Thompson: What cities can learn from Westland
While cities like Inkster and other bedroom communities in southeast Michigan are struggling to survive amidst dwindling population and loss of revenue, Westland Mayor Bill Wild says his city is standing strong despite the odds.
And Westland, Michigan’s 10th largest city — with an annual budget of $60 million, a population of 85,000, and celebrating its 50th birthday this year — is doing so with a diversified economy.
“I think what makes Westland different was that when we saw that the city was on the verge of running out of money, we created a plan and executed it,” Wild said. “With the help of the city’s professional consultants, we were able to demonstrate and articulate very quickly to the elected officials, the city’s employee groups and the residents, the seriousness of the financial situation, and they got on board.”
Wild, who was a candidate for Wayne County executive, said he and his team put together a plan to address the loss in revenue, stuck to it and kept politics out of it.
The city today has a surplus of $6 million after being projected to run out of money in 2009.
“Westland is the only Wayne County community with a three-year balanced budget,” Wild said.
Wild said that while Westland’s economy over the years was built around retail, it has diversified to meet the demands of major Ford plants in nearby Wayne and Livonia and is currently attracting investments in the manufacturing, medical, bioscience, cloud computing and nanotechnology sectors.
The city, which has 320 full-time employees, recently completed a new $10 million Westland City Hall project by renovating an abandoned, former 63,000-square-foot Circuit City store. The original city hall building would have cost more than $15 million to renovate, according to officials.
Daniel Gilmartin, the executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, an advocacy group for municipalities, said Westland is distinguishing itself among local governments.
“As populations move back toward the urban core it is important for suburbs to distinguish themselves as places with a future,” Gilmartin said. “Westland has long been a poster child for big box retail, which is in decline. Their willingness to see trends and adjust their strategies to provide more authentic experiences for their residents is crucial. The remaining of an old Circuit City store into a new city hall and events center is proof that they get it.”
The city currently has 25,000 single-family homes and 22,000 apartments and condos.
“I think it’s remarkable that Westland has been able to hold on to its housing stock. The 2010 census has really illustrated that there are significant challenges emerging from these older suburbs,” said Robin Boyle, a professor of urban studies and planning at Wayne State University. “There has also been some fairly critical national studies that show that poverty has been an increasing problem for these suburbs and that’s been a wake-up call for cities like Westland. So they are trying to restructure their message and attract younger families.”
Boyle added, “I think the drivers of what they are offering (in cities like Westland) are still connecting to the opportunity for better schoolings from Detroit, cheaper insurance and better level of public service, police and fire.”
Like most cities, Westland’s major sources of revenue remain property taxes and state shared revenue. Local fees for services and grants also help.
The city has 122 police officers and 68 firefighters and the estimated median household income was $41,414, according to 2013 statistics. The average annual cost of insuring a car is $2,235 compared to the estimated $5,000 in Detroit.
“We’ve also instituted non-conventional types of revenue generation by selling advertising on city signs and parks and hiring a private-sector firm to sell marketing opportunities with the city,” Wild said.
Unfunded future liabilities remain a problem for Westland.
“The employee pension system that is funded at 47 percent and a Police and Fire Pension system that’s funded at 75 percent remain issues,” Wild said. “When you couple unfunded liabilities with an aging infrastructure of roads and sidewalks and water and sewer systems, cities and townships across Michigan will look to the state to help address the broken Municipal financing system.”
What has changed in 50 years for Westland?
“The city grew from a quiet suburb to a busy shopping and dining destination with easy freeway access and desirable proximity to Detroit, Ann Arbor and Detroit Metropolitan Airport,” Wild said.
The city’s population is becoming more diversified, he added. For example, African-Americans make up 18 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2010 census, compared with the 6 percent recorded in the 2000 census.
“We have also seen large increases in the Hispanic population as well as emerging Asian, Arab-American, Armenian, Pakistan communities,” Wild said. “I believe the draw of Westland to these new residents is based on many things but the biggest draw is it’s a safe, affordable community that is family oriented and has a very strong infrastructure in place for aging adults.”
Wild said his appointments also reflect the growing diversity of the city. First deputy mayor Courtney Conover is African-American as well as several key members of his public safety team. He also noted the city has department heads who are Arab-American as well.
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9 FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.