DDA board needs more members with skin in the game

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” – U.S. President Ronald Reagan

While listening to the Oxford Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board last week discuss the need for more involvement, input and guidance from business owners, a thought occurred to me.

If this truly is the DDA’s desire, then the nine-member board needs to be more representative of the business owners and property owners who pay the bills and are directly affected by the DDA’s decisions.

Right now, it’s not.

DDA bylaws (and Michigan law) clearly state, “Not less than a majority of the DDA board members shall be persons having an interest in property located in the downtown district.”

In my opinion, this requirement is not being met. To me, having “an interest” means owning and operating a business and/or owning a property that is taxed and used for a profit-making venture or investment purpose. The DDA currently has only two members that meet that criteria.

Let’s take a look at the board.

To begin with, four of the nine members are government officials – village President Sue Bossardet, township Trustee Elgin Nichols, Fire Chief Pete Scholz and Sam Barna, assistant superintendent of business and operations for Oxford Schools.

That’s way too much government for a board that’s supposed to be dedicated to supporting, promoting and attracting businesses.

Bossardet has to be there because she’s considered the village’s “chief executive officer” and DDA bylaws mandate her presence.

Nichols is there because years ago, the township decided it wanted a representative on the DDA board because of the significant amount of tax money ($111,067) the authority captures from its various millages for operations, fire services, the parks and recreation department, the public library and the North Oakland Transportation Authority.

But I see absolutely no reason for Scholz and Barna to continue serving on the board.

No offense to either of them. They’re both intelligent, hard-working, honest guys who truly have the community’s best interest at heart and I have great working relationships with them. I don’t want them to take this the wrong way because I do respect them.

That being said, neither of them is a downtown business owner. They don’t have a personal, direct economic stake in the downtown’s success or failure the same way a business owner does. They don’t run the risk of losing everything they’ve invested in and worked for if customers suddenly stop buying purses, ordering cakes or chugging beers.

While it’s true both the fire department and school district own property downtown, neither of them pay a penny in property taxes for the DDA to capture and fill its coffers. Government property is not taxed.

At least the fire department contributes part of its millage ($53,771) to the DDA budget – a legal requirement, not a courtesy.

None of the schools’ tax revenue goes to the DDA, so really, it doesn’t seem fair that the district gets a voice and a vote on the board. To me, if you don’t pay, you don’t get a say.

Scholz and Barna should be replaced with business and/or property owners.

The advantage to having more business people on the DDA board is they tend to relate to each other better because they speak the same language, share the same concerns and have endured the same struggles. Business people don’t relate as well to government officials, or trust them, because government is typically viewed as a taker, not a maker, of wealth – a hindrance to be overcome, not help to be welcomed.

Government and business are two different animals. Unlike government, businesses can’t legally compel people to pay for their services whether they use them or not.

Moving on . . .

DDA Board Member Geno Mallia, Jr. was appointed in 2015 back when he worked for Oxford Bank, the main office of which is located downtown. He was appointed specifically because he was a bank executive and the DDA wanted a bank representative.

When Mallia was interviewed for the seat, former DDA Board Member Ed Hunwick said, “I think Oxford Bank is very critical to our community . . . I’m very enthused about the fact that they want to be involved on the board. I think it’s important for Oxford Bank to have a representative on this board. It makes a lot of sense.”

Mallia is no longer employed with the bank and he lives in Leonard, not Oxford.

Again, there’s no personal, direct stake in the downtown’s growth or decline for Mallia. It’s all fine and good that he frequents the downtown and voluntarily helps organize the Lone Ranger festivities, but that doesn’t make him a stakeholder.

Mallia should step down and be replaced with a business and/or property owner. Nothing personal, it’s just business.

DDA Board Member Susan Schurr can stay put because she actually lives in the district and fulfills a legal requirement. DDA bylaws (and Michigan law) state, “If the downtown district has 100 or more persons residing in it, not less than 1 of the DDA board members shall be a resident of the downtown district.”

The only two DDA board members who truly have “an interest” in the downtown, who truly have skin in the game, are Dorothy Johnston and Rod Charles.

Johnston because she owns and operates her downtown business, Johnston Photography, and the two-story building that houses it. Charles because he owns the building that’s leased to downtown’s Pink & Charlie.

Johnston and Charles have a personal stake in the downtown. They have something to lose and the potential for gain.

I believe you tend to look at things more closely, be more prudent and less reckless, and practice the fine art of frugality when something directly impacts you and your bank account. That’s what the DDA needs more of when it comes to its decision-making process.

There was another DDA board member who has a business, but she resigned last week. That was Regina Woodson, owner of Woodson Family Insurance Agency. She’s moving her business to Auburn Hills. Hopefully, Woodson will be replaced by another downtown business owner and/or property owner.

Personally, I’d vote to put Ron Rolando, owner of Great Lakes Mercantile, on the DDA board. He’s the only business owner I’ve ever seen who consistently attends all the meetings. I like a guy who keeps an eye on things. Rolando should apply as should many other downtown stakeholders.

To me, the DDA board should consist of seven true stakeholders and one representative each from the village and township.

If you’ve got complaints, if you’ve got concerns, if you don’t like the way things are going, if you want a say in how your money is spent, if you want to have a hand in guiding the downtown as a whole, then step up and do something about it. The only way to make the DDA a true reflection of the downtown business community is to get involved.

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