$20m Oakland County project will improve parks in county's underserved southern side

The Healthy Communities plan will bring five existing city parks into the county parks system, leading to improved infrastructure and maintenance, and support improvements at several other parks in the county. 
This story is part of Equity in Our Parks, a series highlighting the people and organizations advancing equity through Southeast Michigan’s parks and related programming. It is supported by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, Wayne County Parks and Recreation, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, City of Detroit, and Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. 

The lack of adequate facilities at Pontiac Oaks park (formerly known as Hawthorne Park) used to be a major concern for longtime Pontiac resident and parks advocate Kathalee James. When James announced her run for Pontiac City Council in 2021, her introductory video showed her standing outside the Pontiac park's bathrooms, which had been closed for 10 years at that time.

"We had our elderly, our nursing moms, needing to go to Portajohns if they went to our parks," says James, who is now a city council member. "It was just unacceptable to have bathrooms that are locked and boarded up."

But James has been heartened to see those bathrooms renovated and reopened as part of a series of recent improvements at Pontiac Oaks, thanks to Oakland County's Healthy Communities Park and Outdoor Recreation Investment Plan. The plan will bring five existing city parks into the county parks system, leading to improved infrastructure and maintenance, and support improvements at several other parks in the county. The plan is made possible by $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and $5.2 million from Oakland County Parks. The program is largely aimed at advancing equity for parks in southern Oakland County, which have historically been disinvested in compared to parks in the northern part of the county.
Kathalee James at Pontiac Oaks park.
"There's been a lot of inequities, and I think it's good to see [the county] beginning to work to try to alleviate them," James says. "This is just the start, but I do think it is a good start."

Addressing Oakland County's inequities

Currently, most Oakland County Parks are concentrated in the northern part of the county, which tends to be more white and affluent than the southern part of the county. When Oakland County's Parks Commission was formed and began purchasing park land in 1966, most available property was in the county's less developed northern end. But that's led to inequities in park quality for already underserved communities on the southern side of the county.

"What that meant as a practical matter is that older central cities tended to be far away from park land and park programming," says Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel. "And often that reinforced inequity, because a lot of the older central cities that were so far removed from county park land tended to be lower income and tended to be communities of color."
Tim Greimel at Pontiac Oaks park.
In addition to Pontiac Oaks, the Healthy Communities plan will bring Madison Heights' Ambassador Park, Southfield's Beech Woods Park, the Hazel Park Community Center, and Oak Park's Shepherd Park into the county parks system. It will also fund improvements at Southfield's Catalpa Oaks, Lyon Township and Wixom's Lyon Oaks, Madison Heights' Red Oaks, and Waterford Township's Waterford Oaks, which are already county parks. Six Healthy Communities grants have also been made – two to Hazel Park and one each to Oak Park, Pontiac, Royal Oak Township, and Southfield – to fund inclusive playgrounds and other park facilities in those communities.

Zach Zuchowicz, DEI and community engagement coordinator for the county, says the Healthy Communities plan is a "direct acknowledgment" of inequities affecting residents of the county's southern side.

"These are their parks, programs, and services," he says. "They were funded through a millage. Those are folks' tax dollars that go towards supporting Oakland County Parks, and we want to make sure people feel that they have that access."

New bathrooms, dock, and playground equipment for Pontiac Oaks

At Pontiac Oaks, which Zuchowicz describes as "the most mature" of the Healthy Communities projects so far, ARPA- and county-funded improvements are taking a variety of forms. The county has signed a 20-year lease to manage and maintain the park, which was renamed Pontiac Oaks in keeping with the county's "Oaks" naming of several of its parks. However, a "Hawthorne Park" sign will remain since most city residents still know it by that name. Greimel says the city of Pontiac's limited resources make the county's involvement a "very welcome" change.

"It's really a win-win for both the county and the county park system, as well as for the city," he says.

When it came to improving the park's physical infrastructure, Greimel says the city and county agreed that it was important to focus on "fundamental" elements like the bathrooms that had concerned James. Greimel says repairing and reopening the bathrooms is a huge step forward for the park.

"Over the years in Pontiac, many parents have decided not to take their kids to Pontiac parks because there aren't public bathrooms in some of them, and they have instead opted to go to neighboring communities where there are public bathrooms," he says. "So making sure that those restrooms are back up and operating is really key if it's going to be a family-friendly park that Pontiac families utilize."
A new dock at Pontiac Oaks park, funded by Oakland County's Healthy Communities plan.
The Healthy Communities plan has also brought a brand-new dock to Pontiac Oaks, replacing what James describes as an "unstable and unsafe" dock. She says the new dock is a great improvement for fishers and paddlers who wish to take advantage of Upper Silver Lake.

"It's been very well received because we've got a lot of fisherpeople in the city and people who just drive out there and look at the water," James says. "... I think having that new fishing dock out there has generated a lot of interest for people who just enjoy that kind of thing."
A new dock at Pontiac Oaks park, funded by Oakland County's Healthy Communities plan.
Lastly, Healthy Communities funding has resulted in the installation of new equipment at the Pontiac Oaks playground, which James describes as one of the most popular playgrounds in the city.

"It's a really important park, and the things they've done have had a tremendous impact," she says. 

Partnership for better parks

Although Pontiac Oaks is the first park to receive visible improvements under the Healthy Communities plan, planning processes are underway to determine next steps for the many other parks included in the initiative. Zuchowicz says the county is working with each of the communities involved in the plan to ensure that improvements are made in a spirit of partnership, rather than the county making decisions for the communities.

"We want to make sure that the investment that we're making into these parks is going to serve residents, that they feel welcome and included, and that they feel like they can recreate the way they want to recreate in that space," he says. "And that can be very different from community to community."
Oakland County Parks Commission Chair Ebony Bagley, Pontiac City Council Member Kathalee James, Oakland County Parks Commissioner Shanell Weatherspoon, and Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel at Pontiac Oaks park.
James is satisfied with how that process has played out in Pontiac. She emphasizes that, although Pontiac Oaks is now an Oakland County Park, there has been a strong, collaborative relationship between the county and the city of Pontiac in determining what improvements should be made to the park.

"[County staff] have come to us and they are working with us," she says. "We didn't just give them the park. We are partners with them ... and we are invested with the county in making this park what it should be for all of the residents of the city of Pontiac."

Click here to read more from the Equity in Our Parks series.

Patrick Dunn is the lead writer for the Equity in Our Parks series. He's also the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and editor.

Photos by David Lewinski.
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