Incoming manager has few critics in Ferndale, Mich.

Even reporters warmly praise incoming OP village manager

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By DREW CARTER

Scroll to the bottom of this page and click the link to get more quotes and pictures from our trip to Ferndale.

Despite being a strong, progressive voice in a diverse and turn-around suburb that borders Detroit and is located in the nation's fourth wealthiest county, it's hard to get people to say anything bad about incoming Village Manager Tom Barwin.

"For us, he was the perfect city manager to work with," said Christy Strawser, a reporter with The Daily Tribune, which covers southeast Oakland County, including Ferndale.

"We all like him," said fellow reporter Mike McConnell, who's covered Barwin for seven years. "He never suffered from 'This is our personal little pinochle group that you're not a part of' mentality."

"It's going to be sad to see someone as progressive as Tom go," said Mailè Ilac Boeder, executive director of the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce. "I admire someone who has a futuristic attitude about what could be and how we can get there."

"If you wanted someone to say something bad about him, call L. Brooks," Strawser said.

That's L. Brooks Patterson, executive for Oakland County. Patterson, a Republican and former prosecutor, who said, "One man's 'sprawl' is another man's economic development," is Barwin's diametric philosophical opposite.

While Barwin has fought for mass transit options for the region, Patterson wants to widen I-75, which would improve commuter times for residents of the wealthier, northern part of the county. Patterson tossed Ferndale out of a county Main Street program it had been in two years after hearing comments Barwin made about his interstate expansion ideas, according to news reports.

"I don't want to poison the well," Patterson said about Barwin, whom he called "Oakland County's Don Quixote."

"I do believe he's a talented guy," he said, adding that their sometimes contentious relationship was never personal. "When you have divergent opinions, you will have some breakdown in communication."

"Just because [Patterson's] the big wheel, Tom doesn't back down," said Ferndale Mayor Robert Porter.

Porter calls Barwin a "visionary" who "is concerned with issues that are plaguing development in our world today."

A decade ago, Ferndale's downtown (primarily the four blocks of Nine Mile Road west of Woodward Avenue) was 60 percent vacant.

"This was a community most people were giving up on," Porter said.

Improving downtown was one of Barwin's first charges when he came in eight years ago. He started by taking a page out of the New Urbanist playbook: he found an old picture of Nine Mile Road when it was a thriving business center that showed it not as the four-lane, slim-sidewalked thoroughfare it had become.

"Businesses basically operated out of their back doors," said Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority.

Reducing traffic to two lanes, adding bump-outs and on-street metered parking was the first step.

Now, downtown Ferndale is a funky, eclectic mix of independent shops and restaurants with just one national retailer. And Barwin said the Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar in Ferndale is one of the chain's busiest. The area boasts ethnic restaurant choices that include Thai, Japanese/sushi, Indian and Ethiopian.

"It's not just one thing," Sheppard-Decius said. Barwin's leadership was good, as was the help from Main Street and the vision of new entrepreneurs.

"It was scary when we came" six years ago, said Josie Rotondo Knapp, co-owner of Assaggi, a pan-Mediterranean restaurant downtown. The business has since expanded into a next-door space and turned a dirt patch behind the restaurant into an al fresco garden dining area.

Barwin "never gave up on things," Sheppard-Decius said. "It's what's made him so successful."

Barwin cites his ability to work with other officials?#34;in and out of Ferndale?#34;as an accomplishment. During a tour of the inner-ring suburb and its neighboring communities, Barwin stops at the Gerry Kulick Community Center, an old school building rethought for new uses that include: senior services, day care, evening adult classes, and a basketball court outside.

Ferndale schools had more buildings than they needed, so the building could have fallen into disuse or been sold and developed into more houses. Instead, the building gives seniors a place to learn how to use computers, adults a place to exercise and take yoga classes, and kids a place to shoot hoops, something that led some neighbors to oppose the idea. A grant paid for revamping the school into the community center.

Similarly, the city and schools partnered to revive school-owned tennis courts, said Stephanie Hall, director of community relations for Ferndale schools. A grant picked up half the tab, with the two government bodies splitting the rest.

Barwin pushed hard to get the Michigan Dept. of Transportation to remove ramps at the intersection of Eight Mile Road and Woodward Avenue as part of renovations planned there. Ferndale officials felt the ramps occluded views, hindering redevelopment of the intersection. They were able to commission an economic study, but MDOT had made up its mind before the matter even came up, Porter said.

Barwin was quoted in a news story last week as saying frustration over the matter partly drove his decision to leave for the Oak Park job.

That zeal is one weakness Porter identified in his outgoing visionary city manager, saying he's seen him become "maybe overly aggressive" on issues he's passionate about.

Another area of improvement cited by the mayor would have been seeing Barwin put in more in-house time working on employee issues.

But Poerter and others said information and communication?#34;picking up the phone to give a personal call on even small matters?#34;were areas Barwin excelled in.

The city council members "were extremely well-informed at all times," Porter said. He received a weekly written update from Barwin that included any press references. "He is a firm believer in information."

"I see Tom as ideal for Oak Park," said Porter, who has a relative here. Open, creative government, diversity and the arts? "He loves that kind of stuff."

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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