Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development
It’s fascinating to read old newspaper articles about Pontiac Township and its desire to incorporate into a home rule city with the knowledge of what the City of Auburn Hills has become today. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, the Township found itself in numerous public battles with the City of Pontiac in an effort to keep its remaining land. About half of the Township’s original 36 square miles had been annexed away over the years by Pontiac, which depleted its ability to raise tax revenue and provide services. As long as the community remained a township, there would always be the possibility and “fear” that it would be further enveloped.
Things got interesting in the late 1960’s. I wish I could have been there to watch it unfold. The old timers tell me it was an epic David and Goliath-type story. The Township had limited resources, poor infrastructure, and a small population. Pontiac was a solid economic force with visions of hosting all three metro-Detroit professional sports teams (Lions, Red Wings, and Pistons) at the convergence of I-75 and M-59. However, the Township did not see itself as Pontiac’s “expansion area.” These proud people saw themselves as an independent community with a bright future.
The Township was featured in a July 25, 1967 article in The Pontiac Press called Pontiac Township – Sleepy, But Awakening where Pontiac Township Supervisor Roy Wahl said “Our township is bound to grow. It’s certain to be one of the busy spots in the area in the years ahead.” Wahl went on to call the I-75 freeway a “trail to development.”
In March 1970, the Township petitioned the State Boundary Commission to become the City of Pontiac Heights. It was a bold move. Pontiac fought back with firm objections and studies predicting fiscal doom for the new municipality. Editorials by the Pontiac Press expressed their opinion that the formation of Pontiac Heights was a bad idea for everyone. However, after all the debate, it was the Township’s decision to stop the petition process to incorporate after listening to its own expert. It was not the right time, more work had to be done.
In December 1976, the situation hit a flash point when Pontiac voted to annex 6.6 acres of the Township’s land at the southwest corner of Featherstone and Opdyke Roads for the Pontiac Silverdome’s expansive parking lot. Enough was enough. The Township saw tremendous opportunity in its future and felt it was time to make a stand.
Township citizens circulated petitions to become the City of Meadowbrook between February 4-6, 1977. They needed 734 signatures (5% of the population) to file with the State. They did much better and obtained over 1,200 – then promptly filed on February 7, 1977. The Township Board voted to support the citizen’s effort on July 25, 1977. But, Pontiac once again fought the incorporation and provided a study to the Boundary Commission in October 1977 with several ominous projections, including a finding that Township residents would experience a tax increase of almost 40%, if the incorporation were to proceed. A lot was at stake in this decision.
After a series of meetings and discussion, the Township won a huge victory when the Boundary Commission approved its request to incorporate into a home rule city on April 19, 1978. On September 11, 1979, nine members of the Township were publicly elected to draft the new City Charter. After a little over one year, the group completed its work on January 14, 1981. These folks did a lot of due diligence and heavy lifting, but most notably they chose our name – City of Auburn Hills. A name that was intended to bring all regions of our “L” shaped community, bisected by two major freeways, together as one. But, the residents of the Township still had to vote and approve the new Charter to make things official. The moment of truth was at hand.
A special election was held on Tuesday, April 7, 1981. The ballot stated the following:
“Shall the proposed Charter of the City of Auburn Hills drafted by the Charter Commission, elected September 11, 1979, be adopted?”
At 8:00 p.m. the polls closed. It was official. The City of Auburn Hills was born. 1,215 people voted “Yes” and 581 people voted “No.” About a year and half after the Charter’s approval, members of the first Auburn Hills City Council were elected on November 8, 1983. The first City Council meeting was held a month later on December 31, 1983. The rest is history.
Today, we have a lot to be thankful for. We remember and honor the nine men and women who drafted our City Charter: Chairman E. Dale Fisk, Vice-Chairman Michael Davis, Secretary Helen (Baum) Venos, Dorthy Babb, Helen Boone, Joe Carter, Robert Grusnick, Henry Knight, and Walter Smith.
Our history lives on with Henry Knight serving on the City Council today, former Mayor Robert Grusnick, and former Council member Michael Davis. Council member Knight has advised me that the other Charter Commission members have since passed away.
Davis told the Oakland Press soon after the first City Council meeting in early 1984 that the effort to become a city was “more to protect our independence” than anything else.
Did you know that today – April 7th – is a monumental day in the history of the City of Auburn Hills? Yes, 1,215 people went to the polls 34 years ago in the middle of a tough recession and supported our City Charter, our Declaration of Independence. This small group of people trusted the vision of their leaders of a prosperous future and cast their ballots to confirm the formation of this new city. Looking back through the lens of history, we’re grateful that these good men and women had the audacity to fight for it.