Sterling Heights resident Amber Brown says the revamped Dodge Park is an excellent use of her tax dollar. Visiting the park with her young son, she explains that the recent changes to parks around the city have brought a certain pride to the community.
“It’s a huge improvement, I think it’s going to bring more residents in,” she says.
Amanda Brown and her son visit the re-opened Dodge Park.
Sterling Heights’ recent focus on green spaces is part of an intentional citywide drive to revitalize outdoor recreation assets in the traditional manufacturing city, with a goal of enhancing the quality of life for its residents. The city had nearly 63,600 people in the labor force in the most recent economic review and Senior Economic Development Advisor Luke Bonner says industry and lifestyle go hand-in-hand.
"One supports the other," Bonner says. "I don't think you can have such a strong industrial base in a community, as Sterling Heights has, without actually being a strong community."
City Manager Mark Vanderpool says balancing the city’s traditionally manufacturing history with natural assets is an important part of Sterling Heights’ Visioning 2030 Plan. While manufacturing and commercial tax make up more than 30 percent of the Sterling Heights’ overall tax base, Vanderpool says the city recognizes that business leaders continue to invest in communities that have a strong commitment to quality-of-life services.
“A good housing stock supplemented with ample recreational amenities increases property values overall, decreases crime and provides a desirable and vibrant place for employees to live and work,” he says.
Bonner adds that the strong tax base, in turn, means that more revenue can be invested in community infrastructure, such as schools and parks, and that strong neighborhoods then attract further businesses and industry. "They do tie into each other."
Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool.
Balancing recreation development along with a solid manufacturing reputation is also a way to shape the city’s identity, says Mayor Michael C. Taylor.
“Sterling Heights, I don’t think, has a clear identity--even in Macomb County,” he says. “People throughout the state are familiar with the name Sterling Heights, but they don’t really know what it is.”
That's something City Council is hoping to change.
“We undertook a plan to really emphasize [a good lifestyle],” says Taylor. “To improve the parks that we have, and show our residents and people outside of Sterling Heights and Macomb County that this is a destination that you want to come to if you want to get out and go on a trail, bike, hike in nature, take a family to a park, enjoy a hot summer day, take in a free concert or enjoy our beautiful Farmers Market.”
A large part of the juggling act between work and play is thanks to a three-year, $45 million “Recreating Recreation” project, designed to bring new energy to parks and active community facilities in the area. Up until now, Park and Recreation Director Kyle Langlois would have described the parks system in Sterling Heights as merely “adequate”.
“Adequate is no longer the acceptable standard,” he says. “Our residents deserve better, they deserve top-of-the-line, they deserve attractive spaces.”
Sterling Heights Parks and Recreation Director Kyle Langlois.
The project involves new and updated recreational facilities, such as a new community center, splash pad, ice rink, farmers market pavilion, amphitheater, sand volleyball courts, and a mini-soccer field. Already ticked off the list is a new skate park and the re-opened Dodge Park. The park has been a hit since reopening in June, with an estimated 12,000 - 15,000 visitors showing up on the official open day alone.
“We knew we had something special with Dodge Park,” says Langlois, “but I don’t think we had ever fully tapped into the potential of what it could be.”
The new splash pad at Dodge Park in Sterling Heights.
Not everyone was as sanguine about the changes before they happened. “People were concerned that we were going to chop down every tree in the park and it was going to be a barren activity land,” says Langlois. If there were doubts, they seem to have been laid to rest. “The park has been flooded with people since we opened it.”
Vanderpool says the crowds have won over even the more hesitant residents.
“An elderly couple watching music in the park commented to me that they were apprehensive voting for the Recreating Recreation millage,” he says, “But they said they were so thankful they did, seeing first hand all the people taking advantage of the new park.”
Langlois says some of the improvements are simply building on what Sterling Heights already has, and re-invigorating the status-quo. For example, he discovered a “fairly drab” color palette in the park system (green and brown) and says because it blended in it didn’t draw visitors attention. He believes infusing color and different designs will bring a new look and make local parks more inviting. It seems to be paying off.
“People are embracing it,” he says. “We can’t even finish the parks before people are in using the amenities.”
One of the challenges to projects like Recreating Recreation is the maintenance that comes afterward.
“We built a great park system decades ago but then kind of let it lie,” says Langlois. It’s not something he wants to see happen again. “The hard part is just beginning - keeping everything to this level.”
Another issue the city faces is making sure the green fever reaches all residents, not just visitors of Dodge Park. Providing recreational outreach opportunities for people in their neighborhoods isn’t something that the city has seen a lot of previously, and marketing the parks is one of the areas the city wants to work on.
“This is something that we are really going to be hitting - bringing recreation choices to the residents right in their backyard,” says Langlois.
Vanderpool agrees that this approach is important. “I think we struck the right balance by spreading the improvements across the entire community,” he says. “Every neighborhood will benefit from all 26 parks being upgraded.”
Dodge Park has had major update and improvements.
While Langlois admits the goal to finish all the Recreating Recreation projects by the end of 2019 might be ambitious, he hopes that most will be completed by then. Now that Dodge Park is open, the focus is on renovating four neighborhood parks, working on Delia Park, an indoor bocce ball court, and the construction of the new community center. Bids will go out early next year to complete the rest of the neighborhood parks.
It may seem like a lot of work for just three years, but Langlois says it was crucial to take action quickly.
“I think the city needed it,” he says. “Things were deteriorating, and the more we put things off the more expensive it was going to be.”
The cost of the Recreating Recreation projects to the average Sterling Heights homeowner is $62.96 per year for 20 years, but officials believe it’s worth it. “The improvements have created a positive vibe and a new feeling of optimism for a community that is on the rise,” says Vanderpool. If the reaction from residents like Brown are anything to go by, this is certainly the case.
“My personal challenge,” says Langlois, “Is to get to the point where everyone complains that the parks are too busy.”