Oakland County declares communities ‘one-stop ready’

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Waterford Township — Red tape is bad for business, says Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. That’s why Oakland County has embarked on a program to eliminate it and help communities market themselves as “one-stop ready.”

On Friday morning, the 20 Oakland County communities designated one-stop ready came together at an open house for developers.

One of the most prominent properties available is the site of the soon-to-be-demolished Silverdome in Pontiac. Sitting on about 130 acres, north of M-59 and west of Opdyke Road, city officials hope the Silverdome site could come to host multiple developments, from an office park, to retail shopping, to sporting complexes, to housing.

What it will take now are deep-pocketed developers who can reshape a part of town that had become an abandoned blight on northern Oakland County.

Attracting developers is partly a matter of showing them that Pontiac has changed. City administrator Joseph Sobota said developers faced an “extremely political” process prior to the city falling under emergency management. City officials and citizen groups presented roadblocks that developers couldn’t always overcome.

“We’re no longer that community,” Sobota said.

Pontiac was one of the first communities to become one-stop ready in 2013.

“When developers come into the building department, we review their plans promptly,” Sobota said. “We provide any assistance they may need in getting permits, and we help guide them through the process.”

To earn the designation as “one-stop ready,” a community sends planning officials for training with county officials. There, they learn what developers want from cities they work with: an efficient permitting process, responsive city officials, proactive tracking of their project, and being able to access necessary forms online. Communities must also pass a resolution declaring themselves one-stop ready.

As Todd Fenton, economic development manager for Royal Oak, told The News, “development goes where development is wanted.”

The open house was an effort by the 20 one-stop ready communities to show that development is, wanted and will be welcomed.

At its most basic, being one-stop ready is about “customer service-based economic development,” said deputy county executive Matthew Gibb, who Patterson hailed as the architect of the program. A number of liaisons to participant communities who were at the open house described the one-stop ready mindset as working with developers rather than against them. Communities are not gatekeepers looking to push projects away, but facilitators who become advocates for developers they do business with.

Top Chef contestant James Rigato opened a new restaurant, Mabel Gray, on John R. in Hazel Park, earlier in the fall. Even before the restaurant opened, Rigato publicly hailed Hazel Park city officials as easy to work with.

That’s exactly what assistant city manager Jeff Campbell wants businesses to think. Campbell said the city worked with Rigato for more than a year to bring Mabel Gray to fruition. Hazel Park is hoping that John R. can become the city’s downtown. A craft brewery, Cellarman’s, has opened right up the street from Mabel Gray.

Campbell said being one-stop ready is a matter of building relationships. Rather than a business spending tens of thousands of dollars on plans that only get rejected by city leaders, developers can learn the city’s expectations before committing plans to paper. Responsiveness, participants in the open house said, was a key element of showing their communities as open for business.

The communities represent “a cross-section of Oakland County,” Patterson said, and run the gamut from inner-ring to outer ring to exurban to “the center of it all,” as Southfield calls itself.

Southfield, like Pontiac, is set to demolish a former regional icon, Northland Mall. Unlike Pontiac, Southfield doesn’t plan to let the property languish for years. The thinking with the Northland site, said Shelly Freeman, Southfield’s business and economic development director, is that it’d be easier to redevelop as a blank slate.

“Securing the property was a huge endeavor,” Freeman said.

In the last decade, Southfield has spent $175 million on its infrastructure. The city, which became one-stop ready earlier this year, has streamlined its permit process so as to reduce its volume of meetings with developers, Freeman said.

Last year, Oakland County attracted some $700 million in investment from new businesses or those looking to expand, said county economic development director Irene Spanos. Its unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent, which is what economists consider full employment.

In 2014, only eight or nine people came out to one-stop ready open house. This year, almost 10 times that number came out.

But the work continues.

Spanos just returned from a trade mission to Switzerland last week. Her staffers have taken recent trade missions to Japan, France and Italy to attract investment.

“We’re out there selling the county. A lot of the European companies think that America is just New York and Los Angeles,” Spanos said. “We want to show them another side.”

Oakland County’s 20 one-stop ready communities are: Auburn Hills, Clawson, Groveland Township, Hazel Park, Highland Township, Independence Township, Keego Harbor, Lyon Township, Oak Park, Orion Township, Oxford Township, Pontiac, Royal Oak, Southfield, Troy, the village of Oxford, Waterford Township, West Bloomfield, White Lake Township and Wixom.