Friday, January 11, 2008

A leadership vacuum in Ferndale

Nature abhors a vacuum. Suck the air from one end of a tube and fuel will rush in the other from the gas tank your siphoning from.

The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is trying to suck money from businesses in and around downtown Ferndale and no one from either the city council or the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce has taken a definitive position against the new tax, leaving many businesses without an advocate, and since businesses can't vote, they're left without representation.

The DDA is going to get a mouthful of something, but for now it's not what they'd hoped for.

At a city council meeting in early December my wife, Tiffani Gagne, encouraged council not to approve new taxes on downtown businesses. She listed a dozen recently shuttered shops and reminded council our current economy is hard enough on businesses without a new tax, and recommended incoming councilwomen Kate Baker should abstain from voting on the issue because her connections to the DDA risked an appearance of impropriety.

What she abhors she hurries to fill

Also attending that day were Ferndale businessmen AJ O'Niell, from AJ's Cafe and Nature Nook's Daryl DePottey. Both told Tiffani that if she were to form an opposition group to the tax she had their support. By December 21 Tiffani had joined with Ferndale Friends publisher, Stephanie Loveless, shared what they'd heard from businesses and decided to work together to help them out.

The domain was registered, and posters designed and ordered the next day. They were printed by Christmas Eve. On 12/26 Tiffani and Stephanie started visiting businesses along the Nine Mile and Woodward corridors inside the PSD, talking to businesses, distributing posters, collecting names, email addresses, and donations. was running by the 27th.

Coincidentally, that's when the DDA's discussion forum started seeing its first comments (parking and the PSD) in over a year (maybe longer--I stopped at 12/2006).

Are you sure that's the gas tank?

On January 10th, 33 business owners and residents led by Linda Robbins (House of Chants), Keith Premier (Contempo Home), and Wyll Lewis (American Pop!) met at AJ's Cafe. Among other objectives their first is to defeat the new PSD tax. Like the posters say, they can't afford it. Many are struggling mightily just to make rent and have already cut-back on expenses--including staff. Some have already made plans to close in 2008.

Robbins, Premier, and Lewis also distributed surveys for a new organization they created called The Ferndale Asssociation of Businesses (FAB) and already reserved the internet domain They hope to do a better job communicating with, representing and promoting the interests of downtown businesses than either the DDA for Chamber of Commerce has done so far.

So what is the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce's position on the PSD tax?

According to a December 9 article in The Mirror:
Ferndale Chamber of Commerce President Mailè Ilac Boeder said the chamber, which represents 300 businesses in the area, opted not to take a position on a proposed PSD tax.

"We will tell our members what is going on with the PSD and when there are meetings about it," she said. "We couldn't come up with a fair consensus that would represent all of our members."
As far as I know, it wasn't until this week the Chamber decided to inform their members about the PSD. They've scheduled three one-hour seminars on January 16 for Chamber members and business owners, presented by the DDA. No word yet on whether they'll invite anyone from the No-PSD-Tax! or FAB groups to either keep the DDA honest or present an alternate opinion.

I find it odd that of all the businesses Stephanie and Tiffani have visited, very few are in favor of the new tax. Finding a majority opinion among the store owners directly affected hasn't been difficult. If the chamber's leadership isn't prepared to take a position on a new local business tax, it casts doubt on their ability or willingness to take a position on any ordinance or legislation affecting business owners, whether it be a PSD tax, a 6% state service tax, or raising the county's sales tax to 7%.

To paraphrase 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot, "That giant sucking sound you hear is leadership going south."

Can you hear me now?

As far as the 2008 city council goes, only newly elected mayor Craig Covey has made statements opposing the PSD tax as initially proposed by the DDA last June. Detroit Free Press reporter Bill Laitner quoted Mr. Covey, "To throw a new tax burden on our businesses in these tenuous economic times, I think, is ill-advised."

As ill advised as it is, I'd prefer a stronger statement than was reported in the Daily Tribune by Mike McConell:
"I would like to see the principal shopping district grow slowly,” he said, suggesting that the current tax proposal may be too aggressive. “I’m very reluctant to enact tax increases on a local level when the Michigan economy is in a multi-year recession.”
As non-resolute as that sounds, it stands out in marked contrast to comments from councilpersons Galloway and Baker who favor raising taxes.

Newly-elected and youngest councilwoman Kate Baker, whose professional experience is four years of fund raising for The Henry Ford, believes the DDA knows best how to spend business' money for their survival in these tough times than the business owners.

From the December 9 Mirror article by Megan Pennefather:
Kate Baker, who was elected to council in November and will take her seat at the table in January, volunteers with the DDA. "Investment will pay off as the economy starts to turn around," she said. "Ferndale will be ahead of the curve."
And what are those keep-your-head-above-water-to-ride-out-the-storm investment ideas? According to the Free Press:
"This would provide matching funds for state and federal grants" to provide things like better pedestrian crosswalks, she said.
That will certainly increase tire sales for Chris Lynch at Wetmore's. They get lots of pedestrian walk-in traffic from downtown.

The Woodward Talk caught councilman Scott Galloway on a good day:
Galloway argued that the proposed levies are merely "a drop in the bucket."

"These people are under the assumption that all taxes are bad, as if they don't give them anything in return," he said. "Consistent landscaping, promotions -- you can't get those things for free."
That comes from a councilman who thinks spending $30,000 to be the first city with a 30'-tall Woodward Tombstone is also "a drop in the bucket."

With those fiscal chops Galloway would be in good company in either Lansing or Washington. Especially with the likes of Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirkson, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money."

Councilpersons Gumbleton and Lennon have either not been interviewed by the press or have refused to make any comments on the issue.

Even though I don't agree with Galloway and Baker, I respect their and Craig Covey having positions on the issue. It would be good to hear more debate.

Winners and Losers

The DDA has nothing to lose. Their budget either increases $184,000 or it stays the same. If the PSD wins 200 businesses in the expanded PSD district will pay higher taxes and get little in return.

The Chamber's decision to stay on the sidelines in this debate is surprising. Their retreat has created an opportunity for FAB to take a leadership role the Chamber should have. I'm unsure Ferndale's business community can support two separate business organizations, but at least one of them intends to support businesses in this fight.

If you want to try the siphoning experiment at home I recommend starting with an aquarium. Leave political vacuums to the professionals.

1 comment:

  1. I am against this tax for the same reason I was against the library tax and the Iraq 'tax' (which really does make this look like "a drop in the bucket."