By Clare Kolenda
Albion’s long search for a new City Manager has finally come to an end. On Sept. 3, 2014, Sheryl Mitchell started her first full day on the job as the new City Manager for the Albion community. Mitchell has plenty of experience in city operations. She has worked for the Detroit City Council as well as in Oakland County as a senior analyst on the Board of Commissioners for 17 years. Mitchell, who is currently still a resident of Oakland County, recently completed her dissertation in the area of prioritized budgeting en route to earning her Doctorate in Business Administration from Lawrence Technological University. She holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from Central Michigan University.
I sat down with Mitchell on a Tuesday morning earlier this month. We talked about the current circumstances of the city of Albion, as well as what she believes the future holds. She greeted me with a warm handshake and smile that instantly made me feel welcome. As I interviewed Mitchell, she responded with passion for Albion that could rival a lifelong resident’s. She shared her vision for Albion’s future with an enthusiasm that was contagious. She envisions a “new Albion,” one that holds hope and prosperity for all its residents.
Clare Kolenda: How have the first few months on the job been for you?
Sheryl Mitchell: Exceptionally busy. Nonstop busy. I can’t believe how many meetings that I’ve had. It takes a lot of the hours out of the day, but I am never bored. Every time I might be feeling like I’m tired or overwhelmed, some great new thing comes before me, so I get reenergized.
CK: What does your job description consist of?
SM: Well, I’m the administrative head of the city. The mayor and city council set the policy and the objectives and approve the budget, and I administer it.
CK: And then on day-to-day basis, what does your job look like?
SM: Well, I have the oversight of all the departments, so I’m working on a daily basis with the finance department, clerk, the utilities, recreation and public safety. So those are the primary areas […] Right now we’re knee-deep in the budget process. Talk about hitting the ground running.
CK: They’re not starting you off very easy.
SM: [Laughs] Learn how to operate the voicemail, get the budget. So that’s been more than hectic and probably even what’s exciting, but it’s also very time-consuming. There is this new energy around collaboration in Albion, so I have had tremendous amount of meetings with all community stakeholders, and that’s on-going. So although I enjoy it and we’re getting a lot of energy in regards to that—you know, people wanting to volunteer, and we’re looking at a lot of grant opportunities and just a number of initiatives, including the Holland Park renovation, so there’s a lot of things going on—but also going to the meetings takes a lot of time. So it’s trying to balance that.
CK: How do you see [your experience] fitting into Albion?
SM: Albion, as many communities in Michigan, they’ve had some severe economic challenges recently, and we’re on the cusp of turning around and moving to their greater future. And I think that they need some direction and leadership, as well as just a positive outlook, and an understanding of where they can go and instilling the policies and processes to help get them there. And one of things I’ve found with Albion is they’re doing really well in terms of a number of things. Because they’ve downsized so tremendously and a number of key staff people have retired, some of that institutional knowledge is gone. So, trying to actually document the processes and the policies that should be in place will be a key focus in going forward.
CK: When you say Albion is doing really well, what do you mean by that?
SM: Just in the day-to-day functions. I mean, we have very committed staff people, although we’ve lost almost 50 percent of our total employees in the past few years. People have taken on two to three positions literally. They’re still giving 101 percent in what they’re doing. I’m very thrilled to have that kind of commitment, and they’re doing it an environment where we haven’t even been able to give them increases over the past few years. So although it’s been challenging, people have really stepped up to the plate.
CK: They have that Albion grit in them.
SM: [Chuckles] Yes.
CK: What are some of the challenges of being a city manager of a smaller town like Albion? You talked about the downsizing.
SM: Because the budget is smaller than what I’m accustomed to dealing with, there’s not as much leeway in terms of making decisions and getting the things you need most critically. I can identify the needs of my department, yes, I can identify the needs very readily, but identifying those resources to make those things possible is definitely a challenge.
CK: What are some of the challenges you see in the next couple of years?
SM: The physical sustainability. Many of the cities in the state of Michigan that have a low income tax have had severe financial difficulties including bankruptcy. And Albion has been fortunate that their past leadership has kept that from happening. They have gone from being on the brink, literally on the brink, from some financial disasters and have turned that around. So although we’re stable, we have to make certain that we are sustainable going forward. Part of that includes increasing our tax base, so attracting returning businesses, making sure that we’re looking at some job creation opportunities for our residents and the retraining associated with that so they have the skills for those businesses coming in.
CK: How do you hope Albion will change over the next couple of years?
SM: Well, I think Albion is going to be the place to come live, learn, grow, recreate and experience. We have such a strong historical background and a strong arts-related community. And I think we really need to capitalize on that and start marketing and branding as the place to go for those types of unique experiences.
CK: And when you say that we have a strong arts background, on what scale?
SM: Well, just the historical elements of it. […] Many of the structures here are more than 100 years old. So just finding the architecture is very unique for this region. And we have a strong arts community in terms of the creative arts elements.
CK: Do you have a game plan as far as how turning that around, so it’s that we’re not just surviving, but thriving?
SM: There are many parts to the puzzle. Anyone who is interested has been provided an opportunity to be engaged in that. The college has a tremendous role, and the president has definitely stepped forward and wants to be a part of that economic development, especially in terms of the downtown and the surrounding communities. So making certain that our processes are in place to encourage and not discourage those activities. Looking and working with the EDC [Economic Development Corporation] and the Chamber of Commerce in term of the business development. And I also want to emphasize entrepreneurial opportunities. Although we need the big businesses, we also need to provide opportunities for college students and young adults especially. Especially as they go into the world and experience other places, we want to be a place for them they can come home to and start their new businesses and generate their new ideas.
CK: You made a great point when you talked about the community and college partnering together. Besides creating entrepreneurial positions for the college students, what other ways are you hoping to keep that relationship going?
SM: Open communications. One of the things we’ve started is an e-newsletter to try to make certain as wide of an audience as possible is getting the information on a regular basis. Several of our departments now have a social media [presence including a] Facebook page as another way to reach an audience that we don’t typically reach out to. And just having a physical presence at a number of the committees and the organizations that exist in the communities so that we’re sharing information and looking for new opportunities to partner in new developments or activities or programs.
CK: As I was researching, I came across a quote by Peggy Merriss, former ICMA [International City/County Managers Association] president. She said in order to be a city manager you need to build support from the community and keep them informed. You mentioned that e-newsletter as a way to keep people informed. What other ways do you want to keep other Albion residents informed?
SM: Whatever we can do to reach all the residents. One of things that you’ll learn is that not everybody uses every means of communication. [Smiles] So we have a newspaper, but it’s weekly. So making sure all the information is there, but for the people who don’t look at, or receive the weekly newspaper, how can we help the people communicate? So again, the e-newsletter, and at the meetings trying to make sure that both the council members and the mayor are informed so they can inform the constituents as well. […]
CK: Other than our strong arts scene and our historical element, what other strengths do we have?
SM: The people. I’ve been just overwhelmed by the very warm reception that I have received from all the residents. People go out of their way to be friendly and welcoming, and they’re very positive. They’re looking forward to moving the community back to a place of prosperity. And everyone wants to be a part of that. There is definitely support from the residents, from the businesses. Especially now that there’s a new college president, the president of the school board and relatively new superintendent, they’re looking at partnerships and collaboration, so we’re all on the same page. And so, moving forward together will be a lot easier because everyone wants to do this together. No one’s trying to take all the glory. We understand it’s for the betterment of the entire community, so how can we collaborate?
CK: Following up regarding the new president of Albion College, Mauri Diztler. How have you two been collaborating with each other and keeping each other on the same page as well?
SM: I mean, we started off at the inauguration with the Collaboration Corner. Which was just so nice to see a former [gas station], you know, a contaminated site, and everyone from the county land bank, to the college, to the students, and the mayor and everyone in our departments working together to make that come together, so it’s a beautiful place where we can come together to relax and enjoy. So it’s symbolic, but it’s very meaningful, because from my understanding, in the past, people worked in their silos. The city is here, the college is there, and the school here. And they didn’t necessarily… [hesitates]…work well in terms of working together. We recognize that we need each other and just having those kind of dialogues is really exciting, and they’re ongoing. There’s already another conversation going around in terms of the leadership from these various organization as well as the full boards. And I’m getting together and talking about what specifically we can be working on together and move the entire community forward.
CK: That’s awesome.
SM: It is. It’s really exciting. And you asked specifically in regards to the college, so some of the early conversations I’m having is: What types of experiences can we offer to the college students that will be meaningful to them? So, already having dialogue in terms of internships, both in our offices in terms of research and actual application, as well as the hands-on stuff, like planting the flowers and helping to restructure the parks and how they look and making community gardens. So there’s a lot things coming on board.
CK: What are some ways you see Albion needing to improve?
SM: Well, bringing on board some of the technology innovation. We just recently received a grant from the state relative to adopting a GIS [Geographic Information System] system with our water and waste, water infrastructure. So, the more we have that type of technology available be easier for us to market our community for developers and for small businesses to identify what we have in terms of infrastructure and support to financing to help bring their businesses about. […]
CK: When you take a stroll downtown, you see a lot of businesses, but you also places that have been boarded up and businesses that aren’t there anymore. So what is a game plan to support those local businesses and make sure they don’t go under and that they are financially stable?
SM: Right. I’ve initiated some conversations with the Chamber and the EDC on if we could try to bring together a forum for small businesses so people want to start or even keep their small businesses or help them grow in terms of financing–the small business loans and that sort of thing, to support them in moving forward. And even in terms of centralized marketing […] the potential for downtown is so tremendous. So how can we repurpose these buildings? How can we bring more capacity in terms of the people in downtown to support the businesses? Being from Detroit, and I was just in Detroit a couple a couple of weeks ago, just to see the turnaround there and tremendous energy, and that’s really being spearheaded by young people. It truly is. I was at the Wayne State campus and it was a nighttime light show. And they literally took buildings like the Detroit Art Institute and they had films on the side of the building. I said, “All these buildings we have downtown, why couldn’t we do that.”? […] I said, “We could do that!” It’s the little things that’ll bring energy. Because my first time here on a Friday night, I thought, “Well this is a college town so it will be packed.” And it wasn’t. So what do we need to do to make this an attractive place for the people who are already here to want to come? So that takes some additional conversations; like we’ll go asking the college students, “What type of activities would you like to see on the weekend?” And how can we support our local business also?
CK: And I think a big start of that is going to be the Bohm Theatre.
SM: Yes, I think there is going to be a lot centered around what the theater offers and then what are the support services that the local businesses are providing.
CK: If someone had never heard from Albion, how would you describe it to them?
SM: I would call it a small town, with a big heart. [Grins]
CK: Thank you so much for your time.
SM: It was a pleasure.