Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield wants to get money into the hands of people who have big ideas for rebuilding their neighborhoods but can’t raise the funding themselves.
The District 5 Councilmember on Wednesday unveiled the city’s Neighborhood Beautification Program. The effort is being funded with $1.25 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars and $1 million from the Neighborhood Improvement Fund, which collects income taxes from employees of the Detroit Pistons franchise.
The City Council in 2017 approved plans to divert income taxes from Detroit Pistons employees and players as well as visiting NBA players, into the fund. The beautification program will be the first to get an infusion from the Neighborhood Improvement Fund. It will help block clubs, associations, faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations pay for their dream projects.
“One of the things residents always tell me is ‘I have great ideas, I want to be a part of rebuilding my community and revitalizing my block, but I don’t have the funds,’” Sheffield said during a Wednesday news conference in the Islandview neighborhood on the east side. “The neighborhood beautification program will alleviate the stress our residents have experienced trying to fund these efforts.”
The Pistons tax capture has raised roughly $3 million so far, and Sheffield said discussions about other creative uses for the Neighborhood Improvement Fund are ongoing.
The beautification program can be used for clean-up activities, community gardens or improving public spaces. It’s a prime example of what the council has hoped to accomplish with the fund, she said.
“Detroiters will start to see tangible benefits from the Pistons deal right here on their blocks and in their communities,” she added.
The grants will range from $500 to $15,000, and up to 50 projects a year could receive funding.
Donald Rencher, Detroit’s group executive of housing, planning and development, said the city could begin accepting applications by the end of May or in early June. The department will also hold informational sessions across the city, which have yet to be scheduled, he said.
The program will be overseen by the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department and it will be administered by a third-party organization that has not yet been named. Applications will open once the City Council approves a third-party administrator contract.
Sheffield encouraged neighborhood groups to get revitalization plans prepared and attend the upcoming information sessions. Once applications come in and projects are ready to go, the intention is to “get the money out as quickly as we can,” she said.
Rencher said to receive the beautification funds groups must be a nonprofit or partner with one, due to federal regulations attached to the ARPA dollars.
“If your block club is not a nonprofit, that’s OK,” he said. “Our third-party entity will partner with you as they are a nonprofit to make sure you can spend that money.”
Block clubs and neighborhood associations around Detroit’s east side attended Wednesday’s announcement at the Islandview Community Garden. Organizers there said they already have big plans and hope to be awarded some of the funding.
Jennine Spencer, president of the Field Street Block Club Association, said neighborhood groups struggle to make an impact on tight budgets with limited access to funds. The beautification program, she said, will offer an opportunity to clean up vacant lots, reduce blight, build up community gardens used to feed vulnerable residents and develop public spaces that make neighborhoods special.
“We don’t want our people to go hungry anymore,” Spencer said. “We want to continue to keep blessing our community and our neighbors … For this fund to come into our community, it’s a start of something greater.”
Groups that don’t own land also can receive help to purchase or lease vacant lots owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, according to the city.
Wednesday’s press conference was held on one of nine vacant parcels on Field Street that Spencer said she’s been trying to purchase. Spencer said residents and neighborhood organizations have faced difficulties in purchasing lots from the land bank, and some believe that out of town investors and land speculators are getting priority.
“I would like to see more of my people that have been fighting for their land to reclaim their land,” Spencer said. “We want our block to look good so we continue (maintaining) these lots and putting the work in because we want where we live to look beautiful.”
Carol Galloway and her daughter Robyn Dickerson both live in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood and hope to see funding go toward streetscape projects.
Dickerson said decayed sidewalks make the area inaccessible for people with disabilities, and area parks are routinely flooded during rainstorms.
Spencer said she’s hopeful that beautification funds can be used to expand the Islandview Community Garden with the addition of a memorial for matriarchs who fought to stay in the neighborhood.
The Neighborhood Improvement Fund captures proceeds of the net income tax revenue collected from NBA players’ salaries during home games played at Little Caesars Arena and the salaries of Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees. The fund will be in place until the bonds are paid off in 2048, generating an estimated $30 million for neighborhood upgrades.
Sheffield proposed the fund in 2017 in response to calls from residents to negotiate community benefits as a part of the development deal to build the new Detroit Pistons headquarters and training facility in her council district. She introduced the proposal a week after the City Council approved $34.5 million in taxpayer-funded bonds to modify Little Caesars Arena.
Sheffield said residents had voiced concerns during an emergency meeting about a lack of investment in communities outside the downtown and Midtown.
“During that meeting, I came to the realization that many residents weren’t necessarily upset that the Pistons were coming to Detroit,” she said,” they wanted tangible benefits in their community because their tax dollars were being used for that project.”
Detroiters with questions about the beautification program are encouraged to contact the Department of Neighborhoods at firstname.lastname@example.org.