Farmington Voice shuts down

After two years and almost seven months, the Farmington Voice website is closing shop. I’ll keep sharing items of local interest on Facebook and Twitter but will no longer do any original reporting.

Thank you for your encouragement and support and news tips, and for your respectful, thoughtful social media comments. Thank you for caring about local news and about our community. I hope you continue to do so, wherever and however you can.

One opportunity will happen later this year, with our second Farmington Voices fundraiser to benefit Operation Common Good, a charity that provides direct help to Farmington Public Schools students and families in need. Details will be shared on social media and via email. I’d love to send you more information as it becomes available – sign up here: eepurl.com/cFT9C1.

Thanks to everyone who took our exit survey; it is now closed.

Finally, please join me in supporting these local news sources:

This journey has been a struggle at times, but always a true privilege. Thank you again, Farmington and Farmington Hills, from the bottom of my heart.

Joni Hubred

Farmington school officials approve one-year extension for Heitsch

Farmington Public Schools Superintendent Dr. George Heitsch will serve the district at least one more year after officials on Tuesday approved an unusual contract extension.

Heitsch said the one-year extension, which includes another one-year option, was a “mutual decision.”

“I think it’s important for us to finish the work we started,” he said, adding that at the end of the year, officials will decide whether “I’ve got enough juice left,” or it’s time to look for a new leader.

Hired in May of 2014, Heitsch formerly served as superintendent of Avondale School District. Among other things, his tenure has included a successful $131.5 million bond campaign, a grade level reconfiguration, challenging union contract negotiations, and last year’s contentious decision to close Harrison High School and Dunckel Middle School.

Heitsch said the last two and half years “feel like dog years with what we’ve been through.”

The unusual contract extension comes before Heitsch’s evaluation, due to a change in state law. The contract terms require the renewal, but the state established a new evaluation tool, and board members won’t begin required training until March 14.

Board member Jim Stark stressed the short extension is “in no way…based on a reflection of the job Dr. Heitsch has done. He’s done a tremendous job.”

Dancers set to swing into downtown Farmington pavilion

The 2017 Swing Farmington season, opening May 4, will mark the 10th year of Thursday night dances at downtown Farmington’s Walter E. Sundquist Farmington Pavilion and Riley Park.

Alexander Steward, who organizes the weekly events, last week received city permission for the season, which runs through October 19. He said attendance averages around 200 during peak months (May through August).

While most who come out to dance fall between the ages of 13 and 35, Steward said swing dancing is open to all ages. “We’d like to build this year and become a broader-based community event,” he added.

The group will partner with the Farmington Farmers and Artisans Market and Greater Farmington Founders Festival and hosts its annual Summer Swing Spectacular with live music on August 3.

“I look forward to this starting up every year and listening to the music from my backyard,” said council member Steven Schneemann.

Swing Farmington’s indoor season is held at St. John Lutheran Church in Farmington Hills, Steward said. To learn more, follow the group on Facebook.

Farmington Civic live music series wraps March 31 with songwriters

A series of live concerts held at the Farmington Civic Theater over the winter months has given music lovers an “off-season” reason to come to downtown Farmington.

Producer Tom Birchler, who also coordinates the warm-weather Rhythmz in Riley Park concert series, said the idea for Friday Night Live emerged from conversations with theater manager Scott Freeman, who has booked live events over the past several years.

“People have gotten used to the idea of coming to downtown Farmington for music,” Birchler said. “This is a trial to see if we can get people to support live music in the winter months.”

Birchler said the theater provides a more intimate space that allows performers to better connect with their audiences. It’s a different experience from open air concerts in Riley Park, where audiences are there for the experience as much as the music.

“When you’re sitting in a theater, in a very close environment, you’re there to listen,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to develop is that real close artist-audience connection.”

Sixties band Paisley Fogg and singer/songwriter Paco Higdon performed in January and February, respectively. The March 31 concert will feature The Motor City-Music City Songwriters Round, which brings a popular Nashville format to the theater stage. Performers will include Rob Taube, a New York-based musician, songwriter, educator, and producer; Mark Barnowski, a performer and songwriter living in Nashville; and Allie Louise, a singer/songwriter from Rochester Hills.

Louise and Taube have traveled to Nashville to write music with Barnowski, Birchler said.

The two-hour shows begin at 8 p.m., and all ages are welcome. Cash-only tickets are $10 in advance at the box office (after 2 p.m. daily) or at the door. The Farmington Civic Theater is located at 33332 Grand River.

Ready to dine al fresco? Downtown restaurants get seating waiver

As the mercury climbed above 60 degrees over the weekend, customers at Los Tres Amigos dined on the downtown Farmington restaurant’s patio.

But John Cowley & Sons owner Greg Cowley, who also sits on Farmington city council, said he had to keep his customers from dragging chairs outside. The difference? Cowley’s outdoor seating rests on a public sidewalk, while the Los Tres Amigos patio is private property.

On Monday, city officials temporarily moved the limits of an existing ordinance to allow all Farmington restaurants to take advantage of Mother Nature’s winter warm-up. Economic and Community Development Director Kevin Christiansen said the city has in previous years extended the end of the season but has not moved the opening date back from March 1.

“I don’t think it’s inappropriate of you to authorize the use of a public sidewalk,” city attorney Tom Schultz said, noting that officials are simply giving permission for the use of public property.

“Los Tres Amigos was packed outside over the weekend,” council member Sara Bowman said. “Obviously, we need to be flexible with providing for the needs of our customers.”

Council member Jeff Scott said he hopes businesses take advantage of outdoor seating while handling it appropriately if the weather takes another turn. But Mayor Bill Galvin wondered whether the temperature should make any difference at all.

“If somebody wants to sit out there when it’s 30 degrees, who am I to stop them?” he said.

The initial request to move the date came from Cowley, city manager David Murphy said, but Christiansen noted several other downtown businesses had contacted him for the same reason.

Officials also voted to refer a review of the outdoor seating ordinance to the Planning Commission.

Farmington council approves final food truck ordinance

After months of discussion and study, Farmington city council members on Monday approved the final version of an ordinance governing mobile food vendors, including food trucks.

Officials first began to explore new rules after heated discussions over Farmington Brewing Company requests to bring in food trucks for special events. Council member Greg Cowley, who with his family owns John Cowley & Sons restaurant, has been a particularly vocal opponent; he has said they compete with brick-and-mortar businesses, but pay no taxes and take revenues out of the central business district.

The ordinance aims to level the playing field a bit by requiring a $150 fee, which city manager David Murphy said covers administrative costs and additional police patrols. Mobile vendors are also limited to three permits per year, and mobile food events may not last longer than three consecutive days. Vendors may not park within 150 feet of an existing restaurant unless the permit applicant also has a business that serves food or alcohol.

Murphy said he expects to monitor activities under the new ordinance, which goes into effect as soon as it’s published, and may suggest future changes.

While it may not be possible to cover every possible scenario, council member Steven Schneemann said, “I hope this relieves the concerns and consternation we’ve heard.”

Read the full text of the ordinance

Farmington Hills woman’s fundraiser aims to end multiple sclerosis

A Farmington Hills resident has organized a fundraiser to ensure that no one has to hear the dreaded words, “You have multiple sclerosis (MS).”

An Auction to End Multiple Sclerosis will be held April 29, 6 p.m.-9 p.m., at The Farmington Garage, 33014 Grand River Ave. in downtown Farmington, with all proceeds benefitting the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Michigan Chapter (NMSS). Organizer Tanya Nordhaus began raising funds to fight MS at age 17, not knowing that the disease would personally touch her life.

After 10 years of fundraising for the NMSS via the Bike MS rides (formerly known as the MS 150 rides), Nordhaus lost her ability to walk or even crawl without falling over. On February 20, 2001, a neurologist walked into her hospital room and delivered the terrible diagnosis: “You have multiple sclerosis.”

Although wheelchair bound at that time, and just learning how to stand on her own, Nordhaus pointed to a picture of her crossing the finish line of one of the Bike MS rides and said, “See that picture of up there? That’s me crossing the finish line of the MS 150. I will do that again!”

While her doctor believed her fierce determination would get her there, he said, “Just not this year.”

In a press release, Nordhaus said that statement “lit a spark in me. In my mind, my hands were on my hips and I was shaking my head saying ‘You don’t know me. I will do that ride again this summer.’.”

After just five months, she did. Nordhaus has participated in the Bike MS fundraisers ever since and is one of the state’s top NMSS fundraisers. Her goal this year is $25,000.

The April 29 event will be catered by The Cheese Lady Farmington, Jim Brady’s Royal Oak, Sunflour Bakehaus, and Ideal Bite Catering of Farmington Hills. Rosie Burns-Pavlik, Megan Cromwell, and students from Axis Music Academy will provide musical entertainment.

Tickets will be at the early bird price of $35 until February 28. In March, tickets will be $45 each, and in April, tickets go to $50 each. To reserve your spot, visit anauctiontoendms.eventbrite.com.

Businesses that have an item or service they would like to donate, can do so until April 21. Ads can also be purchased in the event program, and VIP Host sponsorships are available that include four free tickets to the event, along with other benefits.

To learn more, write to endingmsauction@gmail.com. And follow the auction on Twitter at @EndingMSAuction.

Consultant lays out downtown Farmington parking options

If projections made by a nationally recognized consulting firm hold true, downtown Farmington could need hundreds of more parking spaces over the next 5-10 years.

Andrew Vidor, representing Walker Parking Consultants, told members of the City of Farmington Parking Advisory Committee on Thursday that the central business district’s parking system today operates at maximum capacity. Walker collected and evaluated data last year; the company conducted a similar study in 2008.

When it comes to parking, Vidor said, downtown Farmington is at a “tipping point.”

“There has to be a balance between how much room the city wants to provide for future growth and how convenient do you want to make it for people to come downtown,” he said.

With a 155-unit apartment complex in the works at the former Maxfield Training Center site on Thomas Street, and potential filling of empty storefronts with restaurants, which place a higher demand on parking, downtown Farmington could need as many as 429 parking spaces over the next decade.

Solutions, small and large

The study suggests ways to maximize what already exists:

  • Share information about projects that will improve walkability on Grand River and Farmington Road.
  • Share “insider” parking tips in connection with promoting downtown events.
  • Emphasize to employees the importance of parking in non-timed lots, freeing up space for customer parking closer to businesses.

The study also looked at building more space for parking. Vidor said criteria for potential parking deck sites included easy accessibility for vehicles, less than a 5-minute walk to shopping and restaurants, a line of sight from parking to destination, and “preferably on city-owned land.”

Several locations – publicly owned lots on Orchard Street (behind Fresh Thyme) and lots north of Grand River and east of Farmington Road (in the Downtown Farmington Center) – didn’t fit the bill. Vidor said building just east of the Farmington Community Library Farmington branch could improve the parking picture by 200 spaces, but each would cost $20,000-$25,000, creating a $4.2 million-$5.25 million overall price tag.

“What we don’t know…and haven’t looked at is financing and a source of funds to pay the debt service or the long-term costs of operations and maintenance,”  Vidor said, noting the study presents “concepts and opportunities.”

Stronger enforcement of time-limited parking, he said, could free up 70 parking spaces, and “that’s a $1.4 million cost avoidance.” While it wouldn’t eliminate the need for more parking, it could give the city some time to understand and study its options, which could include repurposing the City Hall site on Liberty Street.

Next steps

So what will city officials do with the Walker parking study? Council member Greg Cowley said it will be a “major element” of a five-year Captial Improvement Plan currently under development.

“We have to figure out how to pay for infrastructure, parking included, without raising taxes,” he said.

Mayor Bill Galvin wants to see a “civic engagement project” to identify the city’s funding capacity.

“The question is can our city afford a $5 million project,” he said. “If we don’t want to address the capacity issue, then we have to acknowledge this is it.”

Galvin said he believes residents enjoy the city’s increasing vibrancy and will want to increase capacity.

To take a look at the Walker parking study, visit downtownfarmington.org.

Read more: Consultant: Downtown Farmington parking operates at ‘maximum capacity’

Correction: One of the lots deemed unsuitable was misidentified; it is east of Farmington Road. 

Consultant: Downtown Farmington parking operates at ‘maximum capacity’

On a Saturday morning when the Farmington Farmers and Artisans Market is in full swing, does it seem like there isn’t a parking spot to be had in downtown Farmington?

Andrew Vidor, representing Walker Parking Consultants, told members of the City of Farmington Parking Advisory Committee Thursday that parking capacity isn’t just at a premium – it’s stretched to the limit. By 12 p.m. on a Farmers Market Saturday last October, demand for parking exceeded capacity by 60 spaces.

On weekdays, parking hits 64 percent of capacity overall, leaving 202 spaces open. On weekends, nearly three-quarters of spaces are taken, leaving 134 across the central business district.

“That’s a 37 percent increase since 2008,” Vidor said.

Breaking down the numbers shows public lots at 87 percent of capacity on weekend nights. Vidor said opening new restaurants or other types of businesses in the few available storefronts could quickly change the picture. The system, he said, is operating at “maximum capacity.”

“It’s a good problem to have for a downtown,” Vidor added. “It means the downtown is vibrant. People want to be here.”

Time limits

The city commissioned the study to update a 2008 Walker report. Since that time, downtown Farmington has undergone some dramatic changes, from increased attendance at the Farmington Civic Theater and Farmers Market, to the addition of Fresh Thyme Farmers Market and several restaurants. In addition, the city implemented time-limited parking in some public lots.

Vidor said studies showed that the vast majority of people parking in time-limited lots stayed longer than the 3-hour limit. No more than four percent parked four hours or longer. There were no violations on time-limited, on-street parking spaces.

“That’s a very high compliance rate,” Vidor said.

The study concluded that “non-compliant parkers… are likely employees of downtown businesses who either are not being ticketed or who are legally beating the system” by moving their vehicles to different spaces or lots. Recommended strategies included an ordinance that defines “re-parking,” expanded enforcement in the Fresh Thyme parking lot (where three percent of parkers violate the limit), increased enforcement in lots north of Grand River, and continuing to provide parking information to employees.

While the report did not identify a “silver bullet,” it did outline one possible solution: a three-story parking structure.

Next: How and where might the city add parking in downtown Farmington? 

Farmington school board approves 3-year contract with teachers

Farmington Public Schools officials on Tuesday unanimously approved a 3-year contract with the Farmington Education Association (FEA) that adds no additional dollars to the current pay scale but helps bridge the gap between lower and higher paid teachers.

Kathy Smith, Executive Director of Human Resources, said the district and FEA have worked on the new contract for more than a year.

Smith shared highlights from the new contract, which continues through the end of the 2018-2019 school year:

  • Extends the pay scale, which slows the growth of salary costs by 30 percent each year
  • Supports a balanced budget and maintains the school board’s target of a 10 percent fund balance
  • This year and next year, incremental increases for lower paid teachers
  • Continues an insurance advisory committee that will recommend changes to control health care costs
  • Adds merit pay components that link compensation with performance evaluations

In addition, the district will establish a joint committee focused on recruitment and retention of students, Smith said.

“I’m pleased that we’ve reached a tentative agreement,” board member Terri Weems said. While she has concerns about the contract’s financial implications, she said, “I recognize, and everyone at this table recognizes, the importance of valuing our teachers.”

Board member Jim Stark appreciated the emphasis on recruiting and retaining students. “That’s direct money. If we keep kids in the district, that’s money we don’t have to beg for or apply for… it just comes to us through enrollment.”

“What I see for this district moving forward is exciting,” board president Jessica Cummings said.

News from the heart of Farmington and Farmington Hills, Michigan