In the dead of winter, about a dozen people gather at Saline City Hall to discuss how to bring new life to the downtown, where nearly half the storefronts are empty.

Mayor Gretchen Driskell, fifty, walks into the room and smiles warmly, greeting people by name. Tall and blond, she wears a pantsuit with a scarf tied fashionably around her neck. With elbows on the table and pen in hand, she spends most of the meeting listening, but she answers questions definitively when asked. One participant, Joy Ely of Pineapple House interior design shop, calls Driskell “smart yet approachable.” It’s one reason she’s starting her sixth term as mayor.

An architect describes plans for an open-air pavilion. The group discusses streetscape improvements that could make central Saline friendlier for walkers, and plans for a new downtown park. The ideas show promise, but are they merely whistling in the dark? Walmart is about to open on Saline’s outskirts, threatening locally owned shops, while the city’s biggest employer, the former Ford parts plant east of town, faces an uncertain future.

Driskell seems undaunted. “People come together in challenges,” she says. “When things are tough, I’m naturally ready to get to work.”

Since the mayor’s job pays only $4,000 a year, Driskell has a day job as a leasing agent for Swisher Commercial. There are about twenty organizations connected to her two roles, so she’s often in meetings.

“Being mayor is not a nine-to-five job,” she explains. “It’s about building partnerships.” And people agree that’s one thing Driskell excels at. “People know about Saline because she is involved at so many levels,” says city manager Todd Campbell. “She is extremely energetic and enthusiastic when it comes to promoting this city.” Money magazine has twice named Saline one of America’s Top 100 Small Cities, and Driskell recently was elected to the board of the National League of Cities. With a long record of success in Saline government and her star rising nationally, she could be the leader with the resolve and connections to weather the storm.

Twenty years ago, Driskell wouldn’t have imagined her life today: she lived in Washington, D.C., and had a fulfilling career as an accountant at a top firm.

When her then-husband took a job in Michigan, they traded their house on Capitol Hill for a historic Victorian in Saline. She planned on leading a quiet life at home with her infant son—until a neighbor who was a city council member asked her to chair the fund-raising committee for a new recreation center. That volunteer work led to six years on Saline’s city council.

In 1998, after participating as a founding member of the Saline Leadership Institute, which helps train community volunteers in leadership skills, the self-­described “shy” accountant got the “tools and courage” to run for mayor. She unseated the incumbent and became Saline’s first female mayor.

About six years ago, Driskell got divorced. She has two college-age sons and a daughter in high school. Balancing work and family is tough, but she hasn’t ruled out a run for a higher office.

“I’ve thought about it, and people ask me about it a lot, but I’m not ready to say what that might be,” she explains. Serving in the state legislature could be the next natural step, or an executive appointment in the state or federal government. But the Saline mayoral race is nonpartisan, and she still won’t declare a party, calling herself a moderate. For now, she says, her focus lies solely on Saline.

At a city council meeting, two representatives from Phire Branding, an Ann Arbor ad agency, present a web-based marketing campaign they’re developing for Saline. Council members grill them about the proposed slogan—”Be. Here.” They say they want to communicate that Saline has big draws like the Saline Fiddlers and the Celtic Festival but is also a place where people can relax, find easy parking, and enjoy a hometown atmosphere.

The city has already spent $30,000 developing the campaign; Driskell wants to spend $30,000 more to build the website, which will be targeted to visitors, potential businesses, and residents of the Saline school district. But a few council members think the cost is too high. They want to know why a more traditional approach, such as radio or print ads, wouldn’t work better. They wonder how an already overworked city staff can maintain the site. And a couple members just don’t get the campaign’s slogan.

Driskell argues that the campaign will create a contemporary and forward-­looking identity for Saline in a highly competitive marketplace. The motion passes, 5–2. But the opponents aren’t happy.

“It’s not a wise investment at this point,” councilman Pat Ivey, fifty-seven, argues. “We shouldn’t be spending money we don’t have. We should be building a surplus.”

Ivey isn’t convinced by the premise of the campaign—that Saline needs to attract more people and businesses. “I don’t think we should market Saline like something on the drugstore shelf,” he says. “Many in our core citizenship, especially in our elderly population, don’t want growth. They want to protect what they have.”

But there’s no question in Driskell’s mind that business growth is good for Saline. “It decreases the taxpayer burden on our residents and improves their quality of life,” she says. “These businesses also support our schools and sponsor programs and events.”

Right now, though, a lot of those local businesses are having a difficult time. On a Friday morning, Driskell is hanging out at a wooden table near the front door of the Drowsy Parrot with her laptop and a chai mocha. She chats with old friends and the cafe’s owner, Scott Buster.

Downtown businesses like “the Parrot” are especially fragile now, she says. “We must differentiate ourselves. Saline is all about quality, service, and experience. Walmart is about cheap prices.”

The future of the auto parts plant—now run by a Ford subsidiary, Automotive Component Holdings—is a wild card. It manufactures automotive interiors and employs 1,600. ACH recently invested more than $80 million in the plant, making it one of only three plants worldwide with new technology to make polyurethane-coated dashboards. That seems to guarantee it will stay open—for now. Driskell believes the plant will survive unless “the entire auto industry goes under.” If it does close, there are federal programs the city can apply for, she says. Meanwhile, Driskell’s goal is to diversify.

Her probusiness stance has helped fill 300 acres of business parks, one of the largest such totals in Michigan for a city of Saline’s size. Liebherr, a German company that manufactures both machine tools and aircraft components in Saline, has tripled its square footage in its twenty years in the city. Since 2005 it’s been joined by two other German companies—ThyssenKrupp Materials, a metal cutting company, and Scherer & Trier, which makes automotive plastics. ➧

“We brought the engineers, attorneys, and local and state economic development people to the table at one time to make it happen efficiently,” Driskell says of Scherer & Trier’s move to Saline. “We have a good reputation for making it easy for companies to do business here.”

Driskell hopes more German firms will make a home in Saline, and its sister-city relationship with Lindenberg, Germany, made official in 2003, might help. Saline hosts an annual Oktoberfest and citizen exchanges, including one that Driskell will lead overseas in the fall. (Saline also has a long-standing sister-city partnership with Brecon, Wales.)

Alternative energy and green businesses are other areas she wants to tap. But at a recent council meeting, the five council members she had proposed to send to a “green cities” conference were pared down to two. “I’m disappointed,” she says. “I see it as an investment, and I know becoming greener is what our citizens want. It just won’t come as quickly as I’d hoped.”

Some of her ideas take time. In her first term, she wanted a Saline cultural and arts committee to bring more creativity to the city. A decade later, she’ll be making her first appointments to the committee.

She also dreams of the day she’ll ride a light rail line connecting Saline, Ann Arbor, and Detroit. Growing up on Long Island, she often took the train into New York City. She says it was her early introduction to mass transit that led to her heavy involvement in local and regional transportation and infrastructure committees. “To compete globally for jobs, we need a better transportation system with more choices,” she says.

On a cold morning, Driskell leads me on a walking tour along South Ann Arbor Street. She points to the parking lot where the pavilion is planned; she hopes to see community events there year round. The architect says this could be one of the “shovel-ready projects” the federal government can fund as part of the stimulus package. But Driskell knows the chances of receiving funding are slim; many Michigan cities have more critical infrastructure needs.

We cross the street and see the old Methodist church where Beanstalks Play Cafe is closing. The owner’s husband is moving furnishings out the front door. Driskell waves at him. “It is so sad,” she says. We walk past the spot where she wants to build the new city park with an interactive play fountain. Today it’s just an empty snow-covered lot.

Driskell steps into a florist’s shop to say hello to the owner. Inside, bright, colorful flowers line the shelves and counters. She says this is her favorite place to find signs of spring during a long, cold winter. It’s a welcome relief from the economic hardship just outside the door.