Ishpeming redoubling efforts to beautify city

A flower basket hangs near Ole’ Ish Park in downtown Ishpeming. The city has increased its beautification efforts over the past three years, increasing the number of hanging flower baskets and fixtures significantly in order to make the city more welcoming. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

By LISA BOWERS

Journal Ishpeming Bureau

ISHPEMING – Early American botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey once said: “A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.”

The same concept applies to communities like the city of Ishpeming.

Maintaining a beautiful, thriving place to live requires the patient attention of citizens and city officials alike.

Many people are involved in efforts to improve the look and feel of Ishpeming, City Manager Mark Slown said, but the city still struggles with blight.

The city uses ordinances, fines, grants and all legal and appropriate means to combat the problem, Slown said in an email, but it can be a time consuming and costly process.

“For the city to go through the entire process — from detection, warnings, meetings with owners, violation notices and on to demolition — often takes two years or longer,” Slown said. “(It) costs $20,000, and involves more than 100 hours of city-employee time for each building.”

Those estimates, Slown said, do not include hazardous materials abatement which can double the cost.

“So far in 2017, eleven blighted houses have been demolished in the city of Ishpeming,” Slown said “While individual property owners are ultimately responsible for their property, city staff will use proper, legal methods to address blight and obtain improvements.”

The expenses directly related to blight, including the cost of demolitions, rental or blight inspector wages, grant application preparation and city attorney costs are about $400,000, Slown said.

“Other staff members, such as city manager, finance director, treasurer (and) police department do not track their time to specific tasks like ‘blight,'” Slown said. “Adding in an estimate for all the other time and expenses involved, I feel confident in estimating the city spent about $500,000 on blight issues in 2017.”

The cost of the city’s efforts can go on the tax roles as a lien, Slown said.

However, in some cases the full cost is never recovered.

In these cases, the city taxpayers ultimately end up footing the bill unless the city can obtain grant funds to help pay for the costs.

The Marquette County Land Bank has been a key ally in the city’s effort to mitigate blight, Slown said.

The MCLB has provided staff time, additional funding, grant preparation and management and property owner negotiations, he said.

“The city is very grateful to the members of the Marquette County Land Bank Authority Board and to county Treasurer Anne Giroux for making our blight elimination programs successful,” Slown said.

Giroux said the MCLB has invested over $150,000 of its own resources for demolition funding in Ishpeming over the past five years.

In addition the MCLB has obtained funds Michigan State Housing Development Authority blight elimination programs.

“It has also raised over $550,000 in competitive grant funding in the city as well,” Giroux said.

A recently formed coalition between MCLB, Habitat for Humanity and Community Action-Alger Marquette to assist low-income households with home repairs has raised $30,000 so far, Giroux said.

The Habitat Homeowner Repair Program, is another way to help to eliminate blight, she said.

Councilman Karl Lehmann said while the disposal of blighted structures is helpful and should remain a long-term goal of the city, cleaning up old equipment, disabled vehicles and tires is of more immediate concern.

“When I ran for office, one of the prime areas for me was all the junk laying around, and it continues to be my focus,” Lehmann said. “We need to make sure our city administration is continuing to approach the guilty parties and get things corrected.”

Lehmann said he makes a point to bring the topic up at city council meetings.

“I have pushed to try to correct the old equipment, junk and tires laying around,” Lehmann said. “It tends to knock down property values. That’s been my opinion since day one.”

Slown said each case is different, making it difficult to lump all blight into one category. He suggested residents work together to deal with blighted property.

“The community has gone through some tough times,” Slown said. “Sometimes people have legitimate reasons for falling behind in the care of their property. In other cases, blighted property owners are knowingly taking advantage of their neighbors by neglecting basic property maintenance. Each person must look out for their own interest in their neighborhood.”

Slown said communicating with property owners and city officials is a key first step in successfully mitigating blight.

Residents can also help reduce blight by: planting flowers and maintaining yards; pick up trash on the ground and pull weeds; report junk cars; and be aware of and comply with zoning regulations.

Despite lingering blight issues, beautification efforts in Ishpeming are starting to pay off, Slown said.

“Basically, everyone involved has gone above and beyond expectations to continue the improvements in community appearance that were envisioned in the DDA’s original planning and vision for the community,” he said.

Ishpeming Beautification Committee chairwoman Linda Andriacchi has led the charge in obtaining both volunteers and increased funding for city beautification efforts, Slown said.

Recruitment efforts on social media resulted in many more people volunteering their time, effort and in many cases personal funds to help improve the look of the city, Slown said.

When the IBC began in 2014 its mission was to beautify city gardens and encourage community involvement by inspiring residents to create gardens in their yards, include all business areas with hanging baskets, and encouraging tourism by creating a welcoming atmosphere for visitors.

Andriacchi estimates the strictly volunteer movement has saved the city $60,000 to $100,000 over a four year period.

“We are all volunteers who deserve the credit for this movement,” Andriacchi said. “I believe this started everything with residents starting to improve their own property and taking pride in where they live.”

Andriacchi said city went from having 13 hanging baskets filled with flowers prior to 2014 to 66 16-inch baskets and 11 23-inch baskets in 2017.

Andriacchi’s determination to beautify the city has overcome several hardships, one of which has been funding.

Slown said that the Downtown Development Authority spent about $28,000 on beautification in 2016, but reduced revenue and annually increasing debt payments led to a drastic reduction in DDA spending — including beautification.

“The DDA beautification budget was reduced significantly to $11,000,” Slown said. “This was a tough but necessary adjustment; however, the DDA, Chamber of Commerce, and Linda Andriacchi made a concerted effort to raise additional revenues for beautification from private sources.

“Over $10,000 has been donated from a variety of sources to help maintain the beautification effort in 2017,” Slown said.

IBC volunteers are responsible for over a dozen raised garden beds around the city as well as other fixtures, Andriacchi said.

In 2015, Andriacchi assigned certain beds to certain volunteers, a practice she intends to continue.

“They were to take care of their designated beds as if they were their own,” Andriacchi said. “This created pride in their work and made them committed to their projects.”

Other key improvements to the city have been a new green space on Third Street created by Bob and Cheryl Marietti, Slown said.

Sidewalk improvements within the Inspiration Zone, a new Power of Ten Pocket Park at the intersection of Third and Hematite streets that was completed at the end of August and several community gardens established on private property by Partridge Creek Farm have made a collective difference in the community.

“All of these efforts are important because they make the community look better and also add other specific benefits, like growing local produce, creating educational opportunities, offering Little Free Libraries, providing comfortable resting spaces, etc.,” Slown said.

Whether the effort is to eliminate blight or improve beautification efforts it starts with individual residents.

“Residents and business owners can help in so many ways by building a friendly relationship with their neighbors,” Slown said. “In my opinion, positive community spirit makes a place nice more than anything else.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.