Five years ago, the City of Saline stopped employing a part-time downtown director. Instead, the city agreed to pay $209,000 over the next five years to Saline Main Street, a newly founded non-profit agency affiliated with the Michigan Main Street Center and the National Main Street center.
The five-year deal with Main Street expires at the end of the fiscal year and the city’s source of funding has dried up.
This year, Saline Main Street, which aims to revitalize downtown Saline, is asking the city for $40,000.
Main Street officials have attended the last three City Council budget work sessions to make their case and answer questions. Monday, Saline Main Street was represented by Rebecca Schneider and Karen Ragland.
“If I were in your shoes, I’d want to know, ‘What’s the return on our investment,?’” Schneider told council.
She pointed to two examples: The Be Bloomin’ flower basket program and the Summer Music Series.
In the past, Schneider said, the city paid for flowers, installation of the baskets and maintenance of the flowers, and take down. Today, the city pays for the flowers and Main Street volunteers take care of the rest. Similarly, with the Summer Music Series, the city once paid Art Trapp to manage the series. Today, Main Street president Jill Durnen books the bands and a group of volunteers set up chairs and staff the event.
The volunteerism benefits the city all year. In April, 50 volunteers joined Main Street for a downtown cleanup up day. Over the last five years, Saline Main Street volunteers have donated 28,324 hours for events and projects. In that time, 11 new businesses have opened downtown and more are coming.
Those are some of the tangible benefits to Saline, Schenider said.
“Some of the more intangible benefits are that people are more aware of what’s going on in their community. There’s more buy-in. More people want to improve our downtown,” Schneider said. “You can’t put a dollar amount on that.”
One thing that’s changed this year is that any money the city provides Main Street will coming from the city’s general fund. City staff, hoping to present a balanced budget to city council, recommended contributing $20,000 to the agency, half of what Main Street asked for.
After a month of conversations and review, Saline City Council appears to want to split the difference.
At Monday’s work meeting, city council directed city staff to find about $10,000 more dollars in the budget for Main Street. This would bring the city’s contribution to $30,000 for the upcoming fiscal year, not including $30,000 earmarked for new Christmas Decorations and $5,000 for new hanging baskets.
The directive to find $10,000 came after plea from council’s newest member, Christen Mitchell.
She said the city seems to have finally recovered after the recession. She pointed to Emagine Theatre and new businesses coming downtown. She said she thought the city should fully fund Main Street to continue progress.
“I’m not sure $20,000 is sustainable. What would need to happen so that we could fully fund Main Street?” Mitchell asked.
Treasurer Mickie Jo Bennett replied.
“We would need to cut something else,” Bennett said.
“If we don’t fund Main Street to the point that it’s sustainable, if Main Street has to reduce programming, would the city step in? Or would the (programs) just go away?” Mitchell asked. “Are we comfortable fully funding Saline Main Street for next year?”
City Manager Todd Campbell said that if city council wanted to fully fund Main Street, city staff could provide recommendations about where other cuts could be made, or council members could present their own ideas.
“My wish is to fully support Main Street,” Mitchell said.
Other council members expressed varying levels of support for Mitchell’s wish.
Councillor Jack Ceo said Main Street does many wonderful things for the community.
“But we have to balance that against what we would have to do without (in the budget),” he said.
After hearing Mitchell’s comments, Mayor Marl put the question to the rest of city council.
“I don’t think there is any doubt the organization has produced tangible results in recent years. New signs of growth are a direct result of their work. They’ve inspired people to become more engaged and invested and that’s something we should be encouraging,” Marl said. “As far as the annual contribution from our general fund, there is a balancing act. We are a public entity with finite resources.”
Marl suggested the city could compromise and provide $28,000 or $30,000.
Councillor Janet Dillon asked if Main Street has a plan to grow revenue, or if they’ll continue to rely on some amount of city funding.
Karen Ragland said she didn’t know if Main Street would ever be totally self-sustaining. She said the organization is in a cycle where it has to provide something (usually advertising at events) to receive corporate support.
“If we ever get to the point where we receive ongoing corporate support without having to put on events, we would be more self-sustaining,” Ragland said.
Ragland noted that the National Main Street program recommends that communities contribute one-third of a local Main Street organization’s budget. Main Street is asking for $40,000. It’s annual budget is about $170,000.
Ragland and Schneider said that a healthy donation from the city shows potential donors that the community values Main Street.
Dillon said she couldn’t decide if she supported increasing the funding for Main Street until she learned what might be cut as a result.
Councillor Dean Girbach recommended cutting travel or conference costs to find the extra money for Main Street. He said he didn’t want to see the city make cuts at anything that might delay repairs to equipment or infrastructure.
Earlier in the meeting, Councillor TerHaar asked if Main Street might consider moving to an office at city hall to save $12,000 a year in rent. Ragland said Main Street considered the idea a couple years ago, but worried it might give people the impression that it was a branch of city government, which might hurt donations.
Councillor Ceo wondered why Saline Main Street needed city money to encourage private donations, but felt that accepting free rent from the city might discourage donations.