Pathways to Progress
by Jan Wiezorek
Six months on the job, Buchanan City Manager Heather Grace discusses potential economic growth and challenges with The Buchanan Chronicle.
Every week Buchanan City Manager Heather Grace says she and her staff get phone calls from businesses hoping to move to Buchanan. During the pandemic, people explored opportunities locally, she says, and “saw a beautiful gem of a community” right here.
While it’s premature to announce any new businesses coming to Buchanan, Grace and Community Development Director Rich Murphy are talking to a handful of restaurant, shop and business owners about opening up in the city.
Grace is hopeful that new opportunities and jobs will be forthcoming in the months ahead. “I feel very encouraged by everything we’re seeing and the amount of interest” that, she says, will help to put Buchanan on the map.
She says she has also met with a number of Front Street business owners since taking on her new position six months ago. Grace assumed the role formerly held by Bill Marx, who retired in January.
Economic Development Toolkit
Now, Grace and city commissioners are researching a variety of state programs to help bolster the city’s economic development.
For example, a Main Street program, offered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, could provide grants and financial incentives to companies choosing to move to Buchanan.
Grace says commissioners will consider an economic development toolkit of programs once the new fiscal year budget is approved. The new fiscal year begins July 1. Financial incentives for prospective businesses may include façade improvement grants, tax abatement and small-business incubation. The latter provides a shared space where entrepreneurs can work together, she says.
DDA’s Loose Ends
With a new job come new challenges. Grace says one challenge is tying up loose ends after the dissolution of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) in 2020, before her arrival.
Attorney Scott Dienes of Barnes & Thornburg has been retained to ensure “all the assets are wound up and dealt with in an appropriate way. It’s relatively rare to dissolve a DDA in Michigan,” Grace says. “There’s not a lot of legal precedent for the correct way to do that. So we engaged special counsel to make sure we’re doing that in a way that satisfies the state statutes that apply to tax-increment financing and the DDA.”
At a May 24 city commission meeting, Dienes referred to the former DDA’s “murky recordkeeping,” but he thought there would be “no fault to city or staff” over the matter. Further opinions are forthcoming.
And since the DDA is the body that issues liquor licenses in the downtown—and the city is unable to issue new licenses itself—she says, “We’re trying to find other avenues to get in more restaurants.” Other replacements for the DDA could feature a principal shopping district program or a corridor improvement authority that may “help us accomplish the same goals” as those of a DDA. But Grace says the Main Street program, to her knowledge, can’t issue liquor licenses, either.
Reinstate the DDA?
So, some Buchananites want to discuss reinstating the DDA, Grace adds. “There’s been talk about that from folks wondering if that’s a path forward. That’s not out of the question,” she says. “Some folks in the community want to have that conversation. I feel we should never take an economic development [option] off the table completely until we have a conversation about it.”
Technology is another challenge Grace faces. The city plans to work with a yet-to-be-named IT company to update city software and hardware. Some missing records and computer codes have been a problem, she says.
“We don’t have access to all of our IDs and passwords right now,” she says. “We’re not able to access everything we think we should. So we don’t know what digital files are out there that we’re not able to access, and that’s part of the problem. We’re trying to transition to a new tech company so we can have better access.” She doesn’t know whether there existed any document shredding by a previous administration, and she adds, “I don’t think it’s anything like that.”
News to Know
Grace also reports that . . .
- The $9 million wastewater treatment plant project is on schedule, with a possible June 22 completion, and fully functional in July.
- Mike Baker is the interim director of public works.
- Outside bistro seating, benches and ample trash receptacles are part of the new Social District plan.
- After the new fiscal year begins in July, the city will aim at resurfacing the basketball court at Ravish Park.
- The Buchanan Area Recreation Board is also discussing plans for new equipment at Kathryn Park near Moccasin Elementary School.
Buchanan’s Heart, Charm
Grace was raised in West Branch, about five hours north of Buchanan. She has a law degree from Western Michigan University-Thomas M. Cooley Law School and practiced law as a Michigan Court of Appeals attorney. She says her background definitely helps her trouble-shoot potential problems and implement solutions.
Away from work, Grace is a Buchanan resident who says that she’s “a big family person.” Her daughter Faith just turned 3, and son Lowan, 9, studies at Moccasin School.
Grace believes future success for Buchanan means keeping its small-town charm and heart.
“From what I can tell,” she says, “the heart of Buchanan is a friendly community that is safe and feels like the place where you and your family want to stay—generation after generation.”