WORKING THE PLAN

Oscoda Township Economic Improvement Committee (EIC) Director Todd Dickerson, left, is seen here with EIC alternate Tony Johnson at the committee’s latest meeting. The EIC discussed at length the strategic plans which have been drawn up for the township by PlaceLeap, and the group is already working toward carrying out the associated objectives.

OSCODA – With the recent adoption of a set of plans aimed to steer Oscoda toward a better future, the implementation of this by the township’s Economic Improvement Committee (EIC) is now underway.

As reported in the Nov. 20 edition of the Oscoda Press, township trustees have approved the Oscoda Township Economic Development & Community Marketing Strategy and Downtown Plan; the Oscoda Township Strategic Communications Plan; and the Oscoda Township Place Branding Plan, as prepared by the PlaceLeap firm.

Superintendent Dave Schaeffer has explained that the EIC will be working in conjunction with the planning commission to prioritize these initiatives – which have been more than a year in the making – and align the efforts with the township’s master plan, capital improvement plan and the annual budget.

Further, he said that adoption of these strategies demonstrates significant progress for the township toward the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) certification.

Schaeffer also noted that the purpose of the strategic communications plan is to assist in aligning the township’s communications with the core goals and values, positioning Oscoda to be proactive and become the trusted source for local information.

The documents can be accessed in their entirety at www.oscodatownshipmi.gov, which is also where the full presentation of Oscoda’s latest branding concept can be viewed.

A matrix has been designed for the EIC to begin tackling some of these goals, which the committee went over in detail at their Nov. 19 meeting. Absent were Martin Gayeski and Rhonda Cope. Members Dave Iler, Rose Mary Nentwig, Chairman Mark Wygant and alternate Tony Johnson, along with newly hired EIC Director Todd Dickerson, were joined for the discussions by Schaeffer.

He began by summarizing some of the training sessions which have been held over the last several months, including those focusing on form-based code, which the township is looking to first implement in the B-1 Business District and then expand to other areas.

“We’ve also had a lot of training sessions associated with the master plan and the update to the master plan,” said Schaeffer of the document, which was adopted by the planning commission in March 2018.

He shared that when he started working for the township, one of the first things he did was take this all in, and then the process kicked off to begin updating and putting together a strategic plan.

The strategic plan, he continued, builds off of the PlaceLeap strategies, all of which need to be incorporated into the master plan.

Schaeffer reminded the group that there are seven goals, a mission statement and a vision statement associated with the strategic plan, as well. 

Of the current initiatives, he added that MEDC’s RRC criteria, plus the PlaceLeap strategies, will be incorporated into the matrix. “And, once we get that updated, we will go through the formal process of updating the township’s master plan.”

The EIC then shifted their conversation to the initiative tasks from PlaceLeap, starting with some remarks from their new director.

“I’m happy to be here, and I will applaud the community for going through the PlaceLeap process as a starting point before you even selected someone like myself to come in,” Dickerson said, noting that this is oftentimes the other way around, and some communities have to start at square one when hiring a director.

“You guys did it, I think, the right way. You went through all of this community involvement and strategy and thinking. So, when I show up, basically I’ve got a scope of work they want,” he said.

As he and committee members walked through the implementation plans, Dickerson requested feedback along on the way on prioritizing the assignments, as well as enlisting EIC representatives to assist him with certain tasks.

“This is the day-to-day operating manual for what I’m going to be doing every day on your behalf,” he said of the documents.

The group started with the implementation plan for the economic development strategy, which features 11 items, including the creation of an inventory of available property.

Dickerson said he was happy to report that he has already gotten the ball rolling on this initiative, by starting such work as identifying the properties currently for sale, gathering the data and creating customized PDF fact sheets.

He shared an example of what is currently provided to developers and prospects, when coming to the area and looking for details on available buildings and/or land.

Dickerson said his intent isn’t to be unkind, but, “We can do better than this.”

He showed the EIC what he has been working on to present to potential buyers – using Huron Shores Artisan Hall as an example – which also incorporates the new logo designed for the community by PlaceLeap.

“If we’re going to brand ourselves, it’s got to be consistent,” he said of the logo, adding that it should be included in all published documents. “Hopefully this becomes the basis for all of the properties we have available for sale going forward.”

Dickerson said he also hopes to work with real estate/brokerage groups in town, in order to provide the best information and the best strategy going forward.

He said the data sheets, photos and other details can really only be drawn up for township-owned sites, or those that are privately owned but the owner has given permission for the EIC to come up with something for them.

“Other properties that are privately owned, and are through a broker, I can’t do anything about that. That’s just between them and their broker. We still want to inventory those properties, though, and also get them on our website,” he explained.

This brought him to his next point, saying that if he were a developer or someone from downstate who wanted to spend money and invest in northern Michigan, the first thing he would do is go online. “And you really can’t get a good hit on the Internet to know that Oscoda’s got a lot of empty buildings; lots of dirt to be built on. So we need to make that more robust.”

He warned that, if a developer can’t readily find the information they are seeking, then they will move on to the next option. 

Dickerson also said that Google Earth isn’t very good in the area. “So you can’t get a tipped aerial on a building. My recommendation going forward is, let’s get a drone up and let’s do this right.”

He said the drone could be used to capture different angles of the buildings, which would be accompanied by several other photos of the properties.

He pointed out that the data sheets created for these sites need to have an introductory piece about the community, as well as information on the demographics,  population, household income and more.

Schaeffer echoed these comments, saying this builds into the RRC efforts, as well, since certification requires a community to develop marketing material for at least three properties, and to actively market that to developers.

“So this is part of that process. We’re going to have to do it anyway. What the MEDC recommends is, you start with properties that the municipality owns. You have control over the real estate,” he went on.

“Once you know what you have available, you’ve got to create the database. It’s easier, then, to track who your prospects are, who you’re talking to, who you promoted it to,” Dickerson added.

The other objectives outlined in the economic development strategy implementation plan are summarized below.

2.) Launch Initiative: Work with the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association on a site location package for Wurtsmith, and market the site to potential commercial spaceport businesses.

3.) Facilitate the Creation of More Rental Housing: Using the inventory from objective one, this will include creating custom packages for potential developers focusing on rental (rent rates, construction costs, potential incentives).

4.) Facilitate the Creation of More Single Family Housing.

5.) Adopt Form-Based Code.

6.) Create Regional Opportunity Partnerships: This entails such efforts as identifying other local governments for partnerships, gathering marketing data and potential sites for housing development, and creating a showcase event for possible developers.

7.) Talent Onboarding: This objective will include developing a welcome packet, creating monthly gatherings for new residents and working with other community groups to start a Quarterly Familiarization Tour, highlighting things/places to know.

8.) Conduct Retention Program: Identify the 10 largest employers in Oscoda, and visit each of them at least annually to see what the township can do to assist.

9.) Attraction Program: This calls for using the inventory from objective one to create marketing pieces for industrial properties, using these marketing pieces to respond to inquiries for sites and working with the existing largest employers to identify potential suppliers/customers who may benefit from being located closer by.

10.) Create a Revolving Loan Fund (RLF): The idea would be to obtain a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development, and then promote the RLF to local businesses.

11.) CVB Increasing Room Assessments to Five Percent.

As for the final item on the list, this includes meeting with members of the Oscoda Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) to discuss a possible assessment increase, as well as creating a draft budget to show how the funds would be used.

According to Dickerson, the CVB room assessments are currently at two percent

“They had the opportunity to raise it a while ago and they didn’t,” Johnson noted.

“They’ve been talking about it forever. I don’t know why they don’t do it,” added Nentwig.

Schaeffer said, from his understanding, there have been attempts to increase this but it hasn’t gone through.

He also remarked that when people receive a hotel bill, five percent is not unreasonable, as it is common everywhere. “So that five percent, that’s more than doubling their funding to be able to go back to market the area.”

Wygant said that, to him, this is a no-brainer since it increases revenue and doesn’t hurt business.

As for number four on the list, facilitating the creation of more rental housing, Dickerson said this starts with what properties can be built on, the data, what the township’s value proposition is to a developer, getting the materials ready and then going out and doing the selling work.

“I don’t look at myself as a ‘municipal employee.’ I’m a sales guy,” he said, adding that the EIC should also have the mindset of being a selling organization. “We are a function, or a subset, of the municipality but we have to act and think like we’re sales people.” 

The various objectives each have estimated completion dates, starting as early as March 2020, and Dickerson noted that the efforts toward the creation of single family housing and more rental housing can begin soon. However, the EIC likely will not see the fruits of this labor until several months down the road when, for example, a piece of property has been booked for some sort of housing.

In reference to objective number seven, he said this is where he would like to engage the CVB and the chamber of commerce, and have them support the EIC goals. “We met with the chamber this morning, actually, so you can officially say that this process has started.”

Dickerson pointed out that conducting a retention program, objective eight, is also underway. He has been finalizing the list of the 10 largest employers in the community, and also had a meeting set for the following morning with Kalitta Air representatives.

As for the RLF option, Schaeffer said this could potentially be utilized for what is known as micro retail. For instance, if someone doesn’t need 4,000 square feet of space but wants something measuring a couple hundred square feet, grants could be used for apportioning walls and a RLF used toward startup for someone who doesn’t require a lot of inventory. 

Wygant said he thinks the fund is a good idea, but he can’t see it being utilized for major players, such as someone looking to build a 200-unit apartment complex.

Johnson agreed, saying bigger businesses wouldn’t have the need anyway. This could instead be geared more toward startups and small entrepreneurs.

The talks then moved to the downtown implementation plan, which is comprised of the following objectives:

1.) Create a Vacant Building Registry.

2.) Create a Parking Management Plan: This consists of such action as working with property owners to evaluate parking needs, as well as determining what options the township could use to better manage parking supply (ownership, lease trade) based on current and projected needs.

3.) Create Vibrancy Grants.

4.) Improve Walkability, plus Traffic Calming.

5.) Create More Public Art and Murals.

6.) Create an Archway Connecting Downtown to the Beachfront.

7.) Encourage Micro and Pop-Up Retail.

In reference to the vibrancy grants, Dickerson said he was looking for a volunteer to join him when getting these conversations started with the business owners.

He explained that this would involve setting up a fund where, for example, the focus one year could be on replacing all the canopies of the involved shops.

“We’ll put in so much, you put in the rest?” asked Wygant, who offered to assist with this objective.

“Exactly,” said Dickerson, adding that another option would be a contribution of however much, which the business owner would then have to match.

“Your traditional façade grant, like through the MEDC, is a high entry point. It’s $25,000 to get $25,000. We’re not talking about that type of money,” Schaeffer noted.

“There is residual funding the DDA fund 248 so, if that was levied to be used in that district, obviously that’s what we have to use it for,” he said, advising that the residual money could be considered for funding these plans.

As a hypothetical, Wygant asked if adding a small section of outdoor seating at a restaurant could benefit from such a program, which Schaeffer said it could.

He also noted that A-frame signs for businesses to put out, or something to that effect, would be another example.

Dickerson said all the details aren’t finalized yet but, either way, one of the first steps they’ll need to take is to go out and shake hands with the business owners. “I have to do that anyway, and so I’m trying to be smart about what we’re going to be doing in the next couple months.”

As for the encouragement of micro and pop-up retail, Dickerson said one item he gathered from PlaceLeap representatives was facilitating a strategy where maybe some of the storefronts on US-23 are divided up into three or four, just for the one space.

Iler pointed to the Brew Krew in East Tawas as an example, with this shop being housed in one larger building, along with several other micro stores.

Dickerson remarked that there are a lot of different ways to approach this specific objective.

The EIC will conduct its next meeting at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 10. It will be held in the Robert J. Parks Library, located at 6010 N. Skeel Ave.