Blog: Gretchen Driskell

Gretchen Driskell is serving her seventh term as mayor of Saline. She is the first female mayor and the longest serving mayor. Gretchen was first elected to city council in 1993 and served three terms.  She believes in the importance of building a quality community by involving citizens at all levels and further developing the tools to make Saline successful in the 21st century. The key areas supporting this direction are sustainability, education, quality of life, transit, entrepreneurship, culture and the arts, and diversity.

She is currently serving locally on the Saline Planning Commission, the Business Development Association, Saline Area Fire District, Saline Sustainability Circle, Coalition for a Quality Community. She also serves as chair of PUPS (Healthy Task Force), and as chair of the EDC, TIFA, and LDFA economic development boards. She was instrumental in establishing our first historic district, the Saline Farmers Market, and our sister city in Lindenberg, Germany.

Gretchen also serves on the Washtenaw Area Transit Study, AnnArbor SPARK Executive Committee,  SEMCOG, SEMCOG Transportation Advisory Council, and Advisory Council of the National League of Cities.

She is a former vice president and board member of the Michigan Municipal League, MML Elected Officials Academy, and chair and board member of the MML Workers Compensation Fund.  She represented Michigan cities on the Citizens Advisory Council to the Transportation Funding Task Force, established in 2008 by the governor, to identify transportation funding issues and efficiencies.

Gretchen has raised three children in Saline: Ryan, Matthew, and Marielle.

Gretchen Driskell - Most Recent Posts:

What Makes a 21st Century Community?

Why do you choose to live here?  Is it because of the cultural offerings in the area, the entrepreneurial environment, or the outstanding educational systems? Maybe ease of access to biking, walking and outdoor recreation, the diverse population of the region, or an environmental conscience are important to you.  Quality of place is a driving force for talent location, from young millenials to senior executives, so what can we do to make it better here?

The Michigan Municipal League (MML), which exists to create better cities across our state, studied how to become excellent at place making in 2006.  I was fortunate to participate in the four full-day sessions, with speakers from around the country who have affected or identified change opportunities in place making.  Municipal leaders from across the state worked through what we heard in these sessions to formalize the toolkit of strategies we are using today.  The League identified the eight assets that Michigan's communities need to grow and strengthen, for our state to sustain and prosper in coming years. Research shows that physical design and walkability, green initiatives, cultural economic development, entrepreneurship, multiculturalism, messaging and technology, transit, and education are essential to a community's livelihood. Saline has been implementing/strengthening these assets since then to become a more successful community.

This year the MML wrote the book, The Economics of Place: The Value of Building Communities Around People. This is a great compilation of essays by an array of experts in place making, which integrates these eight assets into their personal perspectives. It is written for you and I (the non-experts), in an effort to help all of us understand what it takes to make Michigan competitive with the rest of the world.  

How do we create places around this state that will entice talent, create jobs, and build stronger communities? Our region has been built on strong assets, primarily our education systems, which in turn have positively impacted the other place-making strategies. However, we have a ways to go to truly be competitive with the rest of the world.

So, read the book…broaden your horizon a bit…. And think about how we can make our state great again.


We Built It So They Would Come

Our city has historically been recognized as a pro-business community.  We have purchased over 383 acres of farmland over the past 19 years and installed roads and water/sewer infrastructure to provide certified industrial parks with development-ready parcels. When a company looks at our community to invest and grow, we bring all the required players to the table so there will be a timely, successful outcome for us all.

It is with particular dread that we are following a proposal in Lansing to eliminate the personal property tax.  In our community it would have a significant negative impact. It would eliminate 20% of our city operating budget and since we would be required to continue the bond payments on the business park infrastructure (almost 2 mills annually, some through 2024), our citywide services, infrastructure, and quality of life would be decimated.

Over the past decade, we have laid off over 10% of our workforce, not replaced other open positions, and stopped capital projects. We have outsourced, collaborated, and consolidated. We have gone to a defined contribution pension program and adjusted our health insurance to be competitive with the private sector.

We have been doing this because of what I call the perfect storm. The combination of Proposal  A, which capped our ability to raise our taxes when the market was strong, cuts to statutory revenue sharing, which was designed to alleviate the negative impact of Proposal A, and the significant decrease in real property values has decimated budgets across our great state for the past ten years.

In Saline, a majority of the businesses in our parks are growing. They are expanding and investing in new equipment and employees.  They are not moving away to another state because there is a personal property tax here. As a matter of fact, 43 states have personal property tax. Indiana and Ohio do not.  To be clear, there is some talk of replacement of this revenue. However, there is no reliable revenue source identified and the revenue replacement would be appropriated at the state level. Our experience has been that this method of revenue generation ultimately is allocated to state operations and disappears over time and we are left with a tax shift to local government (our citizens). Our revenues have shrunk 7% due to this situation.

Personal property tax elimination will cause  a loss of almost $1 million in revenue to the Saline school bond fund, which would cause the bond payments to be extended another 3 to 4 years. School operating revenue (foundation funds from the state) would decrease over $2 million. Would the state replace this? There would be a 9% decrease in our library operating budget.   Elimination of this revenue source will take away 5% of the county budget, and 3% of the community college budget. Additionally, it would negatively impact downtown development authorities, the AATA, and the WISD. Countywide, across all organizations that receive personal property tax revenue, the total loss is estimated to be $43 million.

The legislature cut business taxes (which I fully supported) by $1.6 billion this spring. Now they are talking about another $1.2 billion cut, and this burden again would then be carried by locals. Let me be clear, I am not opposed to this cut if there is a fully funded guaranteed replacement.  We have always worked with business to provide the best environment for their success; we know that this is imperative for a healthy community.

I urge you to be informed about how this proposal would affect your community. In Saline, we are having a town hall meeting on this subject on November 14th at 7pm at Liberty School. If this revenue is not replaced, communities across our state will be unable to provide the quality of life, infrastructure, and education system that talent and smart business wants and needs to locate and invest here.


Please Loiter

Someday you will see this sign in my downtown.

Our community is continually recreating our downtown. Since I moved here years 23 years ago the energy has changed.  The catalyst was Bill Kinley's development, Murphy's Crossing, which houses shops, Mac's restaurant, and multiple offices completed in the 90s. Since then our compact downtown has added multiple events, businesses and one failed (to-date) development.

This winter, our community will be applying to receive top level strategic support for place making through the Michigan Main Street (MSHDA) program. MSHDA, recognizing the importance of quality of life in retaining talent, contracted with the National Main Street program in 2003 to provide training and support to a few select communities in Michigan. Michigan's program (in 16 cities) has already gained national recognition even while joining over 2,000 towns in 43 states throughout the nation. To receive the Select level award, a rigorous review is made of our long term community commitment to revitalization.

Why do we want to make this commitment? Our downtown is the heart and soul of our community. The heritage of our community, as evidenced by the architecture, is here.  A vibrant downtown is a good incubator of local owned businesses and reduces sprawl. We come together to celebrate and play here. Most importantly, downtown is a symbol of our community economic health.  Follow our progress through our Route (20)12 to Main Street blog.

So…

Why would you want to loiter here today? To be at one of the best bakeries in the county, where the pastries melt in your mouth and the Saturday pretzel line is out the door. Because the parking is free. To walk to 212 Arts Center and take a pottery class. For the new restaurants in town, family-owned Mangiamo and the Downtown Diner. To watch the European style florist work her craft. For our shops, brimming with seasonal delights, or the twinkle of the holiday lights that brings a new glow to the evening. How about wine tasting or making at our local winery, Spotted Dog? Or best of all, watching the world go by while seated on the street furniture/sculpture, "Seats of our Heritage".

Our continued commitment to the future of downtown will be evidenced in multiple areas. Further development of our pocket parks, a sculpture walk, a market pavilion and an improved streetscape that enhances the pedestrian experience are at the top of the list for design  improvements.  Main Street program tools for entrepreneur support and recruitment will help us in the development of the failed downtown project, possibly bringing a boutique hotel and additional entertainment opportunities.  We are in the final stages of implementing a form-based code in our downtown, bringing flexibility and better design guidelines to our planning process.

The success of our downtown lies in the people who have found it a place to loiter on occasion. Daily, weekly, or monthly there is always a friendly face and a new discovery awaiting you.


The Train Stops Here

Growing up on the end of the commuter line into Manhattan meant that I could walk into the city. Can you imagine what that could mean to a youngster?

When an individual has mobility beyond the automobile, the world is a different place.  I must admit I took this for granted until I moved to Michigan. My career in Washington, D.C. was accessed by the Metro, as were most social events.  So it was no surprise that when I became an elected official, a primary area of interest was our transportation system.

Transportation is an economic development issue.  It is also a talent recruitment and retention issue. There are multiple aspects to an effective transportation system. The undervalued aspects in Michigan (and, to be fair, in most of the U.S.) include everything except the roadway, which is why I am delighted that the AATA has developed a 30-year, countywide transit master plan. There is still a lot of work to do.  A governance board is just beginning and a finance group is identifying funding options. The good news is we finally have an integrated plan that coordinates transportation between jurisdictions and modes, so whether you're a rider of choice (a.k.a. commuter), a senior who wants the ability to age in place and get to the doctor and grocery store, or a teenager that wants to get to where it's happening, we can be providing these options in the future.  And most importantly, this plan will be implemented in a coordinated, regional manner.

Coincidentally, transportation infrastructure funding has been a hot topic this past week. Our governor spoke to the need for additional investment in our system, in all modes.  Our state is unable to match the federal dollars that you and I pay at the pump, which means we don't get that money coming back to our system. This shortfall has been predicted for years and needs to be addressed by our state legislators now. The longer we take to find money to fix the system the more decrepit it becomes, and the cost to fix it is much higher (comparable to not fixing a roof leak in your home).

This week, Governor Snyder spoke specifically to the need for increased investment in rail, both passenger and freight.   A long term vision of improved rail will make us more competitive, with an increased ability to move goods and people.  Our border with Canada is the most heavily trafficked in the nation for freight movement, and providing additional capacity is imperative to develop future economic opportunities and position Michigan for future success.  

President Obama and the USDOT have a vision to build a high speed rail system comparable to European and Asian rail. The Jobs Act introduced by the president calls for additional investment in high speed rail, and Michigan's line between Detroit and Chicago has been designated one of 11 corridors across the U.S.  So far, the state has been able to access $350 million to purchase and stabilize the Norfolk Southern line (enabling increased speeds for the AMTRAK line).  These federal dollars assist our local efforts to initiate the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter line.  

Implementing a transit vision for southeast Michigan is complex but vital to our future.  Barriers include funding, a regional authority, and a perceived lack of need.  If we are to become a state that is a leader in this country once again, we must have infrastructure that belongs in the 21st century.

Everyone deserves to have access to education and jobs, to know they can age in place, and to have transportation choices.  Personally, I can't wait for the day my daughter and I can take the train to the DIA!

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