Dearborn mayor: City is 'safest bet anyone can make'

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Dearborn ― In his first State of the City address Tuesday, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud promised a city with world-class parks, 24-hour city services online and the return of family-friendly events like the Camp Dearborn fireworks.

Dearborn City Council President Mike Sareini, introduced the mayor at the Michael A. Guido stage at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center. Last year, he said, the city faced a $22 million deficit from the previous administration and had to make cuts to retiree health care benefits. In September, the City Council approved the first balanced budget in 20 years at $128 million.

"In the past, they said, you cannot cut taxes without cutting services, but I can say, we did just that," Sareini said. "A new city department has captured more than $30 million in development ... much of which has been allocated to parks, including a major development for Camp Dearborn."

The popular camp grounds is slated for a new master plan and $2 million in upgrades to the 626-acre retreat in Milford.

Hammoud took the stage cracking jokes about Dodge Chargers, Challengers and social media critics. Then he highlighted community leaders like Abbas Al-Haj Ahmad and Colleen Johnson, a longtime resident who serves as a City Beautiful commissioner who advocated for new baseball fields at Levagood Park.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud delivers the 2023 State of the City address inside the Michael A. Guido Theater at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, in Dearborn, May 23, 2023.

The theme of the speech was "The safest bet anyone can make is on the city of Dearborn." He laid out his Dearborn Advantage initiative, offering free books for children, free entry for children younger than 13 years old for city pools, food and entrepreneurship opportunities, and a partnership with Google Cloud for free information technology jobs certifications.

"You can live your whole life in Dearborn. It's a city of lifelong opportunities," he said, adding that residents can attend college and never really have to leave.

Last year, Dearborn was the first city in Michigan to create an endowment to bring the Dolly Parton Imagination Library providing all Dearborn children up to 5 years old a free book every month. In the last seven months, 12,538 free books have been distributed to nearly 2,000 children by the Amity Foundation, which locally distributes the books on behalf of Imagination Library.

"This city feels like a small town, a city that has welcomed folks from every corner of the globe with wide arms, and an open heart," he said. "Whether you’re a third-generation auto worker who grew up in the South End and migrated west; whether you can trace your roots to Italy or Yemen, Poland or Iraq, people of all walks of life have bet on Dearborn. And as they will tell you: it’s the safest bet anyone can make."

His strategy for the future of Dearborn includes creating more green space and parks in a century-old suburb of Detroit that has long been defined by its anchor employer, Ford Motor Co., and its sprawling industrial footprint and corporate campus.

The administration has identified five priorities including a more active government; civic engagement; economic opportunity and mobility; a green and healthy Dearborn; and safety and justice, Hammoud said.  

Hammoud was elected Dearborn's seventh mayor in November 2021, shortly after historic floods in the east and far west sides of the city. He drew attention as the city's first Arab American and Muslim mayor, and was celebrated for adding Eid as a paid holiday for city workers.

The 33-year-old mayor has his critics. He replaced police Chief Ron Haddad with the city's first Muslim chief, Issa Shahin. Together, they disbanded a longstanding patrol team to combat racial profiling.

One of his first moves was to create a Community Relations Department to manage and centralize all resident feedback, and to create a one-stop-shop call center for residents to ask questions and get support: (313) 943-2150. 

"Why is a city so driven using a website from the 90s?" Hammoud said.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud delivers the 2023 State of the City address inside the Michael A. Guido Theater at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, in Dearborn, May 23, 2023.

In February, the city partnered with Google Cloud to modernize city services, including its website and City Hall services, to be available 24/7 online. The Cloud trainers will be working with ACCESS, a nonprofit social services agency in Dearborn, to provide information technology certifications, which will allow more Dearborn residents to qualify for tech jobs, for free. Google is covering the cost for 500 certifications that will get started later this year. The ACCESS team will be trained to assist and then provide the training.

One of the key features is making the website bilingual. The city is providing Google with more than 150 translated documents for the system to learn based on local Arabic language translations.

"We’re all familiar with the translation services offered by Google. Well, to improve accuracy, Google’s language model will be learning from us on how to best translate from English to Arabic. Taking real-life examples to teach its systems and to provide better translation services for all. That’s pretty powerful," Hammoud said.

"Google is also enhancing our cybersecurity profile, and ensuring our data is protected. Ultimately, these upgrades are not about getting newer versions of older things. They’re about getting smarter, faster, more efficient, and more helpful to the people that we serve."

Camp Dearborn fireworks return, 'world-class' parks to come

Hammoud said he's tired of hearing of all the family-centered events in Northville. In the last year, the city hosted its first Haunted Halloween Trail, Dearborn-Detroit community block party, World Cup watch party, added a 30-foot Christmas tree, Ramadan Nights festival on the weekends. Cherished events like the Memorial Day Parade and Homecoming Festival also returned, signaling that normalcy was back after a once-in-a-century pandemic, he said.  

"Those who know me, know I am all about competition. So, we’re coming for you, Northville," he said. "Let it be known that Dearborn is the capital of family-friendly events, and we’re here to claim it. We are painfully aware of how much you pay in taxes."

In March, Hammoud announced the city would spend $30 million for what they're calling three "PEACE" parks, or Parks Equity and Access for Citizen Engagement.

The three parks, in the west, the east and in the south end, will be completed over the next two years. The project plans to add free outdoor Wi-Fi; playscapes; basketball courts; soccer fields; upgrades to pavilions, pools and splash pads; rental facilities; and rain gardens.

"We're bringing three unique experiences to the city. Each of these parks will transform our downtowns, bringing foot traffic, creating micro-economies, outdoor events and so much more," he said. "Ultimately, what we’re building is a landscape of opportunity. Opportunity for children. Opportunity for businesses. Opportunity for families, for job seekers, for everyone to rise above their economic station and create prosperity as they define it. And we want folks to achieve this dream without ever having to leave city limits."

Of the $30 million slated for parks, $2 million will go to improvements for Camp Dearborn, the popular 626-acre recreation and camping area in Milford, which the city has owned and operated since 1948. Hammoud said the city will conduct a master plan for the camp that includes adding hiking and biking paths. Meanwhile, the money will be used for electrical upgrades, new tents, public Wi-Fi and better paddle boats.

This summer will mark Camp Dearborn’s 75th birthday, and the city will celebrate by bringing back the July 4 fireworks show "that so many of us remember from our childhood," Hammoud said.

"For 13 years, the sky above Camp Dearborn has been dark on July 4th, and we look forward to lighting it up once again because Camp Dearborn’s renaissance starts now," he said. "Under this administration, Camp Dearborn is here to stay."

Roberta Adamson, a lifelong resident, said she was surprised at the advances the city made.

"I was very impressed with what he's done with the city government, and the fact that he's young is an advantage," said Adamson, 77.

Flood mitigation strategy

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud delivers the 2023 State of the City address inside the Michael A. Guido Theater at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, in Dearborn, May 23, 2023.

Hammoud also touted Dearborn Public Work crews who’ve been working year-round to remove logjams in the Rouge River. To help control flooding, the city will spend $1 million on removing log jams and $30 million on water and sewer infrastructure improvements in response to the historic flooding in the summer of 2021. City officials plan to construct rain gardens in low-lying areas that were hardest hit by the flooding, such as South Morrow Circle.

Hammoud said a flood mitigation strategy began the day he took office in January 2022. Dearborn is a downstream community and they've invested in rain gardens in various parts of the city that are expected to decrease the likelihood of flooding.

"We can't change what we don't understand. That's why last year, we initiated the first-ever comprehensive study of our stormwater infrastructure to understand where exactly the vulnerabilities are," he said. "There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the flooding problem. We initiated this study so that we can tackle flooding neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, block by block."

The state of the city is stronger than ever, Hammoud said, because "people are built differently."

Gene Powers, a graduate of Edsel Ford High School, said he moved back to Dearborn from California in 2018 and "Dearborn looks better today than when I left, and it looked good then too."

"I was very impressed starting with getting the fiscal house in order then, adding grant money, partnerships. He has a vision," said Powers, 77. "My first job was at one of the swimming pools and then Camp Dearborn. Now, I live in a condo on Michigan Avenue and I can walk to get everything I need. You can't do that in Northville."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_