Tim’s Place. Cole’s. “The Sign.”
The photo posted on Facebook was startling. A downtown, inundated in 5 feet of water. A dam had failed three hours earlier, 9 miles upstream, causing a substantial failure of the Sanford Dam. Even with the water, the perspective was incredibly familiar.
I was working for a Civil Engineering firm ten years ago, when the Village of Sanford had an opportunity. The road commission had added the reconstruction of Saginaw Road running through the village in its upcoming workplan and the Village council wanted a more walkable downtown. The State had funding for streetscape enhancements and I happened to write grants—a project was born.
With a population of 838, Sanford was, and still is, a humble burg. Four-blocks of scattered storefronts and detached commercial buildings make up the Downtown, with a big vacant piece of land at the midpoint. Not an urban metropolis by any stretch of the imagination.
I took stock of the local landmarks. Not one, but two, family restaurants in Lanny’s and the Red Oak. A sign installed by the local chamber of commerce. The connector with the regional bike trail. Fieros Forever, a unique garage owned by a local architect with a very special niche, collecting the venerable two-seat Pontiac Fiero. And, of course, the Sanford Dam.
Originally the main county road before a local highway was constructed, the 120-foot right of way complete with three lanes of traffic, diagonal parking, and intermittent 4-foot sidewalks made it a pedestrian’s nightmare.
I enjoy the public engagement process in any community, but I’ve found the process in ultra-small towns to be some of the most entertaining. Our first session had two participants—a new resident on the Lake who wanted to know if the Village would raise the water so they could use their boat (the Village didn’t own the dam) and a lady who walked in halfway through to complain about her neighbors knocking over trash cans (she lived in the adjacent Township).
We tried again, having better luck the next time. The group started with big thinking—bike racks every 20 feet to accommodate all the new visitors would bring, elaborate tree and flower plantings, a new “Welcome to Sanford” sign, and the bluest stamped concrete the World had ever seen.
Those local landmarks gained new identities through that process. Fieros Forever became “Tim’s Place,” the chamber of commerce sign became “The Sign,” or as I came to know it “The Untouchable.”
“Cole will never go for that, he can be tough,” a council member remarked about the design in front of Cole’s, the auto garage with 5 garage bays. “We should just leave that area alone.”
The front of the garage was 160 feet of unorganized parking for customers, wreckers, and vehicles queued for repair. Improving it was key to making the corridor more pedestrian-friendly.
“Can we get him at the next meeting?” we asked.
“Maybe, we’ll see,” was the reply.
When the cost estimates came back, reality set in pretty quick. As it turns out, blue dye for the stamped concrete is pretty damn expensive. We settled on a splash of blue with the ADA Compliant Detectable Warnings Surface Tactiles—as a council member remarked, “A lil’ dab’ll do ya.”
With a limited budget, we landed on practical changes—wider sidewalks, adding curb and gutter, and median pedestrian islands on both sides of the project. The most contentious issues became the tint of the decorative concrete, the finial atop the decorative light posts, and whether or not the shape of the pedestrian islands would impede garbage trucks.
Cole’s garage was still a key topic going into our final meeting. We were proposing adding a new gutter pan and extending the sidewalk in front of the car repair shop. We shrank the customer parking area to two parking spaces. It would definitely change the way the shop had operated in the past. Our team provided an overview of the design, prompting modest nods throughout the room. It was going well.
At some point, a man in mechanic’s overalls with a gray “Cole’s” patch settled into a chair at the back of the room. We now had an audience of one.
The presentation turned to the area in front of the service shop. Our engineer made the best technical case for the changes. A council member asked, “Ok…where would Dennis park the wreckers?”
The engineer paused, nervously offering, “Well, um, he could use the side and the back?”
The energy in the room turned to the man in mechanic’s overalls. His eyes narrowed, head tilted back in contemplation.
A slight nod. “Yeah, ok. We’ll make it work.”
That streetscape, with its stamped concrete crosswalks, is covered in mud. Fieros clutter the streetscape, having washed down the street from Tim’s Place. Every building has suffered some sort of damage, ranging from bad to catastrophic. The words “#SanfordStrong” are stenciled on the front of Cole’s Garage. “The Sign” still stands.
Phil Eich visited Sanford and I talked to a crew member from an international restoration company. He said, “I haven’t seen a town come together like this anywhere in the world.”
Recovery doesn’t depend on the color of the crosswalks, the finial on the light posts, or the shape of the pedestrian island.
It’s the people in the place that matter, and my money is on them.
To support the families and business owners of Sanford, Michigan, check out https://www.gofundme.com/c/act/michigan-flooding.