Pre-City History

It's ironic that while the waters of the Clinton River kindled the beginnings of Sterling Township, it was actually surface water and battles over land along the river that helped foster the birth of the City of Sterling Heights.

During the mid 1950s, booming manufacturers looked for new opportunities outside of the City of Detroit and ultimately chose the rural lands of Sterling Township to call home. The Ford Motor Company, Chrysler Corporation, LTV Missile Plant and Briggs Manufacturing all followed the "Golden Corridor" up Van Dyke and Mound Roads and settled into Sterling Township--an area full of promise.
Pre City History - Group Photo
With the tremendous industrial growth, plant workers followed the move to Sterling Township and left Hamtramck, Detroit, Warren and other southern Macomb County cities. "Dream Communities" complete with plans for rail transportation and upscale housing helped entice these modern settlers to move into Sterling Township's state-of-the-art subdivisions, such as Dresden Village. With the boom, however, residents and township officials stumbled into massive flooding due to the lack of drainage systems, compounded in some areas by a major drain running into the township from the City of Troy.

During this period of tremendous growth, neighboring communities, as well as a number of residents threatening to declare their neighborhoods a separate community, made attempts to seize land from the township.

In 1960, a proposal to incorporate a portion of Sterling with Clinton and Harrison Townships went before the voters. Proponents for incorporating the three communities into the City of Moravian Hills faced a tough battle when opposing residents formed S.T.O.M.P., "Sterling Township Opposes Moravian Proposal." The proposal was soundly defeated.

A similar attempt to incorporate a portion of Sterling Township with the City of Warren met the same fate in 1962.

Undaunted by these failed attempts, many residents were still convinced that the township needed to become a city if it was to maintain its identity and develop in a well planned manner.

Visionaries like F. James Dunlop persisted in keeping the incorporation issue at the forefront of public discussion. Dunlop organized Sterling's first neighborhood association, the Dresden Village Homeowner's Association. As president of this group, he listened to concerns over township service levels and fought what he saw as misguided proposals to turn certain portions of Sterling Township into the City of Dresden, City of Riverland, and the City of Moravian Hills. He also voiced concern over attempted annexations of Sterling land from Clinton Township and the cities of Utica and Warren.

“The township board didn’t understand how to provide for the new residents’ urban needs,” Dunlop said. “We wanted improved services and our area needed a nearby fire station. Rather than breaking up into small cities to solve these problems, I thought the township should remain united. The majority of residents agreed on this one thing – we wanted to hold the community together.”

In 1966 residents signed petitions to elect a charter commission to draft a city charter. They had two years to develop a city charter proposal and present it to the voters.

One of the first issues the commission faced was what to name the proposed city. Sterling Township could not become the City of Sterling because of 500 people in a small village of that name in Arenac County, Michigan. Residents of that community rejected a plea from the Charter Commission to allow the township to mimic their moniker and be known as Sterling. Hesitantly, the commission added the word "Heights" in order to appease residents of the northeast, lower peninsula village of Sterling.

In early 1967, Charles Kosarek and Robert Osmak formed an organization named the “Citizens’ Charter Advisory Committee” (CCAC). They asked the voters to reject the Strong Mayor charter and replace it with a City Manager—City Council form of government. Hundreds of concerned residents joined them in this effort. Their supporters consisted of a wide range of citizens from business leaders and educators to members of the clergy. They believed Sterling Heights could be a unique city. They wanted a family friendly, safe place to raise their children with good schools. They wanted excellent city services with low taxes. They hoped outstanding, professional, trained, educated people would run their new city like a business.

On Dec. 9, 1967 the first charter commission presented voters with a ballot charter proposal establishing a Strong Mayor form of government. With a record 6,687 ballots being cast on the issue, voters voiced a firm “no” to the proposed City of Sterling Heights strong mayor government.

A 1967 Daily Sentinel newspaper poll indicated that a majority of residents still favored forming the City of Sterling Heights but desired a city manager form of government.

On March 2, 1968, the voters elected a new charter commission favoring City Management government. The new commission had only two and a half weeks before the two-year time limit would expire on May 20. Encouraged by their chairman, David E. Brown, 30, they rolled up their sleeves and, working diligently, presented a rewritten Management city charter to be voted on in May.

On May 25, 1968, voters overwhelmingly passed a new city management charter. At the same time, they also elected a team of candidates running with the theme “Professionalism in Government”. None of this group had ever been elected to office before. All of the former township officials were defeated.

When a reporter asked about the name Sterling Heights, Dunlop answered, "Her only heights will be how high we set our goals and how much, we, her citizens, are willing to give of ourselves to achieve them.”

The inaugural council consisted of:
  • Gerald N. Donovan, 36, an elementary school teacher. As the top vote getter, the council elected him the first mayor.
  • F. James Dunlop, 37, a senior production engineer at General Motors. As second highest vote getter, he was elected mayor pro tem by the council.
  • James E. McCarthy, 39, an engineer at Chrysler
  • Al Martin, 37, an educational representative for school supplies
  • Stanley Rainko, 37, an attorney
  • Richard George, 26, a designer at Ford
  • Anthony Dobry, 53, a machine repairman at Chrysler
“The first city council faced an enormous task in order to meet the high expectations of its citizens,” Dunlop said. “We met nearly every evening after leaving our day jobs. We needed to adopt rules, regulations, laws, codes, ordinances, policies and procedures for the new city. In some areas of the city we actually had to stop development in order to meet the new requirements for our infrastructure. While we did not always agree on the solution to the many issues before us, we could disagree without being disagreeable. We had a unity of purpose.

“Needing legal guidance, we hired Paul J. O’Reilly, 28, as city attorney. This wise decision has saved our city millions of dollars. Paul O’Reilly was the most brilliant lawyer I ever met.

“We needed to hire a highly qualified city manager and see that he hired professional people to run the city departments. On July 26, 1968, we hired Leonard G. Hendricks, 44, as Sterling Heights’ first city manger. He began working for us on Aug. 26.

“We immediately began to develop master plans for the city. Our master plans included zoning, development, roads, water lines, sanitary sewers, storm drains, police department, fire department, library, and parks and recreation. Each area needed to have its own master plan.”

"Residents wanted the new council to solve many of the city's pressing needs including development of the roads, sidewalks, and a sewer system," former Mayor Donovan said. "With that one vote in 1968, we no longer lived out in the country. We suddenly had become the second largest city in size in the state and had to grow and develop."