Pontiac revival: How a collaborative is building momentum, and funding, for inclusive local projects

For a decade, Katha Lee James and an army of volunteers have relied on hard work, and donations from an annual breakfast, to help maintain more than two dozen parks of various sizes in the city of Pontiac.

Under the leadership of James and the Friends of Pontiac Parks (FPP), the corps of volunteers has picked up trash, painted play equipment, mulched playscapes, cleaned up shorelines, and spearheaded an effort to install park identification signs at many of the Oakland County city’s recreation areas.

“When we started, Pontiac was going through financial difficulties,” says James, a retired senior quality engineer for General Motors, noting that, at the time, the city was under the oversight of a state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager. “There was very little being done in the parks. The grass was as high as a five-year-old. It was not a good time.”

The grass-roots organization hosts an annual breakfast fundraiser — described as an upscale event with settings draped in table clothes and the menu featuring shrimps and grits — to raise the $3,000 to $4,000 needed per year to finance its park efforts. A staple of volunteers from local and regional companies and organizations has helped Friends maintain acres of green space in the 20-square-mile city.

Despite its success, the current path of FPP is not a sustainable one, given the increasing public pressure on park use (especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people spending more time outdoors), and the ongoing need for routine maintenance, such as trash pickup and parking lot upkeep. Pontiac has 29 parks, 26 of them actively in use. They include neighborhood and mini-parks. 

But thanks to a $13,300 Capacity Building for Nonprofits grant from the Pontiac Funders Collaborative (PFC), FPP is developing a strategic plan to shape its future and its long-term goals. They include going after more grant money for the parks, helping the city continue to maintain and improve parks, and the hiring of a part-time employee for the group.

“We’ve been busy,” says James, who is also a minister with Pontiac’s Eastside Church of God. “But our focus has been on the work rather than the organization. With the grant, we can really move the organization forward.”

Photo: Doug Coombe.

Building upon the success of FPP is among the future goals of the PFC, a partnership of nine funding companies or organizations, including the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Flagstar Bank Foundation, and General Motors. 

Created in 2019, the collaborative’s aim is to strengthen nonprofit and public institutions and to encourage collaboration among civic and community organizations. Despite many organizations at work in the community, collaboration has often been difficult to achieve.

“We’ve come together in a new way to work alongside the residents of Pontiac,” says Freyja Harris, director of the PFC. “We’re attempting to create a space for people to talk about their shared hopes for the community without politics being a driving factor. We are fostering a more equitable space for people to share what their needs are. We intend to help organizations from the inside to fulfill their mission more effectively […] which has a trickle effect of helping the whole community. ”

The collaborative is also funding a community-driven initiative denoted the Pontiac Collective Impact Partnership that is led by Dr. Samino Scott. The Partnership has been working to develop a common agenda, align efforts, and use common measures of success to improve outcomes — outcomes that affect the quality of life, prosperity, and education in the community. Overall, the efforts of the collaborative are often done behind the scenes, involving administrative tasks like helping groups create structure and organization, as well as assistance for grants and other services, important building blocks for a nonprofit group but not visible to the public.

The collaborative’s efforts, however, also include input from residents, civic leaders, education officials, university leaders, and nonprofit executives. The PFC also strives to improve and build trust between those groups and government officials.

North Kiwanis Park's playscape was donated by the City of Pleasant Ridge, and Friends of Pontiac Parks was able to facilitate the receivership and Pontiac's funding of re-instillation. Photo: Doug Coombe.Some of the challenges to moving the community forward, Harris says, include the lack of inclusion of people involved at the grassroots levels, people with their feet on the ground, and who know what is happening in their neighborhoods. Many organizations have lacked the expertise to apply for grants to help their communities or even improve the structure of their organization to make them more sustainable and more effective. 

“One of the biggest benefits is something you can’t see but you can feel it — is the level of trust across these organizations,” Harris says, adding the collaborative is working with 40-plus groups. “We have to learn to go at the speed of trust, even if we have to slow down to keep the trust.”

So far, the PFC has awarded $2.7 million in grants to 28 organizations and continues to support Pontiac organizations through their own grant-making activities. The grants have included money to human services agencies to support COVID-19 emergency aid efforts. The collaborative also established a small business relief fund, providing $200,000 in grants to 56 Pontiac businesses with 10 or fewer employees. The businesses ranged from auto repair shops to fitness centers.

Team members of the Centro Multicultural La Familia, standing from left, Luis Mendieta, Christina Root, Margarita Ovalle, Derek DeVees and Vanda Pio, and sitting, from left, Miriam MacLean, Dr. Sonia Acosta and Dr. Eva Palma Ramirez. Photo: Doug Coombe.

The Centro Multicultural La Familia, Inc., which provides a multitude of services to the Latino and other communities, is among the nonprofits that received emergency aid as well as a $10,000 Capacity Building for Nonprofits grant. The COVID-related grant enabled the organization to buy plexiglass, masks, cleaning products, as well as computer software to maintain communication with clients.

With the Capacity Building grant, the nonprofit plans to hire a consultant to help develop a fund-raising program “to help us with sustainability,” says Dr. Sonia Acosta, president and CEO of Centro Multicultural La Familia, Inc. The grant also will assist the organization with legal and other issues associated with taking over a Pontiac school as a future community center.

“These are things we didn’t have the expertise to do,” says Acosta, who has been associated with the program since 1992. “The building was donated to us but we needed some legal advice and some assistance in putting a plan together to make the (community center) happen.”

One of the goals of the community center is to strengthen relationships between the city’s black and brown communities. The goal is to offer recreational activities, create a library with bilingual books, house other nonprofit groups, and offer entrepreneurial services to help immigrants to establish businesses.

Looking ahead into its third year, the collaborative is focusing on workforce development, working with key players and grassroots organizations, to help people get back to work, build work skills or find work and find jobs in their hometown. 

Harris says the collaborative is also looking inward, evaluating how its overall program and interaction with various groups is working. Funding will continue as long as the partner remains interested — or others join the effort. 

At Argyle Park, everything in the park except swings and monkey bars needed replacing, including a new toddler playscape, riders, benches, and table. Photo: Doug Coombe.

And, working with FPP and others, the collaborative is looking to find grants to improve parks for community use and improve safety. Currently, the city does not have a master plan for the parks, and the collaborative wants to help in that endeavor.

“We’re looking for ways to leverage what is already happening,” Harris says.

While the collaborative’s efforts lie mostly invisible to the residents of Pontiac, there’s no doubt for James the community is the winner.

“It’s time for us to bring in some paid people who can pick up some of the pieces and move forward,” says James, who plans to remain a volunteer. 

Pontiac, she adds, deserves it.

“The goal for our parks is not too different from surrounding communities. We should not be any different from Auburn Hills or Waterford,” she says. “Our standards should be the same and we should have the same kind of amenities. Our kids deserve better and we need to give them better.”

Katha Lee James wants to see Pontiac spaces receive the same attention as in surrounding cities. Photo: Doug Coombe.
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