Sterling Heights

A vision of inclusivity: How Sterling Heights' Vision 2030 engaged residents, and a look to 2040

Last week, contributing writer Blake Woodruff brought us the story of how Sterling Heights’ Vision 2030 investment has led to a flourishing post-recession city, which we highly recommend. Here's part two of what makes Sterling Heights' success so special (Hint: It's the people), and what Vision 2040 might look like in the years to come.
Community is at the heart of the Vision 2030 plan. Not only was the city investing in its residents, it worked hard through social media and public campaigns to have residents join in on the commitment to excellence. The Vision 2030 plan led to the creation of numerous community groups such as the African-American Coalition, Ethnic Community Committee, and commUnity Alliance

These groups are independent partners to the city. They help the city organize and plan events and help bring residents’ voices to council meetings. This integrated form of engagement is paying off for the city. Residents ranked the value of city services per tax value 22 percent higher than regional and national averages. In 2020, Sterling Heights was ranked the safest big city in the entire state.

“[Vision 2023] really transformed the city,” says resident Benjamin Orjada. “There are a lot of options here.”

Orjada has lived in Sterling Heights for most of his life. "We came here when I was two. I obviously didn't have much say in the matter, but I love it here.”

Orjada was diagnosed with a form of autism in his youth. When asked if he would have had the same positive experience elsewhere, Orjada says, "I can't really talk about everywhere, but Sterling Heights is special. I definitely had a lot of support. It was probably the most optimal outcome I could have had. It really is a safe and inclusive city."

Orjada has become involved in the city and is returning that investment it once made for him. He is now one of the members of the city’s Citizen Advisory Committee. 

Orjada says, “The stereotype is that people like me have a hard time with socialization. I love that a big part of my job is talking to people. I’m glad I can do that for my city.”

Cindy Bjornson has lived in Sterling Heights for 25 years. As a former teacher she watched the generations grow and change. 

"It was a very different city 20 years ago," Bjornson says. 

Sterling Heights Mayor and City Council, Sterling Heights Administration, members of the Sterling Heights CommUNITY Alliance and members of Macomb County Pride raise the Pride flag at Sterling Heights City Hall for Pride month in June 2022. (Photo courtesy of Sterling Heights)As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Bjornson says the city had initially struggled to accept all its residents. After the start of the Vision 2030 plan things began to change. 

"We were one of the first cities in the country to provide protections for gay and transgender people in our city charter. This was before the state did it," Bjornson says. "The moment they flew the Pride Flag at city hall, that meant so much to me and others. I really felt like I belonged then."

Diversity and inclusion became a leading principal as the Vision 2030 plan rolled out. 

“We know that our city is diverse and that’s one of our strengths. Even when it comes to hiring, we try to cast a wide net and meet people where they are. When everyone is involved a city just works better,” says City Manager Mark Vanderpool.

It’s one of the reasons that when Kozeta Elzhenni immigrated from Albania to the United States, she chose to make Sterling Heights her home.

"I came to Sterling Heights because it was so inclusive," Elzhenni says. “I love Sterling Heights. This is the place I decided to raise my kids. As a Muslim, it was wonderful to see such a big community here.”

Kozeta Elzhenni is chairperson of the Sterling Heights Ethnic Community Committee. (Photo: Joe Powers Insitu Photography)

Elzhenni says the community's rich range of cultural events and the newly constructed mosque in 2020 are reasons she stays in the city. 

“I know some communities have struggled to accept muslims after 2001. But one of the things I like here is that they make an effort. During Ramadan, my childrens’ school had a unit on it. It made me very happy to see kids have an opportunity to learn about different cultures, including my own.”

A vision for the future

As the Vision 2030 plan nears its end, the city is already in the process of forging a new plan for 2040. This unique approach has faced some common obstacles.

The first challenge listed in the Vision 2030 plan is an aging population. It's estimated that the city will have 25 percent of its population above the age of 65 within the next 10 to 15 years. This could lead to population loss, as only 62 percent of residents surveyed said the city was a desirable place to retire in. 

Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool. (Photo: Joe Powers Insitu Photography)“We’re aware of the natural maturation of our population. That’s why we’re working hard to create more jobs and community destinations to attract younger residents. We also want to make sure there is enough support for our aging residents,” Vanderpool says.

Property values are hot, which further demonstrates the success of the Vision 2030 plan – but it’s also pricing out younger people.

"I just want to live in my own city," Orjada says. “It’s the one thing that might force me to leave. I love it here. My career is here and my support network is (here), but I really want a place of my own.”

This young population is needed to power the workforce and even engage in elder care. A report from the US Congress Joint Economic Committee rated Michigan as the seventh highest state experiencing brain drain in the country.

The Sterling Heights Skate Park opened in November of 2017 — the first cornerstone amenity that was completed on the Recreating Recreation timeline. (Photo: Steve Koss)

As the city seeks more diversity, it still faces the same challenges as others in the region. According to the 2020 US Census, the city’s population is 82 percent White. Warren has a White population of 63 percent and Fraser is at 87 percent. Sterling Heights’ Black population is 6 percent and, for comparison, Warren’s population is 20 percent. The city’s Asian population is 7.7 percent and its Hispanic/Latino population is 2.5 percent.

Currently, the US Census does not count Arab as a separate race – they are considered White. But data from NeighborhoodScout lists the city’s Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syrian population at 11 percent, the third highest ethnic group in the city.

Creating a place to call home

Twenty-eight percent of Sterling Heights’ population is foreign born. The city has done a great job integrating and supporting these diverse cultures but it faced one of its biggest challenges in 2015 with the development of a new mosque and community center at 15 Mile and Mound roads.

Members of the city’s non-Muslim community expressed displeasure for the project. Elzhenni recalls how difficult it was to get the project completed.

"There are always some people who won't be happy about the things we do. They exist but I feel like they are just a small part of the community," Elzhenni says. “But it took a lot of effort to complete the mosque.”

The city worked with the entire community to resolve issues on both sides, and they broke ground on the mosque in 2020. Elzhenni says the experience did affect the way she felt about the city, but in the end is generally happy with everything they are doing.

As many neighboring communities are declining in myriad ways, the city has a chance to push ahead again in developing Vision 2040. With both the leadership and residents committed to excellence, Vision 2040 has the potential to outperform Vision 2030. 

“Sterling Heights is a fighter,” Vanderpool says.

Performers take the stage at the 2023 Sterling Heights Cultural Exchange. (Photo: David Lewinski)

Bjornson, Elzhenni, and Orjada all agree that the city is unique in its level of communication between residents and local governments. They say that’s why people ultimately stay in the city.

“This is my home. I feel accepted here and I know I can make an impact,”  Bjornson says. “That means the world to me.”

It’s a sentiment not lost on city officials.

“No one is ever going to want to live in a city they’re not truly a part of. That’s our mission here,” Vanderpool says, “That's what every city employee’s job is about – creating a place to call home.”

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