Late last year, the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED) moved from Ann Arbor to downtown Ypsilanti. Following is a brief conversation I just had with Mary Jo Callan, the director of OCED, on why they decided to make the move, and what she and her organization are presently doing to help spur economic development and improve quality of life in Ypsilanti.
MARY JO: We made the decision to relocate to Ypsilanti for many reasons, but primarily because of two. First, so much of our work is on the east side of the county. Our workforce development, affordable housing, human services, and economic development efforts are focused in the area. I believe, from both a service and values perspective, it makes sense for us to be where our clients are. Second, there is a serious need to locate jobs within Ypsilanti, in part to support local businesses, and add to the vitality of the area. Established and growing businesses bring employment opportunities to residents, tax revenues to local governments, employee spending in local restaurants and retail, and increased awareness of all the good things that Ypsilanti has to offer. Washtenaw County government wants to continue to play a role in that by adding to the employee presence we already have at our location on Towner, and our employment One Stop Center on Harriet Street.
MARK: How many people made the move with you to Ypsilanti?
MARY JO: There are 30 of us settled in here in our new offices. The location is great – we’re on the second floor of the courthouse, which was formerly underutilized. We have great views of downtown, and I love seeing folks head downtown for coffee, or lunch, or the occasional happy hour. And it was fun, during the holidays, seeing folks come back from the Rocket, the Eyrie and other local retailers. It’s good to be able to add to the customer base of the downtown, advancing the goals of OCED in the process!
MARK: And what is it exactly that OCED does?
MARY JO: OCED develops and implements strategies that contribute to the quality of life for Washtenaw County residents, with a primary focus on those who are economically disadvantaged. We do this through policy development, direct service, and investments in human services, affordable housing, community infrastructure, like motorized and non-motorized transportation improvements. We also provide job training and placement services for unemployed residents. And we ensure that local businesses are connected to the talent they need to succeed, as well as support them in their effort to grow and create new jobs. We do this through a mix of public policy work, direct services to residents in need, and the supporting of businesses and nonprofit partners through investment of monetary and technical support.
MARK: And what is it that you’re focused on presently in the area of policy work?
MARY JO: We’re especially focused on rolling out our most recent report, which I’ve seen covered in your blog! The Affordable Housing & Economic Equity Analysis report looks at housing affordability and equity issues across Washtenaw County’s urban core communities. Given that Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township have roughly two-thirds of the county’s population and housing stock, and nearly ninety percent of the county’s renters, it made sense to focus in these communities. What we found reinforced much of what most of us already knew. That is, we’ve got real economic challenges on the eastside of the county, and growing affordability challenges in Ann Arbor, and we need to work with public and private partners across our county to begin to address them. This is not to say that Ypsilanti – city and township – aren’t great places to live, with a lot of quality housing, great amenities, and most of all, great people! (I should know, as I’m a proud resident of Ypsilanti.) But, we’re seeing real consequences of growing inequity play out locally, and the report puts forward what I believe is sound evidence that we should endeavor to thoughtfully change concerning trajectories in all of the communities in the target area.
MARK: I’m curious as to your take on how we’re likely to see the County move forward now that the affordable housing needs assessment has been completed. What tangible changes, if any, can we expect to see now that recommendations have been made? For example, the report suggested that the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti school districts merge. Can we expect to see a task force of some kind brought together to discuss that? Can we expect to see more affordable housing projects being greenlit in Ann Arbor?
MARY JO: The report calls for adding approximately 2,800 affordable housing units within the City of Ann Arbor over the next twenty years, or about 140 units annually. It calls for adding demand to Ypsilanti markets, to attract (and uplift from within the community) 4,100 middle class households. These ambitious goals are driven by different needs and forces in each community – namely, demand that exceeds supply in Ann Arbor, and supply that exceeds demand in Ypsilanti. However, and hopefully we made this clear in the report, both are related, and addressing them as component parts of a regional challenge will strengthen both communities.
Last month, Ypsilanti Township joined the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township, Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor DDA in adopting the report, committing to work toward the goals within it, and doing so regionally. While these commitments – to both advancing equity and also to working as a region – are huge first steps, we understand that this was the easy part. It’s time for elected officials in every community, supported by residents and voters, clergy and congregants, business owners and employees, and financial institutions and loan officers, to roll up our sleeves and turn our words into action to disrupt the disturbing trends of disparity and segregation. We can’t make miraculous or wholesale change, but we can make some meaningful impacts. And when we do, everyone will benefit.
We’ve included lots of potential strategies that have worked in other communities, and could be tried here. Some are easier than others. Some would have bigger impacts than others. Any of them would move us toward a more balanced community, in terms of housing and equity, but none of them alone solve the growing imbalance. We need to work with the community to put together the right combination of strategies. And by the “right” combination, I mean ones that our elected officials recognize the imperative to advance, ones that businesses and investors can support, and ones that residents can rally around.
As one important next step to advance the goals within the report, the county has committed to convene a regional workgroup this spring with the many key stakeholders, hopefully including representation from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti schools. This workgroup is intended to advance a solid long term vision, hopefully including identifying those strategies that will be first steps.
MARK: What about the specific recommendation that we consolidate school districts… It seems like a really difficult idea to take on, given politics, prejudices, etc…
MARY JO: The recommendation of looking at our education system is an example of the challenges we face. As you have experienced through discussions on your site, education is an area that fosters passion, and more than one or two opinions. It’s also very complex in terms of funding and governance. But, we know that school districts have an incredible impact on our housing market, and thus we felt an obligation to include it in the report. As I said before, this report isn’t intended to say we can snap our fingers and instantly achieve equity across our community. Nonetheless, the fact that it will be hard and faces uncertain results doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile and possible. There are many strategies and recommendations that face uncertainty, and potential tradeoffs, and we’re excited about sustaining the conversation for the long haul.
MARK: I’m curious as to your thoughts on Water Street, and how, if at all, OCED might help the City of Ypsilanti in our quest to attract development projects that reflect our shared aspirations for the future of the City, as documented throughout the Shape Ypsi process.
MARY JO: We’re excited that the City is going to have a Target Market Analysis done to really hone in on the type of market-rate housing and commercial products that would be successful on Water Street and possibly other locations in the City. That will definitely help to understand what developers can successfully target. Currently some on our team are working with SPARK, the City, and DDA on strategies to attract tech and other companies to downtown Ypsi – looking to land tenants for available space downtown, or even new mixed use space on Water Street. We’re happy to support the Shape Ypsi vision for Water Street, and to support and collaborate in any way possible with the City, the DDA, SPARK, EMU, St. Joe’s, and others who are interested in investing more deeply in Ypsilanti.
MARK: A few days ago, kind of piggybacking on the Washtenaw County report we’ve been discussing, the Center for Labor and Community Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn released a report titled Growing Together or Drifting Apart? Economic Well-Being in Washtenaw County’s new “Knowledge Economy”. In it, among other things, the authors of the study say that “37% of individual workers in Washtenaw County do not earn enough to meet basic family needs.” It seems to me that, with these two reports, we now have all of the evidence that we need to start working on solutions. Would you agree? Or, in your opinion, is there still research that needs to be done?
MARY JO: I agree. We have more than enough evidence all pointing us toward the same conclusion. That is, we must take collective action. Now.
MARK: I realize that this may not be a question that lends itself to an easy answer, but I’m curious as to the relationship between Washtenaw County and all of the various local governmental entities that exist within its boundaries. As you don’t, at least to my knowledge, control a significant pot of money that can be used to entice people to the table, how do you motivate all of these folks, who often have very different objectives, to come together and engage in these difficult conversations in good faith? In other words, I very much like what you’re saying, but how can you convince wealthier communities that it’s in their best interest to think regionally, invest in the kinds of solutions that we’re talking about, etc?
MARY JO: I’m concerned that you and your readers might fall asleep before you finish reading this answer, but I’ll do my best… In Michigan, counties exist primarily as an administrative arm of state government, with powers only expressly granted by the state. Counties have several state mandates, like having an elected clerk, treasurer, sheriff, and prosecutor, maintaining a courthouse, a detention facility, a public health department, and having circuit and family courts, maintaining vital records, and more! The county doesn’t have authority over local units of governments, but offers many important services – some mandated by the state, some not – to improve the lives of all residents.
You’ll notice that the services offered through OCED aren’t on the above mandated service list. Indeed, all of the services provided by OCED are considered to be discretionary, meaning that a county isn’t required to provide them, but can opt to do so because of their positive impact on local residents. You asked about Washtenaw County, but I should add that the City of Ann Arbor plays an important role in OCED as well. The city invests nearly $1.4 million dollars in human services and in OCED’s housing-related work. Washtenaw County and the City of Ann Arbor have a long history of providing these services, in large part because our community has a deeply rooted ethos around diversity, equity and opportunity. Advancing these tenets is at the heart of OCED’s work. And, while it doesn’t come with a legal mandate or authority, many partners throughout the community engage with us because they recognize the value of the work, and how it positively impacts our residents, neighborhoods, and community.
MARK: How large is the OCED budget? How are you funded? And how is that money spent?
MARY JO: OCED has a budget of about $15 million coming from more than thirty funding sources, most federal and some state pass through. Approximately $5 million of our budget comes from local sources.
As for how our budget is spent, most is invested directly into the community. These investments help to bring diverse public and private partners “to the table.” Having said that, I’ve been in service to the community for more than twenty years, and have yet to meet an elected or appointed official, a faith-based or nonprofit leader, or a community advocate who doesn’t care deeply about making this a better community. Beyond mandates and pots of money, this is what brings people to the table, in good faith, albeit with a variety of opinions about what can and should be done to move us forward. OCED’s role is often to help translate seemingly competing needs and interests to help to find common ground, and then encourage as many partners to come along as possible. None of us can meet today’s complex challenges alone, so collaborating and building coalitions to amplify impact is where our work – and our community – must go.
MARK: If I’m not mistaken, years ago, a number of entities within the County were merged to form OCED. Why was that done? And what changed as a result of that consolidation? Were programs cut?
MARY JO: Prior to 2012, Washtenaw County had three separate departments with many common goals, overlapping and duplicative services, and a less than optimal way for residents in need to understand and access needed support. County leadership recognized that economic development, workforce development, and community development must be integrated components in a vibrant community; and, that a more coherent, less fragmented approach to employment, economic vitality, neighborhood preservation and enhancement, and equity and opportunity for all residents are interrelated, and must be addressed together. Together, the Office of Community Development (OCD), Economic Development & Energy (EDE), and Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS) revenues totaled more than $29 Million, but nearly half of that was one-time Federal Recovery Act funding set to expire. This left the sustainability of the departments, and the services they delivered, in doubt.
In response, the County Administrator charged leadership from these three departments to work together to explore ways to improve services to Washtenaw County residents, and reduce costs. A full consolidation – and the creation of OCED – resulted, creating long-term structural cost savings, preserving vital services to highly at-risk residents, creating a more coherent model for interfacing with the community, and putting this new combined department on a more sustainable path than its separate predecessors.
Three years later, OCED delivers a wide array of programs and services, all focused on improving quality of life for county residents, with a primary focus on those who are economically disadvantaged. We’ve combined the duplicative functions and processes, braided resources to deliver more services, and made accessing those services easier.
MARK: Before joining the County, as I understand it, you were at a local non-profit that I’m quite fond of – Ozone House. I’m curious as to what you were most proud of accomplishing during your tenure there, and how your experience at Ozone influences your work now.
MARY JO: I was at Ozone House for fifteen years, and was lucky enough to play a variety of roles – from counselor to director – during my tenure. A ton of great work happened while I was there, all made possible because of a culture and team utterly committed to empowering homeless and marginalized youth to succeed against the odds. Without question, this experience had a fundamental influence on my personal and professional life, and equipped me with so many of tools and perspectives that I use every day in my current role. It helped me understand that there are too many in this community shutout of real opportunity, deprived of the choices that many of us take for granted, like safe housing, supportive family, adequate healthcare and nutrition, access to quality education, and other basic resources needed to reach full potential.
It also solidified my commitment to do my part to impact the always powerful and often broken systems that fail those who need them most. We have too many resources – financial and human – in this community to accept the growing disparity resulting in more and more children and families falling further behind.
[note: Photos courtesy Doug Coombe.]
[note: If you’d like to hear why other people are moving themselves, their families, and their businesses to Ypsilanti, check out the Ypsilanti Immigration Interview archive.]