By Marcus Lawniczak / WLD
Allen Park and Dexter are quite different, but both towns are close, tight-knit communities where many people not only know each other but care about each other. This small town feel is one of the aspects of Dexter that attracted Courtney Nicholls, its current city manager.
“People have that connection here,” said Nicholls, adding that just like in her hometown of Allen Park, it is quite normal that multiple generations of the same family live in Dexter.
Since 2014, the Allen Park native has been the city manager of a thriving municipality, effectively overseeing its economic growth to ensure that Dexter maintains the character and charm that attracted her in the first place. The city faces its fair share of challenges, but many of them are the result of positives – more people want to live here and work here. Parking, traffic, and infrastructure are all issues that growing areas deal with and Dexter is no different.
Nicholls’ entire career has been dedicated to the public sector.
Growing up in Allen Park, her first job was as a library page at just 15. Shortly thereafter, she was able to get a job at the Allen Park city clerk’s office. After graduating from college, Nicholls worked her way up in the clerk’s office doing election work. At the same time, ambition drove her to enroll at Wayne State University where she received a Master’s Degree in Public Administration.
After putting in the extra hours and night classes to obtain such a high-level degree, Nicholls became the Dexter Assistant Village Manager in 2007. Because of her experience and education, she was hired as the Dexter City Manager in 2014.
Throughout Nicholls’ tenure, the city has successfully completed many projects, maintained sound fiscal policies, and encouraged responsible economic growth.
Growth has come internally, not via expansion or urban sprawl, but through the redevelopment of older properties. For example, the Grandview Commons apartment complex was built on an old, decaying industrial site.
Open spaces have also been redeveloped.
Dexter’s trails have been significantly expanded, giving residents more scenic walking options.
This is part of an overall policy to encourage more people to live close to downtown Dexter. Younger generations want to live in walkable areas, and the downtown area is ideal.
“You can walk to multiple restaurants, cafes, bars, and parks, but the city has to ensure that such growth is done so responsibly,” Nicholls says. “Downtown development comes with its own challenges. There is a finite amount of land, making property redevelopment the best option. Such redevelopment, especially in the case of the Grandview Commons, has been a major success.”
While the City of Dexter is not facing any enormous, catastrophic issues, Nicholls made it clear that the city government’s main goal right now, “is to improve the quality of life for its citizens.”
This means improving pedestrian safety in downtown, where traffic has become a major challenge. While it is an issue, increased traffic is an indication that more people want to be part of the Dexter experience.
“The challenge arises in how to manage such traffic,” Nicholls says. “This is where investment in pedestrian safety comes in.”
Another “good” challenge Dexter is dealing with is parking – although it’s nowhere close to the “challenge” in Ann Arbor. Nicholls believes the parking issue is often more of perception. When one goes to downtown Dexter, it is an unrealistic expectation to believe you will be able to park right in front or even close to your destination. Some walking will be required, just as when one goes to Briarwood Mall.
When it comes to maintaining infrastructure, Dexter is on top of things, and doing much better than most Michigan cities. Nicholls explained that the city government has done a stellar job of fixing things early, so that they do not become a much bigger issue down the road.
In the original village area of downtown Dexter, the majority of the area’s water mains were completely replaced in 2010 and 2011. The infrastructure in the newer neighborhoods was built in large part in the 1990s. Over the past ten years, the city’s wastewater treatment plant has seen a $10 million investment into updates. $2.5 million of these upgrades to water and sewer were funded through federal stimulus money. Smart and timely investments into infrastructure, Nicholls says, have helped avoid major potential issues.
A major issue for many local governments is under-funded liabilities, pensions and retiree healthcare. It is one of the easiest things for government officials to simply kick the can down the road, but under Nicholls’ management, the pension system is now funded at 85 percent.
Prior to 2009, the City of Dexter had absolutely nothing set aside for retiree healthcare. That amount now sits at $1.5 million, an incredible achievement, and a sign that Dexter and Nicholls are refusing to kick this can down the road.
The city government is taking the required action necessary to prevent future fiscal issues from plaguing taxpayers and retiring city employees.
It is not all positive news in Dexter – there are ongoing issues the Nicholls feels need to be addressed sooner rather than later. One of those issues is dealing with how information is disseminated within smaller communities, including Dexter.
Many local municipalities that once had a local daily newspaper read throughout the community, now have nothing of the sort. This means that when the city government is taking on major projects, many residents do not get engaged on it until it is happening “right on their doorstep,” Nicholls explained. Properly informing these residents can be a major challenge.
The City of Dexter is attempting to change this by spreading local information through multiple sources. There is an email list used to send out notices. This list, sent to many residents, has been growing for over 10 years. All local and government information is posted on the city’s Facebook page and website, while a quarterly newsletter is sent out to all local residents and businesses.
While it is not ideal, these methods of disseminating information have improved local knowledge about what its city government is doing, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Under the management of Courtney Nicholls, Dexter is a thriving community that is facing its problems head on and responsibly, not allowing underfunded pensions or decaying infrastructure to be postponed for the next city manager. But it’s certainly a team effort in Dexter. “None of Dexter’s accomplishments would be possible without our talented staff, dedicated Council and supportive residents and business owners,” says Nichols.
The Allen Park native loves the small town, multi-generational community of Dexter, and is working hard to ensure that this special character remains intact while encouraging economic growth and redevelopment.