City Council Recap: Social Districts Discussed for Lowell

Lowell City Council met for a little more than an hour last night on the Zoom videoconferencing platform. It was their second regular meeting of the month, and all councilmembers were present. While most agenda items did not garner much comment, the council did have a lengthy discussion about whether to create social districts in the city’s historic downtown.

Bringing Social Districts to Lowell

On July 1, 2020, legislation was signed in Lansing to allow for the creation of social districts. These areas allow people to buy alcoholic beverages from participating establishments and then consume them off-premises in a designated social district. Two dozen municipalities have established social districts since then, with Rockford being the latest local example.

“You can draw these [district] boundaries however you want to make it work,” explained city attorney Jessica Wood.

City Manager Mike Burns thought it would make sense to run the district along the sidewalk on both sides of Main Street from New Union Brewery to Big Boiler Brewing. Creating multiple districts was also an option, Wood said, and there was talk of creating districts around specific establishments.

Rockford has closed down a portion of its Main Street to create a social district that includes warming stations and seating. While Lowell’s Main Street cannot be closed because it is a state highway, there was discussion about closing a section of Monroe Street.

Burns said he spoke to officials at Rockford who said community response to the district exceeded their expectations, and it was estimated that hundreds showed up for the first weekend it was open. Lowell City Clerk Sue Ullery said she visited the district over the weekend as well.

City resident Perry Beachum said his only concern would be if a large crowd caused a COVID-19 outbreak “Was there an issue with social distancing?” he asked Ullery.

“I certainly felt like there was a little bit of a difficulty there,” she replied.

Councilmember Leah Groves asked if the city would be able to shut down the district if it was linked to an outbreak. Wood said that while a public hearing isn’t required to create the district, one is required to disband it. However, she felt that a COVID-19 outbreak would be deemed a public health emergency which would mean the district could be suspended quickly.

Councilmembers requested that Burns draft a resolution to create a social district and present it at their next meeting. As part of creating the resolution, staff will address issues such as lighting, signage, parking and clean-up.

Other Agenda Items

During the meeting, Lowell City Council also reviewed six other agenda items.

Lowell Township Water/Wastewater. Councilmembers were apparently provided some information pertaining to negotiations of the water and wastewater systems with Lowell Charter Township. Councilmember Jim Salzwedel asked if Burns could provide an explanation of the information, and the city manager said he could not but he would see if engineering firm Williams&Works could.

Burns also provided councilmembers with an analysis of potential tax revenue the city could receive should it enter into a 425 agreement with the township for the development of property by the I-96 interchange.

“There could be a lot of money coming in if you had [an agreement],” he said. Using numbers from Cascade Township, Burns estimated 100-year revenues for the city could be as high as $248 million.

Showboat. Salzwedel shared that about $100,000 in brick sales have been made already, and the campaign had received large donations of $50,000 and $25,000 in the past week. Burns said enough had been raised for the boat itself, and the city already has $24,000 in donations to use toward restrooms on the Riverwalk.

MERS. The city will be making an additional principal payment this week toward its unfunded pension liabilities.

COVID-19. Legislation has been passed by the state to allow local governments to continue meeting remotely through March 2021. Burns said the city had received little information about vaccine availability, but it was his understanding that police officers could become eligible for immunization in February.

Line Shack. Lowell Light & Power is in the process of getting a former line shack building on Riverside Drive appraised so it can be sold. The property was put up for bid earlier this year, but an issue with the public notices prevented it from being sold at that time.

Beachum, who is chair of the Lowell Light & Power Board, said he hoped the city would put an easement along the property prior to its sale. He said that would be beneficial if the community ever decided to construct a boardwalk along the river.

PROTEC. Councilmembers unanimously agreed to renew the city’s membership to PROTEC – The Michigan Coalition to Protect Public Right-of-Ways at an annual cost of $472.88.

Councilmember and City Manager Comments

During board updates, Councilmember Marty Chambers shared that the Planning Commission had approved a gravel mining application from Grand Rapids Gravel.

Salwedel mentioned that when he sat on the commission many years ago, a similar application was discussed. However, residents had concerns about dust and damage to the roads from heavy trucks. Salzwedel asked if that had been addressed.

Chambers replied no and also said that no public comments were received by the commission for this application. He felt the company wanted to be a good neighbor and noted trucks would be driving a relatively short distance on Bowes Road from the operation to Main Street.

In his city manager report, Burns said there were concerns being shared on social media about contamination from Root Lowell causing health problems. He spoke to former city officials and learned that in the 1960s, solvents were dumped on the Root Lowell property and a plume from that contamination made its way to the Bushnell School property.

According to representatives of Root Lowell, the company believes they are in compliance with all state remediation requirements that were put in place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Burns spoke to school officials who said that recent testing showed no vapors from the contaminants were detected in the school building. The city manager has also been trying to get in touch with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, which has jurisdiction in this matter, but has not gotten a call back yet.

The next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will be at 7pm on Monday, January 4, 2021.

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