Revitalizing Pontiac, MI with the Creation of the Webster Community Center

“My neighborhood deserves the same sorts of resources, recreation spaces, services, and enrichment activities as any other community,” says Coleman Yoakum, Executive Director of Micah 6 Community in Pontiac, Michigan. Micah 6 Community is a neighborhood-based community development corporation and 501(C)3 dedicated to serving their community in the city. Micah 6’s efforts have included planting community gardens, opening a produce grocery store in a food desert, creating an eight-week summer camp for underprivileged kids, and more. Yoakum says of his work in Pontiac, “It is projects like these that bring communities together, create happier neighborhoods, and lay the groundwork for healthier lives.”

The latest Micah 6 project is their biggest yet. The organization has purchased the former Webster Elementary School at 640 W. Huron Street in Pontiac, Michigan. The school was constructed in 1920 and was used for over 85 years until its closure in 2006. The intent is to transform this large 52,950-square-foot space into a mixed-use community center to further serve Pontiac residents through health and wellness, arts and culture, entrepreneurship, and youth activities. Tenants of the center will be local nonprofit organizations, small businesses, and community-minded organizations that will rent space for their operations. Some of the community outreach activities to take place in the community center will be open gym time, an indoor weekend farm market, cooking classes for kids and adults, an Honor Community Health clinic, after-school tutoring, and a small business incubator program. There will even be an indoor bus stop so that public transit users can avoid inclement, and sometimes dangerous, weather. A community garden and sports field will be located outside.

Renovating the building is no small task. PM surveyed and identified asbestos containing materials and lead-based paint throughout the building. A large underground storage tank (UST) was identified on the property. PM drew up plans to remove it, along with 400 tons of contaminated soil. As part of a massive basement flooding issue, contaminated water was removed and properly disposed of.

“Our team got together and guessed that there were likely 100,000 gallons of water in the basement”, said Yoakum. “We had to pump all of this into tanker trucks and have it hauled away. At the end of the day, we got a call from Elizabeth [Masserang of PM Environmental] who said, ‘They’ve pumped 110,000 gallons of water, but it has only dropped about 8 inches.’ When I asked what that meant, she explained, ‘We think there may be something like 400,000 gallons down there.’ Once all the water was out, we figured out that the basement was almost the entire footprint of the building and about 28 feet deep. That was a shocker.” Initial basement dewatering took place in spring 2021, and work has continued through summer 2022.

PM helped Micah 6 apply for a grant through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). They successfully secured grant funding in the amount of $425,000. This will pay for the majority of the cleanup. The remaining project costs are more than $17 million.

“I am not a developer. I am a social worker,” said Yoakum. “This is part of why it was so important to build a great team in the very early stages because I needed to be surrounded by people who knew what they were doing.”

To raise awareness and funds for this hefty project, Micah 6 hosted a gala at the Strand Theater in Pontiac last February. Many notable community leaders came to show their support. Among the names were Oakland County Executive David Coulter, Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel, and keynote speaker Congresswoman Haley Stevens. PM was represented, as well. CEO Mike Kulka and Elizabeth Masserang enjoyed the evening, along with Masserang’s wife, Cara. The evening featured speakers whose topics ranged from the historical significance of the building to the importance of youth enrichment programs. Local artistic performances highlighted some of the tenants who will be moving into the community center once it is finished. Masserang’s favorite performance was by the kids of Kaleo Arts. The kids drummed while a talented young lady sang a bittersweet song and played the ukulele.

Masserang says of the gala, “The turnout and evening’s events were an amazing show of community participation and engagement. There were a lot of volunteers and residents that helped make the gala a success, and this truly is a testament to how much the community wants to see this project come to fruition.”

In June, the UST was pulled out of the ground. It held 20,000 gallons of fuel oil and was used to heat the school. Local media outlets and elected officials gathered to support the project and witness this massive tank emerge. Once it was unearthed and laid horizontally on the ground, the top of it reached half the height of the school. A second UST has been found, and decisions are underway to further assess the tank and determine the best approach to handle it.

Yoakum is grateful for the role that PM has played in the whole process. “Elizabeth [Masserang] and Ginny [Dougherty] have been incredibly helpful in keeping this project moving forward and teaching me about the process as we go. The biggest thing so far has been heading up our EGLE application for remediation. They did such a good job; we were awarded more funds than we asked for!” He is currently looking toward the future and figuring out how to secure the rest of the much-needed funding. “I’ve never had to fundraise for anything this big before. The pieces are still the same: tell people the story about where it’s going and why it is important, and invite people to join you in that, but it is still pretty daunting.”