Battle Creek

What lies ahead for Battle Creek and Calhoun County in 2020?

As the new year gets underway it offers a unique time to look back and look ahead. On the Ground talked with Calhoun County Administrator Kelli Scott and Battle Creek City Manager Rebecca Fleury to get their take on where we've been and where we're going as we enter a new decade. 

For leadership of the City of Battle Creek work will continue this year on an economic development strategy that goes beyond the traditional to incorporate new and different methods to help businesses of all sizes succeed, says Battle Creek City Manager Rebecca Fleury.

In 2019, the city assembled teams to work with small businesses at any point in their life-cycles.

“If someone has an idea, we’re ready,” Fleury says. “Now we can not only help from a human capacity standpoint, but we can also direct them to capital access, small and large revolving loan funds, and intentional teams to support businesses.”

This greater support for business development will mesh with increased attention to the characteristics that make up a community where people want to live, work, and play.

“A major part of this focus will incorporate quality of life issues because Fleury says, “We have to pair job growth with things like good schools and housing. We have to have a vibrant downtown to have a successful economic development strategy and our economic base has to diversify to include businesses with one or two employees all the way up to companies the size of Denso.”
Rebecca Fleury says work will continue this year on an economic development strategy that goes beyond the traditional.
Stepped up efforts to increase residential opportunities downtown include The Milton, which will have 85 apartments on floors three through 19 with retail on the first and second floors. 

“That building sat vacant for 10 years,” Fleury says. “That’s a huge first start, but we know we have to have other residential price points in the downtown area that we’re working to bring online, in addition to our neighborhoods.”

Discussions around quality, affordable housing for residents is expected to ramp up this year and include stakeholders such as Neighborhoods, Inc., and the Calhoun County Land Bank.

Fleury says the city must balance razing or demolishing properties, expanding rehab and infill development, and the construction of new homes in older neighborhoods.

“While we want to find ways to enhance neighborhoods, we don’t want it to get to the point where we’re pricing current residents out,” she says. “From an equity standpoint we don’t want to do that.”

There is a recognition that in order to be successful, an emphasis must be placed on quality of life issues, she says.

Work has been done in the downtown area, at Lakeview Square Mall, and in neighborhoods such as Old Lakeview, but Fleury says these are piecemeal efforts. There is movement underway to tie all of these areas together through mixed-use development and housing. She says city leaders and staff are looking at ways that mixed-use development can tie commercial corridors with neighborhood corridors.

“We have to look at our downtown area as the hub and look at all of the spokes that go out from it, recognizing that each spoke represents parts of neighborhoods that have unique characteristics. We need to recognize those strengths and work from there,” Fleury says.

Concepts such as the “20 Minute Village” and “Purpose-Built Community” are ideas that are being looked at as part of the city’s overall economic development strategy. Fleury says these ideas have proved successful in other areas of the United States.

The 20-Mintute Village basically means that all of a person’s basic needs can be met within a 20-minute walk, bicycle ride, or drive while the Purpose-Built Community ties housing, neighborhood development and education together.

“Knowing that nothing is cookie-cutter, we’re looking at what we can do in Battle Creek,” Fleury says, adding that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is partnering with the city to take a more in-depth look at the possibilities.

Among the other items on the city’s to-do list:

Being more of a help: “We have to look inside ourselves as a city and see where we are most helpful and where are we a barrier,” Fleury says.

The City Commission held a town hall style meeting last year and commissioners have indicated they want to engage people differently. Fleury says she and her staff are exploring a mobile city hall format and a phone interactive piece to improve engagement.

“We know people don’t want to come to a traditional city commission meeting and we know we also have to provide other opportunities for input,” Fleury says. “The town hall was a really big initiative. We’re going to see more thinking about different ways to engage our residents. Think of it like a bookmobile model where we can get our people out into the neighborhoods to engage with residents.

“This is something I really hope comes to fruition this year.”

Other issues the city will be dealing with:

Financial stability: “We are always very cognizant of our resources. We had a pretty large revenue shortfall, $2.4 million, based on reimbursement for personal property tax, which was supposed to make our municipal revenue more stable,” Fleury says. “I wish that our economic growth was better. We have growth, but we couldn’t absorb that level of a revenue shortfall. What was helpful is that we had a higher-than-anticipated income tax collection and we’re hoping that will continue in 2020.”

Taking a closer look at transportation for all: Fleury says access to reliable public transportation is one of the barriers that needs to be overcome to keep people successfully employed. She says the city’s current transportation system isn’t as nimble as it could be to meet the needs of those who don’t have their own means of getting around. Changes to the city’s public transportation landscape have included the exodus of a cab company and a non-profit transportation provider. The city hired a Transit Director last year who brought a large skill set with her that includes technology and ideas for other models to consider.

“We know we can’t meet everyone’s needs, but how can we meet the needs of people who need employment is a question we are addressing,” Fleury says. “We could possibly meet the schedules of shifts that people are working and we need to see if that’s something we need to look at. We also need to see if we have the ability to do that.”

Infrastructure and possibilities: “The city will continue to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Fleury says. “We have an aging infrastructure that we want to focus on, but we also need to do a better job of utilizing and celebrating the two rivers that we have.” Fleury says areas surrounding these rivers is prime for redevelopment and the city needs to be ready to promote development in an area that includes a former K-mart building, the Tree House foods facility, and a potentially closed Graphic Packaging site.

“There are so many little steps and conversations that are happening now to work towards that (the river project),” Fleury says.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Fleury gives the city she manages an overall score of 6.5 to 7 for its overall health and stability.

“I have nothing but pure excitement for 2020 here in Battle Creek,” Fleury says. Sometimes it takes projects a little longer to come to fruition, but I’m excited that we will see new openings and expansion.”

Kelli Scott says all of the county commissioners and countywide elected officials are up for re-election in 2020.

For Calhoun County Administrator Kelli Scott employee satisfaction is a major focus as she leads her organization’s 725-employee workforce into a new year.

“Last year was not necessarily a year of extraordinary challenges,” Scott says. “Like all local governments, we spend over half of the year working on budget planning and while revenues are increasing slowly, most of our expenses are in staffing and healthcare costs.”

While she puts an emphasis on managing the number of county employees, Scott says she’s also looking at ways to value those employees and ensure that they know they are important members of the organization she manages.

“The most important thing to me is that we have employees who are happy and engaged because that’s the foundation for good service,” Scott says. “We have to value our employees because they’re our biggest asset.

“Leadership is about understanding that we’re all working towards the same goal while being the best that we can be.”

A wellness initiative that provides an on-site or near-site clinic where employees can get primary care or basic condition care free of charge, in addition to generic prescriptions, is one of the ways that Scott is looking out for county employees. Known as Care Here, the clinic was launched in 2013 and is a public/private partnership which also provides services to employees of local companies, including Musashi, located at the Fort Custer Industrial Park.

“Care Here is a national company and we contract with them to operate the clinic,” Scott says. “The physicians and physician assistants are all paid salaries, so there’s no incentive to get patients in and out quickly. It’s more time-efficient and convenient. It’s driven down healthcare costs considerably and continues to be one of the things we’re able to do to retain employees.”

The county also is moving forward with the issuing of about $23 million in pension obligation bonds to pay off unfunded debt. Scott says this will ultimately result in about $10 million in savings for the county and enable employees to re-invest at lower rates.

“We’ll be asking the County Board of Commissioners soon for authority to issue finance bonds. A special law allows for these types of bonds.”

Scott says there were concerns about the county’s defined-pension plans. For a couple of the larger employee groups the pension plan came with high contribution rates because of greater liabilities. County sheriff’s deputies were one of these groups with an estimated 14 percent of each paycheck going towards their retirement.

“We negotiated with all of the groups that still had pension plans open to close that plan, put new hires into a 401 K, take that savings and lower that employee rate,” Scott says. “Current employees will keep their rate and get what they were promised when they retire. Money will continue to go into their pension fund, but because we’re paying off unfunded liabilities for them, they won’t have to pay as much."

Among the other major initiatives on Scott’s radar:

Roads: “One of the things that will get a lot of attention is the road department and Emmett Township roads. The township’s got an estimated $24 million project that will happen over the next three years,” Scott says. “Emmett is the county’s largest township and the roads are pretty bad.”

With an anticipated spring start date, about 77 miles of road will get some much-needed attention.

Opioid Epidemic: “There continue to be discussions not only with the county government but with others about the opioid epidemic,” Scott says. “The county health department will take the lead in whether we implement a Syringe Support Program. We need to have the County Board and the community talk about who’s going to take the lead. We’ve gotten a grant from the state because the county has such high rates of death from people who are injecting and using.”

When I asked why the county’s death rate from opioid abuse is so high, Scott says she keeps asking that same question.

Senior Services: “The Senior Services office is asking voters to renew the millage. There’s a lot of community outreach by Senior Services and there’s a lot of value provided by almost $3 million in tax dollars,” Scott says. 

The Parks Department also is asking for a new parks millage that the county has never had before. Scott says both the renewal for Senior Services and new request for parks will be on the August Primary ballot.

Website Improvements: “One of the things we’ve been working on is redesigning our website,” Scott says. “We’re always working on communication efforts and we continue to have challenges with what the best way is to reach the public so they know what’s going on. Within the next month we’ll have a website that’s more user-friendly and service-oriented.”

Employee Security: “Every time we see more national headlines about public shootings we add to our security and last year we made several physical improvements to the building themselves, including lockdown bars that go on the inside of doors,” Scott says. “We also put a material on all of the building’s interior glass so that it won’t shatter.”

Scott says these two things have become best practices. She says the county also has instituted a text messaging feed alert system so 911 dispatchers and management can communicate any kind of security threat issue. In addition, the Sheriff’s department has done active-shooter training with county employees and there is only one public entrance into the County Building.

When asked to rate the overall health of Calhoun County on a scale of 1 to 10, Scott says, “I think we’re an 8 or 9. I think we’re in very strong shape right now especially financially.

“We’ve continued to be committed to our finances and we have really good leadership. Our Board works well together and our department heads and elected officials seem to be working very well together.”

She says this is why it’s important for voters to get to know their elected officials and candidates in advance of the August Primary and November presidential election.

“All of the county commissioners and countywide elected officials are up for re-election. We could end up with considerable leadership changes in all offices that serve the public,” Scott says. “It will be an interesting thing for the public to watch and engage in.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.