Private-public pact gets Troy on track

For the entire 10 years Michele Hodges had been president of the Troy Chamber of Commerce,  a new rail-and-bus transit center for the Oakland County community had been in the works.

Then, on Dec. 19, 2011, the Troy City Council voted 4-3 to turn down $8.5 million in federal funds for the transit center, which would place the city on an upgraded Detroit-to-Chicago Amtrak line.

Mayor Janice Daniels, a Tea Party activist, called the project wasteful spending and insisted there was nothing free about government money.

But Hodges wasn't going to let a popular project that had already been approved by the city’s executive council and planning commission go down easily.

“We were truly in crisis,” she recalled, noting how officials quickly met to shrink the plan into a $6.3-million version, while she and many others worked round-the-clock to ensure the project stayed alive.

Buoyed by the strength of the business plan and overwhelming support from Troy residents, Hodges helped marshal the business community, launched Facebook and Twitter campaigns and sent scores of emails. Media coverage was extensive, even reaching the New York Times.

The diversity of the advocacy effort would end up making all the difference, she said. On Jan. 17, the City Council voted again, this time on a whittled-down, $6.3 million version of the project. Again, the vote was 4-3. But this time, it was four in favor, only three opposed.

"We would not have succeeded if the advocacy was driven by a single voice, such as just business, or higher education, labor, residents, or only transportation-oriented agencies,”  Hodges said. "The secret was a well-rounded group that wasn’t viewing the matter through the lens of any political party or other disposition. It had nothing to do with Republicans, Democrats, conservatives or liberals. The unprecedented support of the governor and Automation Alley were also crucial cogs. They say it takes a village, and we had one."

Because many representatives in those groups had already worked together on other issues, they were quickly able to come together on this one. "This is what our region is in desperate need of -- trusting, respectful relationships that lead to highly productive, solution-oriented decision making and problem solving," Hodges said. "And that's how we were able to get it done. The essence of it was teamwork, compromise and a no-quit attitude. We weren't going to lose on this one."

Architect John Tagle, a Troy planning commissioner, recalled that Hodges was "all in" from the very beginning, and that as one of the biggest advocates for the transit center, she organized the efforts of both Birmingham and Troy to jointly engage Clark Hill (PLC) to lobby in Washington, D.C., which led to the federal grant for the project.

"At every opportunity she clearly and succinctly provided sound economic reasoning as the basis for moving the project along, whether it be to the business community or public and quasi-public agencies," said Tagle.

Had the second vote not gone their way, Hodges said she would have certainly exhausted every opportunity for a “Plan B” before moving on to the next initiative that would solidify Troy’s status as a preferred investment location.

And if that hadn’t worked, she would have lobbied hard to keep those federal dollars in Michigan to advance some other project.

“Seeing one of our regional teammates benefit from the dollars would have been a salve for the pain of Troy’s loss,” she said.

The city of Troy's annual cost to maintain the center was estimated at $31,000, a tiny part of its $50 million budget. But Hodges said the city will look for a business model to relieve local taxpayers of even that cost. Revenue options include surcharges on tickets; rent from on-site tenants such as Amtrak; leased parking spaces; rentals on information kiosks;  advertising by hotels and restaurants eager to snag business from those stepping off the train or bus into town, she said.

The transit center will replace the current Amtrak station in nearby Birmingham, and allow for connections to a SMART bus terminal and potential connections with future light rail and commuter trains in Metro Detroit. It will be built on the Troy-Birmingham border near a shopping center.

"This is one of those community assets that's critical to our future," Hodges said. "It creates jobs, it will enhance the tax base, it will help solve our revenue crisis by creating additional revenue as a result of property value increases, it allows employees to get to their work places, and it ensures that Troy remains a  preferred location for both business and residential investment."

Hodges said the lesson other communities can take from the center's approval is to look at any project from a non-partisan perspective that values fiscal conservancy, coupled with smart investment in growth opportunities.

"And leverage every tool available to you in the most responsible fashion," she said. "It can't be about what party you are, or what inclination you have from a liberal or conservative viewpoint. It has to be a balanced, decision-making approach that's pragmatic, action-oriented, and with the absolute best interests of the communities we serve in mind."

Jo Collins Mathis is a veteran journalist who has written for numerous publications in Washtenaw and Wayne counties. She was an award-winning reporter and columnist with the Ann Arbor News for 15 years, and a features page editor and columnist at the Ypsilanti Press.

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