The challenge of all things: A Q&A with Ypsilanti mayor Amanda Edmonds

Six months into her term as Ypsilanti's new mayor, Amanda Edmonds' enthusiasm for rejuvenating the city seems dauntless. Edmonds, previously best known for founding Ypsi-based nonprofit Growing Hope, won the mayor's office in November with a whopping 97 percent of the vote. Edmonds' sparse office at Ypsilanti City Hall prominently features a picture of Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope, whom Edmonds calls her "hero," and it's hard not to draw parallels between the positive, energetic, hands-on Edmonds and her TV role model. Concentrate sat down with Edmonds to discuss the realities of her new job, the challenges facing Ypsi and differing ideas on how to address them.   

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You're a few months in now. What are your first impressions of the job?

As I like to say, it is all the things. It is rewarding and it is challenging and it is frustrating and it is fun and it is painful and it is all the things at once.

Off the bat, is there a big change you were excited to make but found that it was more of a challenge than you expected?

I think what's interesting–and it's not bad, it's just challenging–is some of the ways I hope the city and EMU can deepen some of their relationships. We're very grateful for EMU's contribution to the local economy overall, but their ability to amplify that is tremendous. This means, however, not doing business as usual around things like procurement, who has and doesn't have contracts on campus, and if they're local or not local. That can ruffle some feathers to ask [an institution] to reconsider some policies that are, to me, no-brainers and are low-hanging fruit.

For instance, the local restaurant community has virtually no access to campus. They can't cater on campus, weren't given the opportunity to be part of the student center food court options. There's not some mean person at the university saying, "No, we hate that kind of thing." There are just systems in place with any larger institution and it takes a while to unpack where and how something is practice versus policy, where and how you make the change, and who you need to get on board. [Outgoing EMU president] Sue Martin's been a good community partner in general, but we need to make sure the next university president understands that.

What do you see as Ypsi's biggest challenges at this point?

Well, money is a big thing. Our fiscal concerns are real and our strategy around that is around economic development. I think we're in a really exciting time. I think we've really turned a corner post-recession. The energy around this community is palpable.

I'd say another key challenge is schools. We've got to figure out some big solutions. I think there's a lot of really good things happening in our school district but it is really challenged by the proportion of kids in poverty in the district. That's hard. The proportion of kids in poverty in our district is not the same as the proportion of kids in poverty in our community. So we need to have a school system the whole community wants to go to and chooses to go to. 

How do we create a more appealing school district?

We need a county-wide commitment to good public education options that actually reach every part of the county. I'm not just trying to play the blame game, but the Ann Arbor schools keep advertising school of choice slots. That's part of their budget model, to open up more school of choice slots to area kids. And that just takes kids from those other districts and drains the money and drains the resources. It doesn't help. It's just furthering disparities. Whether it's looking at something that's hard to imagine, like consolidating districts for the county, or exploring an Ypsilanti Promise Program, which I'm really excited about. I think we have to do something that's a game-changer.

You reference the importance of economic development. What are some of the main investors you think Ypsilanti could attract that haven't really been tapped?

To me economic development has a couple different arms, and one of the main ones that I think we tend to skip over is: Let's start with the businesses that we have. Who wants to expand? How do we help those businesses around here grow, and grow in this space? 

In terms of other investors, we want investors who understand what we outlined in our master plan. The three sectors called out in our master plan as potential growth sectors were the arts, makers and small manufacturing; local food; and sustainability and green energy. How can we look at the opportunities to build those sectors, particularly with small entrepreneurism, through private-public partnerships? And in ways where any one of those individuals or groups doesn't have the capacity to [already] do? I'm trying to be a connector and help identify those opportunities.

Does being next door to Ann Arbor make it challenging to bring in new investment?

We have different community strengths and we have different community challenges. Ann Arbor has a challenge with affordability and we don't. But Ann Arbor has the strength of bigger scale. Ours is smaller. I think it's different and I think our key is to figure out how we build off of that. I don't think we're usually competing for development with Ann Arbor, because a developer is bringing a different product here than they are there. My question is really, "Where do we want Ypsi to go? What's our aspiration?" And there's not a consensus among the citizenry I represent.

How would you describe the main camps the citizenry breaks into on that point?

I don't know if it's as clear as "camps." I'll say where my vision sits on it is based on building up local- and regional-owned businesses. Starbucks is not a sign of success. [interviewer chuckles]  No, really. That's the actual debate I've had with some people, even some people who are local business owners here say, "No, Starbucks would be the sign because that would bring the attention. That would bring other businesses to my business." I think that illustrates it perfectly, whether that's a sign of success or a marker of other things to come.

You talked a lot about building regional partnerships in your campaign. What are the most crucial partnerships Ypsi already has, and which need to be created?

Honestly, that's been one of the most satisfying things [about the job] because that's been the easiest and at times the fastest [to achieve]. Most people weren't strangers to me so I feel like we hit the ground running. The [Ypsilanti] township officials and I talk about the things we can do together. We're both in the process of becoming the first "Bee City USA" in the state around the same time. That's just a little thing, but it does mean something when you get to do fun things like that together.

I'm also getting together with the other chief elected officers, in particular around ReImagine Washtenaw and around this housing equity study. I'm around the table with those folks very frequently. Regionally, I'm on a task force for SEMCOG focused on access to core services, and looking at regional transportation long-term planning around some key equity and access issues. I feel a really great collaborative environment. 

If you were to pick three top concrete changes you want to see before the end of your term, what would they be?

I would love to see Water Street further developed. I would love to see us having tackled some of the commercial vacancies, some of the known problem properties. And I would like to see further development around support for our natural assets, like our parks and river. There's a lot of will right now in terms of using those as selling points, but we need to figure out how to better support development. And this isn't a concrete change per se, but I would like to see a stronger independent local business community. We have a strong one now but I want to continue to see that get even stronger.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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