Sterling Heights plants the seed for a future boosted by recreation

For a depiction of what Sterling Heights hopes for in its future, take a trip to the traffic circle at Dodge Park and Utica Road.

“The Seed”, a 27-foot steel sculpture created by local brothers Erik and Israel Nordin, is a 3,000-pound work of art on that reflects the goal, and challenge, for the city for the next few years – to sprout new life.

The Seed’s installation last year formed part of a renewed push for public art, a branch of the city’s “2030 Visioning” plan. After experiencing substantial growth in its first 30 – 40 years, Sterling Heights has been reflecting on how to sustain itself into the future as most of its land has been developed.

Now, as the city celebrates its 50th anniversary, officials are looking to the long-term future. As part of the plan, the city has begun a three-year, $45 million “Recreating Recreation” project to bring new energy into the area.

The old and the new in Sterling Heights. "The Seed" at left.

City Manager Mark Vanderpool says the fundamental challenge is to change the outcome associated with a maturing city, which typically is a “prolonged period of decline”.

“The City Council and administration chose not to accept decline as our fate,” he says.

Vanderpool explains that a core piece of the city’s plan is “placemaking”, a buzzword for creating new relationships between residents and the city. This is where artists like Erik and Israel come in. The Nordin brothers grew up in Sterling Heights, before going on to start the Detroit Design Center, and were a natural fit to commission work to re-launch the city’s public art program. The brothers say they were honored for their work to represent the city’s dreams. Mark Vanderpool at Dodge Park construction site.

“Our sculpture stands to celebrate the community’s commitment to their parks and natural resources,” says Erik. “We wanted to create something that connected with nature and growth. A seed can symbolize rebirth, change, life and growth. Everyone can relate to planting an idea and watching it grow.”

Erik and Israel say they have fond memories of a childhood in Sterling Heights, where they were raised with their four siblings, particularly the BMX trails and kayaking opportunities on the Clinton River.

“We would have our poles and go fishing, swimming was nice toogreat days,” recalls Israel. “There were lots of kids my age to play with in the neighborhood, as well as a pretty good mix of development, and still some woods left.”

Promoting an active lifestyle is a major component of the Parks and Recreation vision for Sterling Heights. Plans include a new community center, splash pad, ice rink, farmers market pavilion, amphitheater, sand volleyball courts, dog park, kayaking facilities, and turf mini soccer fields.

“The city has always had an outstanding park system,” says Vanderpool, “but never viewed the parks as the asset that could enhance the overall quality of life in Sterling Heights.”

A new skate park, which opened last year, won the 2017 award for most innovative concrete project in the State of Michigan.

“Skate park enthusiasts from across southeast Michigan are flocking to Sterling Heights to use what is quickly becoming known as the best skate park in Michigan,” beams Vanderpool. “That is the essence of placemaking.”

The skate park is something Erik believes will resonate with youth culture. “I spent countless hours on a skateboard when I was a teenager,” he recalls. “It’s so nice to see a place where the kids can gather and skate together, they will inspire one another.”

“Getting outside and away from our computers, and everything connected with them, is crucial in this day and age” Erik says. “It encourages us to spend time with one another, not our devices.”

The outdoor, family-friendly environment was the appeal to many of Sterling Heights’ original residents, including Nancy and Jack McDaniels. Nancy says she remembers when they moved to Sterling Heights 49 years ago, and it “all used to be farmland”.

The McDaniels bought a home in one of the first subdivisions in the region and says the citynow home to over 130,000 residentshas been slowly ramping up ever since. "It's been little by little," explains Jack. "When we first moved here there weren't a lot of roads around," says Nancy.

Jack and Nancy believe part of the draw for them was the safety factor, decent schools, and reasonable taxes. "It's been a great city to live in," says Nancy. "Our kids grew up here."

"We've had plenty of chances to move," says Jack, "and there's nothing technically keeping us here, but we like it here."

Jack and Nancy McDanielsThe city estimates that the total cost of the Recreating Recreation projects to homeowners like the McDaniels will average $62.96 per year for 20 years. It’s something Vanderpool believes residents will see improve the already rising housing prices. Sterling Heights has the third highest property values in Michigan, and in the last three years residential property values have increased 30 per cent.

“Realtors are already advertising the massive park improvements because they know first-hand that high-quality park amenities increase property values,” says Vanderpool.

Jack McDaniel agrees. "I think it's a good selling point," he concludes.

The city is also continuing the efforts of its SHINE (Sterling Heights Initiative for Neighborhood Excellence) program, where blighted properties are cleaned up by a city contractor in the hopes of keeping neighborhoods aesthetically pleasing and property values strong.

Over the past three years, more than $140 million has gone into road improvements in Sterling Heights and a further $100 million will be contributed in the next five years.

“The city has adopted a complete streets plan,” says Vanderpool, explaining that clearly marked pedestrian crosswalks, better signage, and ample landscaping are part of the designs.

Farmers' market artist's rendering.The down-side to all of the city’s renovations has been the disruptions while construction takes place. In the case of Dodge Park the scale of improvements has been so large that it will remain closed until June 28, when a grand reopening will host the park’s first summer concert and the city’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Fitting with the theme of growth, the city’s new farmers market will open then too.

The McDaniels believe the many beautification projects around Sterling Heights are paying off. Nancy McDaniel says she was skeptical when the city first began tidying up Van Dyke, but she's been won over, and says its impact has been felt by the community.

"You drive around and you see homeowners making an effort," says Jack McDaniel, "It makes you feel positive about the city you live in."

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Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at