Buchanan’s Mill Alley getting a facelift

BUCHANAN – Buchanan’s Mill Alley will be getting a bit of a facelift with perennial plants placed in the alley’s planters after action Monday night by the Buchanan City Commission.

Downtown business owners and city officials have debated what should be done to spruce up that area for several years, even to the point of having a design contest in 2016 on ways to improve it.

The history of Mill Alley goes back to the mid-1850s when it served as a thoroughfare from Front Street to Pears Mill where farmers brought their grain crops to be ground. That use was abandoned around 1900 and a movie theater was later constructed on the site. The movie theater was demolished in 1990.

The city bricked the alley in 1991 and installed planters along the east and west sides of the area. Infrastructure problems with the planters and damage to adjacent buildings have increased to the point where the planters have been empty and without plants in them for years.

With this week’s commission action, mature, perennial, low maintenance plants will be obtained to be placed in the two planters in coming weeks. The cost is expected to be $11,200 and the city is expecting to get a $9,000 grant from the Gateway Community Foundation to cover most of the costs.

City Public Services Director J.T. Adkerson told commissioners that he started looking into Mill Alley improvements after City Commissioner Mark Weedon recently mentioned the need to do something with the planters.

“The planters have been kind of an eyesore and we decided to tackle it right away,” Adkerson said.

He said city crews first worked with the two adjacent property owners, Alan Robandt and Rick Panigua, to make sure infrastructure repairs were made.

“We wanted to solidify both walls so as to not create an issue for them down the road,” he said.

Adkerson said he then found out that Fernwood Botanical Garden horticulturalist Steve Bornell had already drafted a couple of plans for new perennial plantings which would not require a lot of maintenance. One plan would cost $5,500 for plants while the second would cost $11,200. The difference between the two plans were mainly the number of plants.

Adkerson and City Manager William Marx said the goal is to get the plants along with a couple of small trees in by Labor Day. They said that they are getting the plants wholesale with help from Bornell.

Over the years, city leaders have debated what to do with Mill Alley to make it a place for family and community activities as well as be more of a handicap accessible connector to the Common and Pears Mill to the south. None of those plans have ever been pursued, primarily due to the costs.

Also Monday, a new fulltime police officer was sworn in. Amy Bruce is a 2019 college and 2020 police academy graduate. She interned with the Jackson, Mich. police department before attending the academy. Bruce told commissioners that she loves the area and is excited to take this job in Buchanan.

Commissioners approved the purchase of a new election tabulator to deal solely with absentee ballots. The cost is $5,295 and the city hopes to get a state grant to pay for half of the costs.

City Clerk Barbara Pitcher said having a new tabulator will be helpful this November, especially with the expected influx of more absentee ballots due to the COVID pandemic as well as the change in state law allowing no reason absentee voting.

She said the new tabulator will allow her to have a set of election inspectors to deal only with absentee ballots. Previously, inspectors in the city’s two precincts had to put absentee ballots into the tabulators periodically during lulls in action on Election Day.

The commission set a special meeting for 6:30 p.m. Thursday to handle three topics: the contract with new City Manager Heather Grace, when scarecrows will be placed throughout the city and the hiring of an attorney to go over the city’s USDA grant/loan application. That meeting will be in person for commissioners and virtual for the public.

Marx said the Grace contract is ready for the commission’s review and approval. Grace was selected by the commission earlier this month to be the new city manager. She hopes to start her new duties in early September.

The scarecrow question came up after Weedon said he had heard from people concerned that the scarecrows go up too early each fall. The scarecrow tradition began several years ago when a group of women got together to make scarecrows and place them throughout the city as a fundraiser for local causes.

With the USDA grant/loan, Marx said the city has been told that they need to have the application reviewed by an attorney before it is submitted. He said the cost could be around $5,000. The commission is considering two attorneys: Robert Thall of Bauckman, Sparks, Thall, Seeber and Kaufman and Nick Curcio of Dickerson Wright.

The city is in the process of applying for grants and loans to pay for up to $11 million worth of projects dealing with water, stormwater, storm drain and waste water needs. The attorney hiring was put off so commissioners could get more information about what the attorneys will charge.

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