By Ingrid Sjostrand
Photos ©2021 Bill Gemmell
FERNDALE HAS ALWAYS had a reputation as a welcoming and inclusive community. The global pandemic seems to have only reinforced those ideals as neighbors, city government and businesses united to help each other and bring joy in the city’s own unique way.
MAYOR MELANIE PIANA REFLECTS ON THIS PAST YEAR IN THE CITY and how residents kept their spirits up, like through the T-Rex Walking Club which involved residents, and Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks members, parading the streets – socially distanced – in inflatable costumes.
“For me the real bright spot was the community coming together, supporting their neighbors and businesses to help people meet their needs, as well as bring joy,” Piana said. “I was really inspired by the Elks Club T-Rex parade, people decorating their front lawns, others checking to make sure people had enough food to eat. It was really inspiring to see.”
“We wanted to make sure our older adult residents were being taken care of. We coordinated with local organizations and volunteers for meal deliveries, sent out flyers that included state and county COVID resource hotlines so we could reach those who might not have access to the Internet,” Ferndale City Council Member Kat Bruner James said. “We are also in the process of re-invigorating our printed city newsletter. I’m not sure when we stopped producing it, but we found that residents really appreciated the updates on initiatives and things going on in the city data from a community survey in early 2020 showed us that residents want this, but the pandemic highlighted the critical need for this particular form of communication.”
Collaboration and connection grew in many ways during the pandemic. Bruner James noted more residents attending City Council meetings with the new virtual format and Piana saw a connection among city departments to support small businesses.
“There is a new spirit of partnership between the city, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and the South Oakland Area Regional Chamber of Commerce,” Piana said. “They’ve really leveraged each other’s strengths and expertise to respond to our small-business communities needs and became a source of information and guidance for how to apply for small business grants and navigate any employment issues.
The DDA contracted with an HR firm at the beginning of the pandemic because a lot of the small businesses had human resources needs. We’ve been deploying and distributing PPE (personal protective equipment) provided through safety kits by the County,” she added. “So, we’ve tried a lot of different approaches to support our businesses. It’s been a chance to have partnerships that brought a lot of value and benefit to our small businesses across the city.”
ON TOP OF ENSURING THE SAFETY OF THE COMMUNITY, the city continued with several scheduled projects for 2020. In August, City Council approved its Affordability & Inclusive Housing Action Plan to create a blueprint to increase housing options at all price points throughout the city. They’ve also expanded open outdoor public spaces, like the “Grassy Knoll” at 9 Mile and Bermuda and patio zones for restaurant use. They are currently working on a proposal to require standards for short-term rentals, like Airbnbs, in the city.
“We are finalizing the short-term rental ordinances now,” Bruner James said. “Next, we will be looking into the
vacant and abandoned housing and how to better manage and rebuild those. This will be an important project as having a high rate of vacant homes can lead to a lot of issues for residents including property value and pests.”
“We have data that Ferndale has an eight percent rate of vacant single-family homes, so we’re going to dive deeper into why and understand what is contributing to that number and identify solutions for this issue,” Piana adds.
As we move into 2021, the city is preparing for some exciting changes along Woodward Ave. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will be repaving the road between 8 Mile and 10 Mile starting in 2022. In partnership with Pleasant Ridge, Ferndale has applied for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant to improve safety and modes of transportation options as part of their Woodward Avenue Improvement Project which, if approved, will coincide with the repaving.
“I’m really excited to take advantage of this repaving opportunity and our two cities have come together in a strong partnership supporting making improvements on Woodward,” Piana said. “The grant has been submitted and we’re hoping to hear back by July.”
Residents will have another opportunity to come together as a community to provide input on the final design and engineering of the Complete Streets project. Piana suggests keeping an eye out for meeting details in the next few months and emphasizes the necessity of these improvements.
“WHAT THE PANDEMIC SHOWED US IS THE REAL VALUE of open and public space and how much having access to public space is important to the public’s health,” Piana said. “You need great sidewalks that connect you somewhere and access for people who may need to use mobility devices. These are all things that the pandemic really doubled down on. We knew it but, until we had to rely on it completely for social well-being and to interact with people in our communities, it wasn’t as apparent.”
As vaccinations roll out and businesses begin reopening, it can feel like things might be back to normal by summer but Piana wants residents to remain cautiously optimistic.
“Looking ahead for 2021, we’re still in a pandemic. I like to use a music analogy – we’re crescendo-ing up the
vaccinations and decrescendo-ing the COVID cases,” she said. “The City will be keeping the focus on safety and supporting small business recovery. We’re at more than a year of hunkering down at home, everybody is sort of sick and tired of the pandemic, but we really still need to do our part and stay safe.”