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CEO Podcast: Milton Dohoney, Jr., Ann Arbor City Administrator

April 17, 2023 Podcasts
2023 CEO Podcast MDJr

In this episode, Milton Dohoney, Jr., the City Administrator for the City of Ann Arbor, discusses the importance of growth, the vitality of the downtown community, the upcoming Bicentennial celebration, and more.


Paul Krutko: Welcome to the Ann Arbor SPARK CEO Podcast, Conversations on Economic Opportunity. My name is Paul Krutko and I’m the president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK. 

Joining me today is Milton Dohoney, Jr., City Administrator for the City of Ann Arbor. Milton has extensive experience in city management, including seven years as City Manager of Cincinnati, three years as Chief Administrative Officer of Lexington, Kentucky, and time as Assistant City Manager in Phoenix. He has received multiple awards for his work, including Administrator of the Year in 2013, the YMCA Black Achievers award in 2010, and he also represents the City of Ann Arbor on SPARK’s Board of Directors. 

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule today to talk with me, Milton. 

Milton Dohoney, Jr.: Thank you, I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. 

Paul: Great. Well, you know, I’m very curious about your career and about what you’ve been engaged in over the years. You know, as I said, you’ve had similar roles in Cincinnati, Louisville, Lexington, and Phoenix. As I’ve shared with you in the past, I had a Deputy City Manager role in San Jose, California. So I know the size and scale make some responsibilities different, but in many ways, the same regardless of city size. Share with us your perspective on that and accepting the City Administrator role here in Ann Arbor.

Milton: All the issues are virtually the same in every municipality. Sometimes the intensity around them will vary. And clearly, the scale will vary. This is by far the smallest community I’ve been in, but we’re still talking about the need for infrastructure, we’re still talking about what can the community do to address homelessness, how can we get more affordable housing, the town-gown relationship is there, the need to create jobs and see the community move forward. All of the same elements are there, you know. One of the differences in working in a smaller organization, for example, when I worked in Phoenix for over seven years—15,000 employees—so frequently, I was deciding who do I hand this off to? Who has the right skill set? Who’s got the right experience? Well, at a smaller place, you’re handing off less and doing more. 

Paul: Exactly. 

Milton: So you’re a leader and a manager and a doer all at the same time.

Paul: Yeah, that is a very important perspective to share with people, because that’s been my experience as well in my career. Community size doesn’t change what the agenda is or what your portfolio is. It’s just as you said, you know, when I was in San Jose, in that role, there were probably 500 or 600 people who reported up through me to the City Manager, so if there was a particular issue, you would then try to find the right person to work on that kind of project. I think the other thing that is interesting in a small community—your council members have sort of the same kind of world, you know, that in a bigger city, council members might actually have a staff. That’s why they’re there. They’re picking up the phone. They’re the ones that are dealing with constituent issues. So it is much more of a hands-on situation here. 

Many of our audience will know this, but maybe some don’t. You manage all the day-to-day operations of city government, including oversight of departments of Public Works, parks and recreation, police and fire, as well as implementing the policies and goals set by the Mayor and City Council. In your view, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for Ann Arbor, in both the short and long term?

Milton: The backdrop for our environment is that we are a very, very lean organization—we only have slightly north of 800 people. And the needs for our services far outweigh the resources that we have, far outweigh the people that we have. And so the challenge is always trying to prioritize what needs attention, and when does it need it? Who are the right people to give it? And I’ve said to City Council members, and in some of the talks I’ve given, for a number of the key weighty issues that get the public’s attention, that get media attention, it’s not 800 people that are actually working on them. There’s maybe a small handful of people that have the background, the experience, to deal with those. So some of us are dealing with a multiplicity of things and it just keeps growing. 

On the opportunity side, I’m excited about the fact that we have a chance to reimagine what Ann Arbor can be both in the short and medium range. So I’m a straight shooter. I’ve always been that way. You know, I came to town October of 2021. And the first time I said the word “growth” out loud, you know, someone looked at me a little funny. To some people, it’s not a good thing. I am unapologetically saying that this City needs to embrace growth—not irresponsible growth, not growth that’s going to damage the City. But we need to densify the community, we need to create jobs. We have a community that is really not that affordable. Well, we can’t really change the affordability, but what we can work on are pathways that enable people to take care of their families and take care of themselves. And so the more high-paying jobs that we can bring, the better. And we need employers that are responsible, that feel a connection to the community. 

And we also have, I think, an opportunity to take advantage of the talent that’s here—the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, some of the startup companies that are looking for talent. And so how to maximize all of those things that are positive, and I like working on them. 

And the last thing I’ll mention, something that I think we’ve got to do better at, is elevate our game a little bit. I’ve talked publicly about the importance of Downtown, because Downtown has to be vibrant, it has to be inviting, it has to be safe. It is the City’s living room. And so that is what we’re selling in large measure. And so we need to make sure that it’s working right, and rolling on all cylinders. 

So those are things that really make coming to Ann Arbor appealing to me.

Paul: I appreciate the perspective you’re bringing. I know you played a role in your prior positions where you were actively working the community development, the economic development side of the city’s portfolio, and I think what you just said is a very significant point. And just going to underscore, pre-COVID, we had data from the work that we do on behalf of the City’s downtown. In the SmartZone district that creates resources to support early-stage companies, we had about 180 smaller companies, some larger, like Duo Security, some 3000 employees downtown. Now that’s pre-COVID. And we were at 2% vacancy downtown. And you would walk and run downtown at that point in time. During the day, you know, the restaurants were busy, the shops were busy, there were people on the streets. We’ve always, since I’ve been here, there’s always been the evening, sort of the downtown vibrancy of the students after class and people coming in after work. But we saw this daytime vibrancy, you know. And now, as you pointed out with remote working, we don’t have that half of the workforce actually in the downtown during the day. And you notice the impact. And so I often say in our business and regarding economic development, you know, when you say we’re working to bring jobs or create jobs, and then it will have this kind of ancillary impact on the downtown or on a business district. They say, Oh, sure, sure. But when it goes away, then you do really see the impact of that. And I think that’s probably your experience as well. 

I’ll let you maybe go a little deeper on this. And so, you know, this notion of thoughtful growth, I think is what you’re bringing to the table, that we need need to work together— private sector, leaders, the residents, people that are concerned, the university, on an “and mentality,” I guess is what I’m getting to. We’re not in a situation, I don’t think, where you can say growth, or just preservation. But the notion is we need to get it to an “and.” And I think from my experience of being here, we’ve been more focused on the “or.” Do you want to comment on that a little bit? 

Milton: Yeah, I would, Paul. We simply do not have the luxury of saying we love Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor is a special place, and we don’t need any more growth, we don’t need any more companies coming in, we don’t need X or Y. I’ve been in my business for almost 40 years. And I study cities for a living. Any city that takes the attitude that we’re sort of ‘good enough’ and we could be okay, you just made a commitment to go backward. 

Because other communities are constantly changing, evolving. You want your city to be a dynamic place. So here’s how I think we can get to the “and”: when we sort of really explain what we mean, we’re not talking about a need to return to 20 smokestack companies and smoke rolling through the sky, we’re not talking about the return of urban renewal, or tearing up neighborhoods, and just let development run rampant and trample on people’s lives. We’re talking about creating a vibrant local economy, giving people that graduate from our local universities an opportunity to stay here and thrive if they choose to do so. We’re talking about unlocking creativity and innovation and allowing entrepreneurs to bring new ideas and start things in Ann Arbor. If you think about companies that you may admire, most of them started like in a garage or in a small building, and it was 10 people. It didn’t just become, you know, Apple didn’t start out at 50,000 people. That’s just not how it works. The other thing that I think gets to the “and” is if it’s a company that’s really buying into the community, they are generating revenue that gives us the ability to take care of parks, that gives us the ability to help pave streets, that gives us the ability to support what’s going on in Ann Arbor Public Schools. They are contributors. So yeah, if you’re talking about, you know, a bad actor, then I’m all with you, we don’t need that. But we do need growth, because we’re not going to be able to annex—we’re 28 square miles. Period. And so what is responsible is looking at growth and development within that realm, which includes housing at all levels. We need more housing options at all levels.

Paul: I agree. Totally. One of the things that we have been concerned about is that the City proper, where many young, talented people would want to find housing, we are seeing that it’s out of their price range, right? Or we’re seeing high-end student housing being built. But not, you know, once they graduate, and they now have a job where they can look. I’m curious, one of the things I heard you talk about in the last day or so is this new sort of planning zoning district that’s been created and how you see that working and maybe sharing where that is with our audience, in terms of the City itself. 

Milton: We are taking a top-to-bottom review of our development process, our permitting process, and why that is important. So I’ll take a step back. In many communities, larger communities, the city may actually be an active player in deal-making. The city may have real estate to put in the deal, they may have TIF (tax incremental financing), they may have dollars. It may, through a parking authority, do a bond that helps generate certain infrastructure. We’re very limited in terms of the tools that we have available in Ann Arbor— we don’t own a lot of land; we don’t have a lot of money. But what we can do, what we need to do, is be a facilitator of progress. And so that means we have to pay attention to what the user experience is when you come to us and say, ‘I need my plan reviewed,’ ‘I need to get a permit for something’, whether it’s an expansion of your house, or you’re trying to create a development. Yeah, there is a certain amount of necessary bureaucracy. But what we need to really review, is everything we’re asking for necessary? 

And the other thing that I want to make sure, Paul, is the mindset. We should be here to facilitate getting to “yes” rather than being on autopilot for how fast can we get to “no.” So if what someone gives us doesn’t work, well, let’s work with them until it can work. Let’s give them some specific information. Here’s why your plan can’t get through. Here’s what you need to do or help us understand better what you’re trying to achieve. And maybe we can suggest something that would be helpful. That’s where I’m trying to go. 

Paul: Yeah, it’s similar, an interesting analogy for us. When we work with startups here at SPARK through the support we get through the Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA) in the SmartZone, it is oftentimes you help a client, and the analogy that you’re describing is somebody’s coming to you with a project they want to build, for us, say, somebody’s coming up with a company they want to build. And oftentimes we have to help them pivot in their thinking and what you’re describing is that process—what we say to them is, well, gee, that idea is no good. What we kind of say is, if you modify this, this is how you could get to a positive outcome. And I think that’s, that’s what you’re sharing. And I think that’s, that’s a refreshing perspective, that, I think, is something that the entire state of Michigan is an important philosophy change as compared to other places where I’ve worked around the country. 

You know, one of the things, too, some of these process improvements can be very, very simple. And I think that’s where you’re at. I mean, in one of my past roles, it was the client going from person to person to person to get approved, right? And then sometimes when they get to the third person, the third person would say, well, you need to change this, which would have affected what the first person had said. And so one of the things we did in San Jose is to get them all in the room on Mondays and go through projects, and get everybody in alignment, you know, so that we’re moving forward. Because it can be frustrating for a client when they have to go step-by-step and sometimes have to repeat each step. 

One of the things in working with you and your team that we’re going to is we’re going to try to be helpful in that regard, and we’re doing the things that you’ve asked us to do that we think are really, really important. One is to spend some time looking at sort of best practices of other cities that are similar, and you touched on that one of the things that makes us different, is this sort of significant University presence, and what that means for the center of the city. So we’re excited about working on that with you. 

So I’m going to change gears a little bit. I know you’re leading plans for the bicentennial celebration of Ann Arbor in 2024. Maybe many in the audience aren’t aware that this is going to be the 200th birthday of the City of Ann Arbor. And maybe just share a little bit about how that’s being organized and what some of the preliminary initial ideas are about that. 

Milton: We have formed a bicentennial Coordinating Committee, and I’m one of the co-chairs leading that effort. We have decided that we’re going to celebrate the Bicentennial across the full 12 months of 2024. So we’re not pointing towards a particular day where there’s gonna be some big blowout event, and then it’s over. We want to capture activities and events across 12 months. One of the things that we have come up with is a bicentennial logo, which we have unveiled to the public. We are inviting cultural organizations, educational institutions, companies, neighborhood groups, whoever, to plan in their own way how they want to celebrate the City’s birthday. We want them to use the logo, because it will immediately signify to people this is part of the bicentennial celebration. 

We are creating an electronic calendar that is going to be managed by Destination Ann Arbor. And so when you plan, the library, for example, is putting together a series of things and we want to capture that on the calendar. The University of Michigan is thinking about some things, Ann Arbor Public Schools, the downtown business district, we want people to be able to go to a website and see the full 12 months. And so if you’re from Ann Arbor and you live elsewhere, and you’re planning a trip back home, you might look at the calendar and say, well, hey, they’re going to have this kind of event in the month of May, maybe we should go there because I’d like to go to that. We’ve been approached recently by a person that lives here that is a former Olympian. And so we’re talking about having an event where we celebrate the former Olympians that are from Ann Arbor. My understanding is there’s a handful of them that live here and live around here. So we may want to bring them back. 

At the City, we are looking at creating, as a legacy project, Bicentennial Park, so we would rebrand a park, and put certain amenities in it. And it would be a lasting tribute to the 200th birthday. So it’s still early in one sense, and late in another. We are encouraging organizations to determine the best way to celebrate your community. And the last thing I’ll mention on that point is we’re also reaching out to organizations that have annual events to see if they want to co-brand in 2024. So it’s still the event you do every year but also you’re going to display the logo and maybe expand a little bit what you’re doing to make it a bicentennial activity. 

Paul: Well, certainly here at SPARK we’ll be looking for those opportunities, and we have the September timeframe where we do the 10-day a2Tech360 event. I could see as you did with Olympians, we might create an event that celebrates inventors and innovators that have been active in the City’s history. And also in terms of our annual meeting. 

So just two more questions before we finish up. One is, I know there’s a lot of initiative, effort, and emphasis around the Ann Arbor Climate Action Plan. There’s a significant statement of the community’s aspirations. Maybe you can share with us a little bit what programs and projects are underway on that effort to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and deal with climate change.

Milton: The City policymakers have set a clear vision and direction for the community that’s contained within our A2Zero plan. By 2030, we’re trying to become a carbon-neutral community. And so when folks say, well, what does that really mean? What are things that you’re doing that I could understand or relate to? We have an initiative that’s focused on planting 10,000 trees. And so the greening of the community is helpful in dealing with our emissions issues. We expect to be around the 5,000 tree planted mark this year, by the end of this year. We’re trying to get people to consider going to electric vehicles. And so EV charging station infrastructure is something that we need to facilitate around the community. We are encouraging people to embrace solar, and we have programs to help them solarize their properties, or to get information on how solarization would be helpful. 

We’re also trying to look at the sort of built environment to make sure that it is conducive as an urban walkable community. Biking is big here. And so we want people to be able to walk or bike to get to the amenities that they need, but also just for their overall good health. And the benefit of that is fewer miles driven in a vehicle. And so those are some practical things that we’re doing to encourage people to be part of our overall strategy. We’re talking about circular economies, we’re trying to make it as plain as we can and give people practical ways that they can help make us a more sustainable community. And also, you know, as I’m talking about growth, you know, if you’re doing a development and a green roof can work, fantastic. Let’s see if that can be done. So those are things that we’re pursuing, and will be pursuing, over the next several years. 

Paul: Just on that thought, maybe just plant a seed from my perspective, as a pretty avid cyclist, one of the things that is important to focus on I think, in terms of that area, is how many people are actually coming in on a daily commute into Ann Arbor, and contributing to the greenhouse situation. And so one of the things I think is an important opportunity is to think about the connections at the point where people enter the City. You know, I’m very, very supportive and very pleased to see the bikeways that are being created inside the City, but speaking for myself, I don’t live in the City, I live in Pittsfield Township. I’d love to ride my bike in, but I have to cross I-94. How does one do that? So I access the bikeways in the City, and I’m not contributing with my vehicle every day to congestion and all of that. So, you know, some things are, you know, as I’ve heard you say, you got to focus on your job, which is the City. But that’s one thing that we do know— the amount of commuter traffic that comes in every day. I’m always struck when I come in to work that you know, a lot of people talk about the commute to Detroit. When you drive into Ann Arbor in the morning, on I-94, on US-23, on M-14, you see how many cars are actually coming into the City. So that’s an important thing that I think collectively, regionally, we need to think about how to deal with. 

Well, I’m gonna finish up, Milton. You’ve been in Ann Arbor, I think it’s a year and a half now. And I’m curious about how that time has reinforced what you thought about the community before you arrived. And what surprised you, and it doesn’t have to be about your job. I mean, it’s just about the community as a whole. What did you think the town was, and has it panned out from that perspective, and are there things that surprised you?

Milton: Paul, it’s really interesting, because prior to coming here to work, I had never been to the City before. I’d been to Detroit a number of times. And so when I thought Ann Arbor, I thought University of Michigan. I didn’t really know much else. And so I came here, I didn’t know the city was 28 square miles. I didn’t know it was 125,000 [people] and about 80,000 driving in every day. And I couldn’t really appreciate the influence and impact of the University of Michigan until I got here to see how the campus literally intersects with the City. You cross the street and you’re on campus, or you’re at the outskirts of downtown Ann Arbor, over on State Street.

And then the passion that people have here for the issues that they hold dear, taking note of that. At some level, some people are unyielding once they have formulated their position. There is a premium value on green space here. I don’t say this as a negative per se. But for a City of this size to have more than 100 parks, that’s just something you don’t see. Now there’s a challenge of maintaining all of them, believe me, but clearly, we place a value there. 

And then the town-gown dynamic is different here. You know, I worked in Lexington, Kentucky, where the University of Kentucky is the big dog, it’s Wildcat country. But here, there are so many places where the intersection is inescapable. And so we have to have, and we have to work at, our ongoing relationship with the University. We need to work at our ongoing relationship with Ann Arbor Public Schools, because we all have to work together in order for the community to be what it can be. And I guess the thought I’d leave you with, if someone says, Well, what did you really come to Ann Arbor for? I came to Ann Arbor to help Ann Arbor get as close to its potential as it can. That’s really what we’re chasing. How close can we get to the potential that is contained within the 28 square miles? 

And I’m enjoying it, other than the cold. I have my eyes open on that because I lived in Ohio for eight years. So if there’s a negative, it’s that. Other than that, the people have welcomed me. I have enjoyed my interactions with public sector, private sector, neighborhood folks. I’m glad to be here.

Paul: That’s great. I appreciate that perspective. As a native Ohioan and all my early career was in Cleveland, the cold doesn’t bother me. We’ve embraced the new license plate, you know, that we’re the Winter Water Wonderland. As we sell the community, which is a part of our job, you know, we embrace the four seasons. I mean, you know, we have them, and we enjoy them. 

Well, Milton, I thank you for taking some time today. I’ve enjoyed meeting you and working with you, as you’ve come into the community, and really looking forward to helping you with that agenda that you’ve laid out, and particularly on this idea of “and” because I’m a big “and” person. And we do need growth. But we need to do everything we can to, as you said, make the community better than it was when we got here. 

Milton: Thanks a lot for having me and glad to be part of the Board. Look forward to working with you in the future. 

Paul: And I want to thank our audience for listening and learning more about those leaders and organizations working hard to create the Ann Arbor region’s economic future. These conversations are brought to you by Ann Arbor SPARK. For more information about Ann Arbor SPARK, you can find us on the web at Ann, and also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Milton Dohoney, Jr. Bio

Milton Dohoney, Jr. is the City Administrator for the City of Ann Arbor. Prior to this role, Dohoney was the Assistant City Manager of Phoenix, serving as its Chief Operating Officer. He provided leadership for emergency management & homeland defense, fire, police, law, convention center, major events and large economic development transactions. He worked for seven years as city manager of Cincinnati, Ohio and for more than three years as chief administrative officer of Lexington Fayette Urban County Government in Kentucky. He also served for 20 years with the City of Louisville, Kentucky, including as assistant community services director, chief administrative officer and public safety director. He is the recipient of many awards, including Administrator of the Year in 2013 from the American Society for Public Administration Greater Cincinnati Chapter; YMCA Black Achievers Award in 2010; and Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Spirit for Justice Medal in 2010. Dohoney has a master’s degree in personnel management/human resources from the University of Louisville and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Indiana University Southeast.

Milton Dohoney, Jr.