are sidewalks and the area is more pedestrian friendly. But north of Furtaw, the road widens out, the buildings are set back, there are more parking lots and it is not as walkable of an environment.
He then showed video footage moving north through the downtown, to demonstrate what the area looks like when someone is driving on US-23.
Iacoangeli said that, as one comes up to Furtaw, the uses become much more suburban as opposed to urban, and the speed limit begins to increase.
He told the crowd that the height of most of the buildings are one to 1½ stories, although, some property owners installed higher facades in the front to give the impression of a taller building.
He advised that the current zoning regulations allow for structures as high as four stories in this area, so he wanted those at the summit to consider their preferences.
He said he wanted them to really think about how high they want the buildings downtown and whether they would be more comfortable with three- to four-story structures, or buildings which are two or three stories.
Iacoangeli also said Oscoda has viable businesses; additional opportunities within the business district; on-street parking on several of the side streets, which is an important amenity; and a residential area on Lake Street which is key to the commercial district, since it’s nice to have people within walking distance of the downtown businesses.
He moved on to discussion of Oscoda’s walk score, which he said is used by the real estate community to take a look at how walkable a piece of property is.
“They find that, for every point on the walk score, the value of the property actually increases. So the higher the score, up to 100, the more valuable the property,” Iacoangeli said.
He noted that the area at hand in Oscoda has a walk score of 51, which is somewhat walkable, and a bike score of 52.
“Now, this score will go up if there are more businesses within the business district. Because the walk score is not based on the quality of the sidewalks. It’s based on how many businesses someone can get to by walking less than a quarter of a mile from their house,” he explained.
“So this score is a function of not only walking distance, but the number of uses that you can get to by walking,” he continued, saying this is important because the more walkable an area is, the higher the value of the homes will be in that general district.
Iacoangeli then noted that, when the community worked on its strategic plan, one of the questions stakeholders were asked was, what it would be if they could change one thing in the township. “And one of the top answers that came out was, downtown.”
He said he needed input on what exactly these changes are. “If you’re going to change something, what would it be?”
Therefore, he had summit attendees take part in an exercise as an opportunity to tell those from BRI what types of redevelopment options they’re comfortable with, within the study area.
He and Knutsen took photos of the completed work, which he said will be used in BRI’s next steps.
Iacoangeli told the audience that such things to consider are how comfortable everyone is with the buildings and their location to the street, what kinds of uses they want to see downtown and so on. For example, this could include mixed use buildings, which are typically structures that have commercial/retail offerings on the first floor, with apartments or housing above that.
Iacoangeli asked attendees to split up into groups, after which they each went to a table that had a map of the study/development area. Participants placed colored blocks on the map to indicate where they felt appropriate uses should be. For instance, red blocks represented commercial uses, yellow stood for residential uses and brown indicated multiple family housing.
“Why is this important? Well, in today’s world, there’s two groups that are competing for the same housing type – millennials, people between the age of 25-35, and empty nesters – people that want to get away from managing their single family home,” Iacoangeli said.
He explained that these people are wanting to move into cities, and go where they can walk.
“We’re seeing this all over the state of Michigan. The closer you get to a city center, the higher the values on real estate are starting to go up. I would say 30 years ago it was the opposite; the further away you got from a city center, the retail values went up. Now the shift is going back the other way,” Iacoangeli said.
Summit participants spent about 45 minutes working on their maps, after which a representative from each group summarized for the others in the room why they arranged the blocks as they did, and what they envision for Oscoda in the future.
Some of the items mentioned were a boardwalk and restaurant near the AuSable River; a lot of mixed uses throughout downtown, including structures with both housing and commercial offerings; street parking on US-23; a restaurant, possibly with housing also, on Lake Huron; more pedestrian friendly walkways/lighting to make people feel safer; and leveraging the biking opportunities in the community by offering spots to pick up/drop off bicycles.
Joe Maxwell, owner of Cathy’s Hallmark, said his group liked the idea of not allowing any structures higher than two stories on the east side of US-23, while those on the west side could be built taller, creating a sight line to the lake.
He pointed out that many businesses, including his, were not built with a second story in mind and it would be very costly to accommodate this.
This was augmented by Vinnie Iler, owner of AuSable Do it Best Hardware. He said it would be ideal that the businesses in this area be mixed use, with housing on one level. But, like Maxwell, he wouldn’t be able to construct another story without tearing down his original building, making this very cost prohibitive.
Iler said his group also favored a setup where people would be able to access everything within a 10-minute walk. He likened this to downtown Mackinaw City, where there is water access, parking on two sides and restaurants/shopping all in the same area, making for an easy in, easy out operation.
Other ideas offered by participants were some sort of destination – such as a water park near the lake with a hotel and restaurants – which would attract people to Oscoda year-round.
There was also a lot of talk about taking advantage of Lake Huron and the AuSable River. For example, one thought was that anything along the river which is commercial, heading towards Lake Huron, should be focused on the water. This could be a T-shirt shop, a watercraft rental business and so on.
Following the summaries, Iacoangeli said BRI’s next step – working in conjunction with zoning board of appeals and planning commission members – is to take these ideas and incorporate them into the FBC.
He said the firm will likely have something prepared by the end of the summer, and that the community engagement will continue as part of these efforts.
Following this, Schaeffer gave additional details on the possible construction of a consolidated municipal services center at Furtaw Field.
He advised that the township has contracted with ROWE Professional Services Company and Wigen Tincknell Associates (WTA), which are evaluating the concept of a municipal center.
A rendering of what the possible structure could look like was on display during the summit, and it shows police and fire stations on one half of the property, along with a training center, and on the other side a two-story facility to house the township offices, library, senior center and community center.
Since Oscoda is considered a low- to moderate-income community, Schaeffer said there is grant funding available to pay for half of those types of facilities. The township is also looking at additional options, such as engaging the community foundation to potentially do a capital campaign.
While the concept of a consolidated municipal services center at Furtaw has been reported on in this publication, there are still questions from those in the community, particularly regarding the need for such a facility.
Schaeffer provided some examples, saying that when the fire department hosts its meetings, there are more than 30 personnel crammed into a small venue, with no extra room for training or other exercises. “I don’t know if you’ve been in the police chief’s office, but it’s a converted broom closet,” he went on.
Schaeffer said there have also been a lot of structural problems at the current township offices, including leaks in the building, and what it comes down to is weighing the costs of throwing money into repair after repair, versus constructing a new facility.
“Now, as far as the consolidation of municipal services, right now we were sending everybody out the base,” he went on.
The township board meetings are held at the library on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, the senior center is located there and, prior to recently being sold, the community center also operated from the former base.
“Try to tell somebody who’s from out of town how to get to the senior center,” said Schaeffer, which drew laughs from the crowd. “It’s tough, and that’s a barrier for them to have participation.”
He said that a chicken or the egg concept presents itself in the downtown area of US-23.
“Are you going to get more businesses downtown if there’s more people downtown, or are you going to get more people downtown if there’s more businesses? What’s going to come first? And government can only do so much. However, consolidating the municipal services downtown will help draw bodies downtown,” Schaeffer said.
He advised that ROWE and WTA will be delivering a report in September on the feasibility of such a consolidated center.
As for the drawing of the potential facility, Schaeffer stressed that this is just a concept, and that efforts will continue in order to gain community input on the idea.
He added that the drawing shows the entire space at Furtaw being used for these buildings. However, he doesn’t think the community can afford that, nor is that much space necessary. “So we are looking at the options to be able to understand feasibility.”
He said the focus has to be on how to serve the constituents in the future, and the current township buildings will not be able to do so over the next 25 years. “So if we don’t start planning now, as far as what’s going to happen and how we’re going to serve the constituency moving forward, that’s just going to delay the inevitable.”
For instance, he said the community center is more than 30,000 square feet in size, and the one in Saginaw isn’t even this large. Therefore, it needs to be determined what is appropriate for Oscoda.
A woman in the audience asked what will happen to the current property, if the township buildings are no longer there.
Schaeffer said the property is located at a prime intersection, and it is a very desirable piece of land for both residential and commercial purposes. If RRC certified, the township may be able to unlock funding to help with such development, and there are also projects which qualify for Brownfield Redevelopment funding.