The major overhaul in local leadership, both in the city of Ann Arbor and in the University, marks a new chapter in the city of Ann Arbor’s history.
The city’s expanding job market, one of the cornerstones of Mayor John Hieftje’s (D) leadership, and the expanding tech sector are to some extent the result of having the University as a resource to the city. University President Mary Sue Coleman made science and technology commercialization a focus of her administration, one with significant indirect payoffs for Ann Arbor and the region.
Throughout their relationship, Hieftje has frequently commended Coleman’s dedication to connecting the University and the city in a positive way. He said this mission of furthering collaboration has been improved under Coleman compared to past University presidents.
“In the last 12 or 14 years, we’ve been able to engage the University to a greater extent in working with things like technology transfer work that is happening at the University and transferring that work to the private sector and to companies that provide jobs for people and help the local economy,” Hieftje said.
However, City Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) has a different perspective on the city’s evolving relationship with the University.
“The distance between University staff and faculty and those of us who are not affiliated with the University at this time has grown rather than shortened,” Briere said.
Briere said despite Coleman’s willingness to engage community leaders, at the end of the day, the University acts with its students, faculty and donors as a priority, even when those choices have far reaching negative effects on Ann Arbor as a city.
“I miss the days when University staff were engaged in the city itself and affecting outcomes in the city and help the city be cutting edge, and that’s what I would really like to see return,” she said.
As the University has expanded under Coleman’s tenure, Ann Arbor residents and city officials have felt the effects of its encroachment into the city. The University has purchased numerous properties within the city, and a point of tension between the two institutions.
Hieftje said he fears that the city is reaching a tipping point at which taxes must be raised as a result of the significant tax base loss the city experiences as a direct result of University expansion. Since the University is a public entity, the school does not pay property taxes to the city for its buildings. The more land the University purchases, the more potential revenue it takes from the city.
“We continue, in all other areas, to have a good relationship with the University, because if you look at that specifically over time, it’s been very, very significant as far as the last 12 years, Hieftje said. “The city has lost 5 percent of its tax income because of the University. They do a lot of wonderful things for us — they bring a lot of culture, they help us attract talent — it’s just that practical point that you cannot make all of the land un-taxable.”