Pontiac Moving Forward: An Economic Recovery Plan

A realistic and balanced approach to planning brings community stakeholders together to tackle achievable projects, build momentum, and fuel growth for a struggling rustbelt city.

A community takes charge of its city with the help of an action-oriented economic recovery plan.
Oakland County

Describing Pontiac, Michigan, as a struggling city would have been a bit of an understatement in 2015. Home to a population of 85,000 in 1970, the city deteriorated steadily over four and a half decades, in large part due to General Motors’ gradual withdrawal. By 2009, the city’s unemployment rate was nearing 50%, the school district was failing, and Pontiac was listed as one of the F.B.I.’s 10 most dangerous cities. With a skeleton staff of less than 30 city employees, Pontiac was under the oversight of a State of Michigan-appointed Emergency Financial Manager.

Determined to turn itself around, the City of Pontiac together with Oakland County applied for and received an $80,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration in 2014 to fund the development of an economic plan. As the planning consultant, OHM Advisors knew that a futuristic, pie-in-the-sky plan would be of no use in Pontiac. What the city really needed was attainable goals and actionable tactics it could sink its teeth into right away. With next-to-no resources and limited staff, the city also needed a plan that could leverage contributions from community stakeholders and bring people together to get real work done and build moment for future growth.

Starting with an in-depth, market-based study of present day conditions coupled with a grassroots effort to gather community input, OHM Advisors set about creating a realistic and implementable plan for Pontiac. We focused on the city’s strengths and worked hard to engage the public throughout the process. In the end, we developed a unique plan that can be put into action (instead of on a shelf. ) And we helped the city see that its best days are still ahead.

Thinking Differently

Taking a balanced approach.

OHM Advisors’ approach to planning blends objective evaluation with local insight and opinion. By being mindful of local market conditions and private sector requirements in addition to community aspirations, we create a plan that’s not just visionary, but workable. This approach was especially critical in Pontiac where public resources were limited and the city needed the support of all its stakeholders to get the work done. To inform the planning process, we conducted a technical, objective study of Pontiac’s real present-day economic conditions and we complimented those finding with input from a broad cross-section of the community.

Engaging the community.

OHM Advisors worked to engage, inform, and solicit input and opinions from as many community members as possible including residents, business owners, and local officials. We launched a project website, conducted a statistical telephone survey, and even initiated a text polling outreach effort to reach out to the “silent majority”—the people who can’t or won’t come to public meetings. This involved distributing cards at city destinations and events inviting community members to weigh in on issues via text. As a result, we were able to gain input from a broad cross-section including otherwise hard-to-reach community members. By involving constituents early in the planning process, we laid the groundwork for community buy-in and support for the plan.

Leveraging existing strengths.

There’s an upside to everything, even a down-on-its-luck city struggling to reinvent itself. Our technical study and polling uncovered several key strengths in Pontiac. The city has a solid manufacturing base, an emerging entrepreneurial culture, and a growing business community. It also has a local community college capable of offering workforce development and training. Underlying these attributes, Pontiac benefits from an arts and culture heritage woven into the city’s fabric, creating a foundation for creative and cultural industries to grow. By focusing on what’s good about Pontiac as the starting point, OHM Advisors created a strengths-based plan that further engages and empowers community stakeholders.

Focusing on what’s doable.

OHM Advisors created a plan for Pontiac made up of six pillars based on market research, community input, and Pontiac’s existing strengths. Each pillar links to a resolution statement describing the community’s intent for moving the city forward. From there, the plan details out a set of achievable projects the city can begin implementing right away, such as establishing a business incubator for Pontiac, building a neighborhood planning council, and creating a downtown arts collaborative. By limiting the plan to what the community values most and by attaching each pillar to specific projects, OMH kept the initiative from becoming too large or too aspirational to manage.

Empowering stakeholders to take action.

One of the six pillars of the plan is to align and empower implementers. To make that happen, OHM Advisors tapped into Pontiac’s existing social capital—businesses, non-profit groups, and private citizens invested in Pontiac’s future—to create community taskforces for each project. This unique implementation structure helped make up for the city’s lack of funding and manpower by taking advantage of other available resources: the people in the community who care deeply about Pontiac’s future. The approach allowed stakeholders to take their future into their own hands and to make change quickly without the need for governmental involvement.

"The plan serves as an instrument for mobilizing meaningful community action towards restructuring and growing the local economy."

Dr. Deirdre Waterman - Mayor, City of Pontiac


  • An overview of how and where Pontiac will grow.

Advancing Communities

Pontiac is taking the first steps to rewrite its economic narrative, and hundreds of individuals, businesses, community leaders, and other local stakeholders are invested in the process. With an innovative economic development plan that encourages collaboration and allows the community to think big, but start small, Pontiac has jumpstarted its recovery and it is celebrating successes and capitalizing on the momentum along the way.

The city is already moving away from state oversight. Public-private partnerships are creating a sense of cohesiveness and collective pride. Given time, every resident in Pontiac will reap the rewards of the new growth and long-term economic resiliency that should stem from the plan that they themselves helped to create and implement.

Full Services Provided

  • Economic Development
  • Community Planning
  • Land Use Planning
  • Community Engagement
  • Market Analysis

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