The Stylish Versus the Austere
With the resurfacing and landscaping of Van Dyke finally nearing its completion, the much ballyhooed and debated “mile marker” sign pillars have been installed in the past few days. Predictably, people on Facebook don’t seem to think they’re worth the several-hundred-kilobuck cost to taxpayers. I find myself taking a different view: I think the city was right to spend the money.
Longtime readers will recall me arguing in this space some years ago against the installation of an $85,000 playscape in Dodge Park while the city was in the throes of the economic downturn. The expenditure seemed especially irresponsible at the time, a position I don’t find myself having moderated on much since then. So I think I’ve got some bona fides with those who feel the city should minimize expenditures wherever possible.
I feel much the same way about the proposed Recreation Center: for the $40 mil we’re going to drop, it seems awfully shortsighted to not at least get a pool out of the deal. It seems to me that we’ve packaged up a bunch of improvements that might not have all stood on their own merits. It would have been better to treat each one separately in my view.
But these signs are a different story. Van Dyke Avenue in Sterling Heights is arguably the most economically important stretch of road in Macomb County. It, with Mound Road to the west, forms a north-south corridor that represents the manufacturing and retailing backbone of Sterling Heights. It is the economic powerhouse that keeps Macomb County one of the sole remaining shining gems of a Great Lakes manufacturing region that has mostly fallen on hard times.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of Van Dyke Avenue to Sterling Heights. It is the home to major manufacturing, major defense industry installations, and significant retail. I daresay that without that stretch of road, Sterling Heights and Macomb County overall would have become slums after the last downturn.
Now many of my friends and associates in the political sphere are minimal government activists. They argue for austerity in government expenditures. To sum up, the attitude is basically “they shoulda put down some new concrete and installed traffic lights and called it good!”
I understand where they’re coming from. Austerity, frugality, and penny pinching should be the general rule in public expenditures. Ever had a look inside the Police Department? That is not a fancy building by any means. It’s more function than form for sure. Similarly, City Hall, especially Council Chambers, is rather lacking in adornments and polish. The appointments behind the dias in that room are not executive suite material. Still, they do the job just fine, and there isn’t any need to put in the gold handled faucets.
I am reminded of the government-built barracks buildings on the site of Fort Grayling up north. You will hardly be able to find more austere accommodations than that. They work fine. A National Guardsman doesn’t need luxury accommodations, he needs a place to rest his head inside, out of the rain, while he’s performing his two weeks of service per year. Those wooden shacks with tile floors do the job.
But when you have the crown jewel of a county’s manufacturing infrastructure under your care, and you need to endlessly promote it to keep it viable, well, a few baubles and bits are in order. You want the place to be attractive. You want the companies that put their names on the signs that line the street to be able to take pictures of the place to use in their annual stockholder report brochures. You need BAE and General Dynamics to be able to show transferring employees that a reassignment to Detroit doesn’t necessarily come with boarded up windows and burnt-out landscaping. You want to keep the factories humming, and the retail buildings full. These things are important. They pay the freight for the bulk of the city budget.
There is a place for austerity. The stuff that doesn’t show gets a coat of white paint every few years and a plain Ford squad car parked out back.
The stuff that the world sees?
It needs a few fancy mile marker signs.