Blog: Heather Carmona

Heather Carmona is Executive Director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association (WA3), an economic and community development organization working with the 11 communities along Woodward from Detroit to Pontiac. Heather oversees a 30+ member Board of Directors representative of elected officials in each Woodward community, key Woodward business leaders, MDOT, Oakland and Wayne counties. The WA3’s mission is to enhance and improve the visual, economic, functional and historic significance of Woodward Avenue.  

In 2004, Heather led the WA3’s expansion into Wayne County to include the City of Detroit and Highland Park and facilitated the WA3’s efforts to obtain the National Scenic Byway designation for Woodward, an exclusive designation attributed to only 126 roadways nationwide and which has obtained close to $4 million for physical improvements along Woodward Avenue*.  

She is charged with continuing to lead an aggressive regional economic development and tourism strategy to promote Woodward as one of America’s Byways® which involves seeking partnerships and innovative opportunities to position the designation for the economic transformation of our region. 

Heather is a life-long Detroiter, Wayne State University alumni, Leadership Detroit graduate and an active volunteer with many civic and nonprofit organizations. In her spare time she enjoys spending time at her century old farmhouse in northern Michigan which helps fuel her other passion: organics. She’s also founder of Pure, an organic product consulting and consumer advocacy company.

Current efforts include improving visitor mobility and pedestrian function, enhancing business development activities, assisting various district groups and stakeholders with physical improvements to collectively achieve the vision for Woodward, historic preservation activities and interpretive cultural tourism projects, including the Woodward Tribute Program, an innovative public art program to erect a series of 30 ft. glass, concrete and solar powered 'totems' along Woodward to tell the Byway story to the world. 


Heather Carmona - Most Recent Posts:

Post 5: The Organic Revolution

There’s evidence that my generation, those of us in 30-45 will outlive our children. We will outlive our children. Children are being born predisposed to disease at higher rates than just 10 years ago. Childhood obesity and cancer rates are soaring. I’m convinced it’s because of the toxic ingredients in food and the consumption of non-foods. If that isn’t scary I don’t know what is. 

I became interested in organics when my sister-in-law, a young vibrant 26-year-old was dying from a genetic disease. She knew she didn’t have much longer to live. One night when visiting her in the hospital, I picked up a magazine. There was an article about the growing number of chemicals in food and topical products and how many of these chemicals are now linked to cancer, infertility, ADD and other ‘common’ diseases.  I remember being very moved. Here was a young woman, knowing whatever she did to her body at that time wasn’t going to make much difference, but was still concerned about what she put in it and her continual drive to learn. She fueled my interest and passion for knowledge about the world of organics. 

Michael Pollan’s recent book, In Defense of Food explores how and where our food system has gone very wrong. The demand for more food ‘like’ products is driving the wedge between real food and government policies in the interest of profit over purity. 

Science has provided many advances. But the science of food engineering is dangerous. Genetically modified food is the beginning of a culture in which our food won’t come from the ground or a tree, but a test tube. Scary. Because of  government subsidies, the push to develop the latest and greatest low-fat snack crackers is of course driven by profit. Something Pollan calls ‘nutritional inflation’. 

I was excited to see last weeks’ Crain’s front page article on a growing organic business and editorial on the urban garden movement in Detroit. Attendance at local farmer’s markets is increasing, membership in CSA’s (community supported agriculture) is increasing. Organic and raw food classes at the Detroit Evolution Laboratory are popular.   

Michigan is in the throws of trying to diversify the economy in the technology sector, alternative energies and bio fuels, creating jobs and opportunities and a shift in our way of thinking and living. Organic agriculture needs to be part of the equation and Michigan has wonderful resources to position itself as more people demand locally and organically grown food. Eco’pure’neurs are emerging with this shift and will lead the way creating environmental and community-based, sustainable, healthy & ethical businesses. 

It’s interesting how we’re so worried about gas prices, but not so worried about the world’s food shortage. The two are interchangeably linked. It’s not getting better with the world’s food demands increasing.  China and India consume 1,000 acres of farmable land every day to build new automotive plants. Many economics believe that in the next 10 years, China will see a famine. 

I’m often asked about the price and value of organics. Organic is not a trend, it’s a lifestyle and a realignment of priorities. Ask anyone whether they’d rather eat an apple that’s grown with or without pesticides. It’s an obvious choice, but for many it comes down to cost and perceived value.  It’s the ‘pay it forward’ principle.  

Now, I don’t mean to sound elitist or snooty. I do eat non-organic food or I’d starve in Michigan and I realize that there are many people, many here in our own town that cannot afford a simple meal yet alone buy organic. And, that is part of the problem. That’s where education comes in helping to drive demand and drive down price.  

For more information visit the Organic Consumers Association

Post 3: Can you still drive an SUV and be ‘green’?

We all have guilty pleasures and mine, unfortunately is my SUV. Although, my job requires me to lug stuff around and I like road trips, I don’t have a family of 10 or shop at Costco and buy 50 rolls of toilet paper, so technically I don't need the cargo space.

However, when faced with a new car purchase three years ago, I made my choice based on a lifestyle of safety and convenience while I’m one of those crazy people that still buys a car, then keeps it until the floor drops out. 

My concept of safety and convenience has changed dramatically the past three years. Since my SUV purchase it now translates into making more sustainable choices, and more importantly being conscious everyday of the products I buy and taking steps to eliminate, reduce or balance them with other actions. 

I recently had lunch with a city councilman in one of Woodward’s smaller communities. He’s fortunate to work mainly from home. I couldn’t help but laugh when shared a recent experience carrying a 40lb. bag of dog food home from a local pet store – on his scooter! Now that literally takes balance!  Now, he admitted he may not do it too frequently, but the point is he made a conscious effort. We discussed the unpopularity of driving an SUV these days, mentioning how it’s still more economical and responsible to drive an SUV a shorter distance, than a smaller vehicle a longer distance.

This personal evolution is part of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies businesses and corporations are clamoring to develop. Now, it’s not just good enough to support their local community and demonstrate sound corporate citizenship, but the name of the game is influencing and measuring employee behavior and buying habits and the impact on the greater good resulting in increased corporate culture and productivity. 

I find this concept fascinating but still trying to figure out who’s legit and producing measurable results or just jumping into the 'green' game for good PR.  

A recent article on mentioned the cynicism surrounding many CSR and green efforts citing whether or not small behavioral changes really make an impactful difference towards a more sustainable future.

I beg to differ. Many of the most important political and social changes of our time have come from one or a series of small actions resulting in a groundswell or major movement towards change. Maybe it’s just the idealist in me.

So, until I put a "for sale" sign on my SUV (or the floor falls out), I can continue down the path of conscious change. And, be thankful I live in one of the ‘most fuel efficient neighborhoods in metro Detroit’

Post 4: Enjoying the Ride

I thought I’d try it. I’ve never done it before. Not in15 years at least. Ride my bike to work. So I did it one morning last week. I have a simple bike. The kind of you peddle backwards, you stop. No fancy brand, no fancy gears, tires or bells and whistles (actually I do have a bell). It was harder than I thought.

I admire people who ride on a regular basis. We’ve all seen them. The diehards. Peddling away rain or shine avoiding stares, glares and beeps from passing motorists.

7 miles that’s all it was. 3.5 miles each way. It took me 40 minutes. I rode the sidewalks doing my best to avoid construction, cracks, bumps, tree branches, water and cars (especially cars approaching intersections with no knowledge a pedestrian or cyclist possibly coming from the opposite direction). I noted areas where there were no approaches or areas in desperate need or repair.

The ride helped me slow down – literally and enjoy the ride and be aware of everything around me. The ride helped be reflect: how many times have I, as a motorist, crossed over a sidewalk with my car or come to the end of a block and look for oncoming traffic and haven’t seen someone walking or riding on the sidewalk? How many times have I been completely unconscious of things around me, whether it’s work or my personal life. Plenty of times. 

I learned how peaceful and beautiful an early summer morning is. I learned I made the choice to do ride of bike, many don’t have the choice. I will do it again. 

Efforts are underway to make Woodward Avenue more accessible and pedestrian friendly. Communities will soon be asked to adopt a plan outlining various criteria and guidelines for improving crosswalks. Communities that follow the plan and have ready projects will likely qualify for design and engineering funding through National Scenic Byway dollars. Some already have already qualified like the City of Berkley and UCCA. Many other ideas and efforts are encouraged, many of which Mark Nickita addressed in his previous blog posts, but is worth reading again if you haven’t already.  All in an effort to enhance pedestrian and non-motorized activity and quality of life. 

So, will I choose to ride my bike again especially on days when I have to dress for meetings, or it rains? Probably not. Because I know I don’t have to.  I’m sure there are many people who ride that don’t need to either. But, some people don’t have the choice.

Post No 2: Reinventing Quality of Life

magazine recently cited Woodward Avenue as one America’s "most fuel efficient neighborhoods". If I could rewrite the headline I’d call it "Woodward Avenue communities enhance quality of life".  

Five years ago many Woodward communities wouldn’t dare mention the word ‘transit’. Now it’s part of regular dialogues. 

Three years ago, communities didn’t know what the acronym TOD meant. Now, three Woodward communities – Huntington Woods, Pontiac and Ferndale – have included specific language in their master plans encouraging Transit Oriented Development and State Rep. Marie Donigan is proposing legislation to offer incentives to developers and communities as a tool for economic development.  

Two years ago, a community garden was considered an interim use for an underutilized parcel of land. Now communities are putting urban gardens into land use plans as viable, livable, desirable and profitable community development options.   

Two years ago, crosswalks were an afterthought in many planning and physical improvements. Now communities are realizing and residents are demanding crosswalks in areas once void of pedestrian activity. 

Dan Barden, a well-known community planner and founder of Walkable Communities Inc. in his 12 years of work advocating for walkable communities, Silicon Valley as an example, that most people don’t live near their work. They have high levels of income, education and you would think high standard of living, but many Silicon Valley employees have horrendous commutes and work in tech parks and ultimately studies have shown they’re less happy. Not something the business attractions folks are promoting I’m sure. 

Generally, quality of life is measured in terms of access to the things we value most - jobs, safe streets, affordable transportation and housing, and quality health care, schools, parks, etc. All of these things are challenging us to assess and helping shape different attitudes about what community and quality of life means.

I hope we can all keep and pick up pace.

Post No 1: Time for a regional public arts policy

"What the heck are those things?" I thought as the tour guide drove past a series of sculptures along the bay, prompting myself and several others to turn our heads to get another glimpse. Whatever they were, they were very cool. 

I learned later, those "things" comprise the Urban Trees Art Project, a series of thirty, 15 foot 'trees' constructed of metal, glass and concrete and other materials along the bay near the Port of San Diego temporarily installed in 2003 by the San Diego Public Arts Commission.

Interestingly, the project’s success – and controversy -- attracting national and international attention – prompted three additional phases of installations and continues to grow five years later. Why when other public art and cultural projects failed? Because they’re uniquely San Diego. Each has a theme and tells a story inherent to the city and region’s character. The goal is to "help create memorable spaces for businesses, residents and tourists."

That’s pretty simple.

The trees got me thinking. What is southeast Michigan’s public art policy and goals? There are plenty of organizations and efforts addressing the arts, culture and the creative sector. We have the Spirit of Detroit – celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this fall, the Joe Louis Fist, Ferndale's Crows Nest and hundreds of other public art features, but do they attract people from afar? I’m not sure. What do people think of them? I’m not sure. 

For years, there’s been much talk about building or seeking another major attraction in southeast Michigan – a soccer facility, an aquarium, a horse racing track and many others – projects that will give us a much needed economic boost, but what makes these projects different?  

Maybe we don’t need another race track, water park, or lifestyle mall, which for many visitors is frankly….boring. Projects devoid of our region’s unique character yell 'any city USA'. 

By the way, since inception the Urban Trees project has generated $$$$$ 

Southeast Michigan needs a regional public art policy. Organizations like the CVB, WA3, Detroit Renaissance, Cultural Alliance and others could help shape it and provide a broader perspective and guidance on large, public and privately funded projects.

For example, communities along Woodward are considering the development and installation of a series of 30’ sculptures, called Woodward Tributes. The first Tribute will be erected this September, with future Tributes being considered in Detroit and other communities.

However, the process will most likely fall to individual communities for their acceptance and approval. Not surprising considering, again local control is king in southeast Michigan. And while many communities have individual arts commissions, working through a regional council would also enhance funding opportunities, public and private, and enliven and challenge new ideas.  

Then when people come to southeast Michigan and say ‘"did you see those things?" we know it’s with a sense of awe and interest that will prompt them to return and tell their friends.