Saline’s Community Development Director Prioritizes Residents
Ben Harrington is Saline’s Community Development Director and the architect behind the city’s newly approved and impressive Master Plan update. In the role since May of 2022, Harrington is not new to municipal work and brings a wealth of experience and perspective to Saline. Despite a long list of to-dos, Harrington sat down to chat with the Sun Time News in early January.
STN: Have you ever headed a project like Saline’s Master Plan update before?
Harrington: No, I've worked on comprehensive plans–which are like a master plan on steroids, so to speak–in the previous community I worked for, so I worked on some ‘chapter-esque’ parts of it, but I had never taken on a project at this scope for an entire community prior to doing this.
STN: Can you share a little bit about your background?
Harrington: I went to the University of Minnesota and got an undergraduate degree in political science and economics…[while in school] I started working for the city of Shoreview, which is a suburb of the Twin Cities. It's about 30,000 people, so it's three times the size population of Saline and spatially, I would say, about three times the size as well. It's much larger than Saline but coincidentally has a lot of similar challenges and opportunities.
[I was] doing zoning permit reviews, site plan reviews, very involved in economic development initiatives and housing initiatives to the community. So we had a variety of affordable housing programs that I was helping refine and change the standards on to make them more accessible. We did a lot of business outreach… I visited every business in Shoreview, which is actually what I'm in the process of doing it in Saline as well. And then I just really got a good understanding of how municipalities operate zoning codes and things like that which really helped me with the master plan.
I also had the opportunity to work for the Federal Reserve Center for Indian Country Development, where I was doing economic and community development research on issues affecting tribal nations throughout the United States.
STN: Can you describe the role of a Director of Community Development for a city like Saline?
Harrington: Economic development is my background. It's why I'm here. It's what I really want, excites me every morning to do the work that I do. I think, though, all too often, municipal-level economic development is really just boiled down to business relations, and I think that's problematic.
In Saline’s context, you really have to consider that, yes, the businesses are important–they play a vital role in our tax base. But we have to look broader. What does economic development mean to our residents? How do we raise our residents’ quality of life? And there's all sorts of fascinating literature on, really, what we should be looking at with economic development. But I think it comes down to quality of life and if we're providing services and amenities that were not previously there for people.
So if we're providing them easier access to health care, that's economic development. Generating higher GDP? Not necessarily, but it does provide a real, critical value to our residents as it helps develop their lives in a tangible and meaningful way. In looking at economic development, we're looking at holistic development and providing better, higher quality, more expedient, and more accessible services to our residents.
STN: With the Master Plan newly updated and approved, how do you turn that into specific goals and strategies for your department in 2024?
Harrington: The city as a whole is working on a strategic plan document, and that would include my department and my projects. I’m already working on…technical assistance grant funding for a downtown design study that was specifically called out in the Master Plan, so that’s underway and getting going.
And the MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority) recently announced that they'll be providing $50,000 in grants to update zoning codes. So that fits into our issues that we're currently experiencing with some of our residential zoning codes, and specifically, our planned unit development standards– which are what essentially these large developers do when they buy a fifty-acre tract of land and are building 100+ homes. So when we're going through that process, we're going to refine that code to make it more in the interest of City of Saline residents and build in a little bit more diversity in terms of housing products.