By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
SOUTHGATE – There isn’t much that Southgate hasn’t faced in recent years, from a struggling economy that left many cities facing “emergency” conditions to natural disasters that flooded the town with problems.
Yet the current “State of the City,” as described by Mayor Joseph Kuspa during his annual address last week, seems more promising than most of his seven years in office.
“We accomplished many great things in 2015,” Kuspa said. “We’ve laid the foundation for continued growth and stability, and I’m confident that in 2016 we will continue our success.”
Kuspa presented his review of a city’s recent past and projected future Jan. 27 during the luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club of Southgate at Holiday Inn, 17201 North Line Road. Proceeds of the event again benefitted the international service club’s scholarship programs.
Kuspa’s report offered a steady yet cautious municipality, where property owners last year saw a 2.7 percent increase in home value; city revenues, however, only grew by about 1.7 percent, and the balanced budget that was approved again reflected cost-cutting measures taken at city hall. Officials last year negotiated savings for municipal pensions, public safety retiree health care costs and public lighting.
As of November, Kuspa said, audit firm Plante Moran confirmed that the city had again remained within budget, and reduced its outstanding debt by nearly $1 million – overall the debt that had once reached more than $14 million has been cut by nearly 40 percent and is expected to be eliminated in less than 10 years.
A return to financial stability, Kuspa said, allowed city officials the opportunity to redirect energies toward resident services. Through grant funds and other avenues the city has maintained staffing levels for police and fire while upgrading vehicle fleets and replacing outdated equipment.
In spite of the economic challenges that have threatened many Michigan cities, Kuspa said modest investments of grant dollars and other opportunities have resulted in quality-of-life upgrades throughout the city. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments reported that Southgate roads have seen a 300 percent improvement in the past eight years.
Progress has been made in spite of challenges such as the 2014 storm that strained local infrastructure and flooded homes throughout the city. Recovery has included upgrades to water and sewer systems and – beginning next month – a backflow-installation program for qualifying homes. About 70 residences will receive upgraded valves this year in a program projected to reach between 2,500 and 3,000 homeowners.
In terms of development and progress, Kuspa said a highlight of 2015 was the opening of Market Center Park in September, the first phase of an ambitious public-space project that was initially conceived in 2010. Last summer witnessed the city’s first Farmer’s Market at the re-energized Southgate Shopping Center, along with live music under the amphitheatre.
“This exciting addition to one of Southgate’s iconic commercial districts has already served as a catalyst to attract more people and business activity,” Kuspa said.
Among other projects, the next phase of Market Center Park will see a paved pathway connecting the area to Trenton Road along with a “substantial addition” to the central pavilion courtesy of a $70,000 Michigan Department of Natural Resources grant.
A further enhancement to the park area will be indoor concessions, a $200,000 renovation in partnership with Crystal Gardens Banquet facility to remodel and operate the outlets during community events.
The year ahead seems destined for even more progress, said Kuspa, who promised “major announcements” by the second quarter from developers interested in key, unused parcels. Among other properties expected to see activity are the former Kmart building at Fort and Pennsylvania and the vacant Aquinas High School campus on North Line Road.
“By working together we accomplished great things in 2015,” Kuspa said. “In 2016 I’m confident we will continue that success because our officials and employees of this great city understand the value and necessity of working together.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected])