The future of Hazel Park: How a resilient, blue-collar city is reinventing itself

Jeff Campbell is not your typical city administrator. After graduating in 2005 with a law degree from Wayne State University and practicing for five years, the Flint native went back to school again, this time for an urban planning degree. In 2012, he took an internship at the city of Hazel Park. Four months later, he was promoted to planning director. Campbell now serves as assistant city manager for one of the most financially challenged suburbs in the state.
And judging by the animated way he talks about the city, it's clear he loves every minute of it.
"We are a resilient, blue-collar town," says Campbell. "People here love the place they live and care about each other."
Campbell's tenure with the city has been all about finding ways to keep a city that sits uncomfortably close to the cliff of financial disaster afloat and moving forward.
For decades, Hazel Park thrived as stable, middle-class enclave. Located in the southeastern corner of Oakland County, the town is a study in the history and evolution of the urban fabric of metropolitan Detroit.
Working-class origins
Named after the hazelnut bushes that once dotted its landscape, the area now known as Hazel Park was settled in the 1820s as a farming community with a one-room schoolhouse. Henry Ford's Highland Park plant, launched in 1914, drove the first wave of development during the 1920s and 1930s, with Hazel Park evolving into a bedroom community for auto workers before it officially incorporated in 1941. The post-World War II housing boom launched a second wave of development, and the 2.8-square-mile city was mostly built out by the 1960s.
The Elias Brothers restaurant chain got its start in Hazel Park in 1942, and was franchised as a Big Boy in 1952. One of the brothers, Louis Elias, served as mayor from 1953 to 1961. The city's best known landmark, the Hazel Park Raceway, opened in 1949 on a 140-acre parcel, offering blue-collar workers from across the region an escape for a night out of wagering. The track continues to be an important attraction and source of revenue for the city today.
In 1966, I-75 was constructed, slicing right through the middle of the city, followed by the junction with I-696 in 1979. The freeways created opportunities and challenges for the city; quick access to them made Hazel Park a desirable location for workers, but their construction required the demolition of homes and business districts and resulted in issues with noise and pollution and a physically divided city.
Fiscal challenges
Hazel Park plugged along as a stable middle-class town until the economic downturn of 2008, when the bottom fell out of the city's finances. The same toxic municipal financial mix that has impacted so many of Michigan's older inner-ring suburbs in the last decade hit Hazel Park hard: declining state revenue sharing, capped property taxes as a result of 1994's Proposal A, and declining property values after the financial crisis. All of this combined to put a major squeeze on city finances. On top of that, revenue from the Hazel Park Raceway, which accounts for a significant share of the city's land mass and property tax revenue, has also been on the decline.
Despite these challenges, creativity and a can-do attitude have kept the city of 16,615 above water, says Campbell.
"Basically there have been very few cuts and the city manager and the rest of us are very, very good at squeezing every penny very tightly," he says. "We do an amazing job to stay afloat."
The city was able to circumvent the property tax cap imposed by Proposal A last year to fund its fire service, successfully passing a millage increase through a special assessment program in cooperation with the city of Eastpointe. The two cities, which are not contiguous, now operate under a common taxing authority. The dedicated revenue frees up general fund money that the city can now put toward other services, like police, trash, and economic development.
If the millage had not been approved, says Campbell, the city may well have headed into emergency management.
"It's just a legal workaround, basically, and we advertise it as such," he says. "It's just a revenue generator. By freeing up that money from the general fund for fire, it gave us more money for other things. It doesn't make us flush; we still barely stay even."
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Despite Hazel Park's challenges, Campbell says the city is poised for a renaissance.
Two of Hazel Park's greatest assets are affordable housing and stable neighborhoods. So in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, Campbell spearheaded a city-based nonprofit dedicated to buying up, rehabbing, and selling tax-foreclosed homes.
"In 2008 and 2009, we had maybe 20-some-odd tax foreclosures," says Campbell. "It jumped up to about 130 during the crisis. So basically what I did was devise a 501(c)3 that acquires tax delinquent properties obtained by the city for the public purpose of economic development, rehab them, and sell them to owner-occupants."
So far, the nonprofit has acquired approximately 30 homes and has finished rehabbing about a dozen, with two sold and another four under a purchase agreement, according to Campbell.
"The idea is to not only do rehab, but also to manage vacant lots," he says. "We try to get neighbors to purchase them in a side lot program, but we also want to build on some of the larger lots because that is where we can increase our tax base. We're starting to see the fruits of our labors. So far, it's a moderate success, but it has a potential to be huge for the city."
The city currently owns approximately 80 vacant lots.
A major goal is getting long-term residents into the city. Campbell sees attracting millennial buyers looking for an affordable place to set down roots as key to the city's future. The two tax-foreclosed properties were sold to buyers in their twenties, according to Campbell.
Creating a downtown along John R between Woodward Heights and the Meyers Avenue is also in the city's plans.
"Making John R a sort of destination street -- basically between 9 1/2 and 8 1/2 mile roads -- is really the goal," says Campbell. "Eventually, the hope is to have a road diet. If it makes sense, [we can] get John R down to three lanes or two lanes and add in more biking [infrastructure]."
A few exciting new developments on the horizon in Hazel Park will help the city achieve this goal.
"Bolyard Lumber, which was a long-serving business here that had been vacant for ten years, was recently purchased and fixed up. A microbrewery will be going in there," says Campbell. The new brewery will be located on John R just south of 10 Mile.
Cranbrook Art Institute graduate and furniture maker Brian DuBois recently purchased a 2,700-square-foot building at 21836 John R that he is planning on rehabbing into a studio/showcase for his business.
DuBois says affordability was a major factor in his decision to locate in Hazel Park.
"I'm really hoping to develop that one-block area into a little artist hub," he says. "I want to try to incorporate more of an artist space/design community that's more community-based, as opposed to just you locked in your studio. I want to have a little coffee shop and a little artist rental space program where everybody learns from each other."
One of the most exciting developments coming to Hazel Park is Mabel Gray, a 40-seat farm-to-table restaurant set to open later this summer. Acclaimed chef James Rigato of The Root in White Lake is behind the project.
"I think Hazel Park is sorely underutilized," says Rigato. "I think that the John R strip is just ripe for being the next Main Street."
The restaurant, opening in a location that has housed a string of diners (most recently Liza's Place and Ham Heaven), will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays for dinner only. Rigato hopes to host guest chefs from around the country, who may take over the menu for a night.
"The menu will change quite frequently and is not going to be locked into one style," says Rigato. "I'd love to see a lot of guest chefs, a lot of my friends coming into town and doing a couple-day residency. If I have a friend in town, I'll just give them the menu for the night -- just kind of like an industry think-tank playground."
The Hazel Park Raceway is also embracing reinvention, with the reintroduction of thoroughbred racing and incorporation of a microbrewery in 2014. Campbell would love to see the raceway think beyond horses.
"It's got potential if they do some additional things: provide entertainment and maybe a farmers market there or something to really make it more than just racing," says Campbell. "But as a destination racing place, it's still great. It's a fun time and it's a unique thing in Hazel Park. It's something we're still known for, and they're a great partner to the city."
According to Campbell, the foundation is in place for Hazel Park to make a real comeback.
"Basically, what we need to do better here is tell our story," he says. "That good things are really happening. Crime is down as low as it's been since the '50s. We have better community policing. The housing prices have bottomed out and are improving. We're getting diversified interest in our corridors, and there's good affordable housing here."

Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.

Photos by David Lewinski Photography.