The following are excerpts from an interview by News Editor Patti Klevorn:
Let’s talk about your first months on the job.
All right, you have 10 minutes.
Nice try. You’ve been on the job for nine months now. Are you feeling comfortable here?
Workwise, I feel comfortable. The staff has been absolutely wonderful. I feel settled in and I’m on the ground running.
Does Ludington feel like a good fit for you and your family?
From the first day, well, we’ll skip that first day. From the second day, people have been wonderfully helpful, both at work and outside of work. My wife and kids came up in May and my wife has already made several friends. The kids are all in play groups. They have more things to do than they have time to do them. We feel like we’ve really started to fit into the community.
Why? What makes Ludington a good fit for you?
I like the sense of community, the fact that people care about you. We’ll get a call from a friend or something, “Hey, we didn’t see your car; we expected you there. Is everything OK?”
My wife loves that kind of thing.
People wave to you when they drive by or when you’re taking a walk and you don’t see that in a bigger city at all.
You came from a small town, Almont.
It’s interesting because Almont has a smaller population. In fact Ludington’s population is almost four times as big as Almont, but Almont was a half hour north of a major population center and Almont was experiencing a lot of growth in population, a lot of people from the suburbs of Detroit were moving into Almont. We were platting new subdivisions. Our population grew 19 percent. I was hearing comments like, “I don’t even know half the people on my block anymore.”
In Ludington the population’s a lot more stable. People have lived here for quite a long time. I quickly learned that people refer to a house as the former owner’s house “Oh, that’s the old Smith place.” I’d say, “No, time out, give me an address, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I actually think, even though Ludington is geographically bigger and the population is bigger, it has more of a small-town feel than where I came from just simply because of the more stable population.
I expected this to have a bigger city feel and within the first week it was very quick that it was much more of a small town.
Old city hall. That’s one serious issue you have to deal with. There was a second opportunity for a sale of the property, but that, too, fell through. What will you do to make it sell this time?
Well, we’re going to sell it for $10. (LAUGHS) It’s a serious issue for the city, but I’m confident that we’ll have a developer that will purchase the property for a reasonable price and build a very good development for the Ludington community.
What can you do to make sure it doesn’t fall through again?
We have put in the RFP requests for very technical and financial information that the developers have to provide to us. In addition, they have to provide us with references of similar type developments. We’ve indicated that we may go visit those developments. I think we will do a much better job of evaluating a developer’s background.
Is there a price you feel you’re not going to allow the city hall property to sell below?
The RFP does not have a minimum price. One, I felt there would be differing opinions as to what that should be, and we may still be arguing so much about that to this day that we’d never get an RFP out in the mail.
Two, it’s my opinion that the purchase price is not necessarily the most important factor in this issue. It’s just as important or maybe even more important that we have a quality developer that puts together a quality development that has a positive impact on the city and on our downtown. I think the quality development will help with our downtown revitalization and will also bring, as a reward, the tax dollars behind it, and I think those two issues are probably a little bit more important than the purchase price.
That said, I don’t see us selling it for $10. I don’t want the only emphasis to be simply on the purchase price. There will be many factors: price, the developer’s background and the type of development they are proposing. Is this something we feel will sell pretty quickly and bring people to our downtown?
You are in the budget process right now; I don’t envy you that job. In an economic downturn, with less state money, the city manager sometimes has to be the bad guy. Are you prepared to be that bad guy?
Yes. I think my role as city manager is to prepare a budget based on what we expect our revenues to be. I clearly expect that we will not be able to fund all of things we want to fund, given the current downturn in the economy and most likely in our revenues. I feel it is my job to present to the city council a proposed budget that is balanced. That will basically require making some hard choices, “Yes, we’ll fund this, but no I don’t think we can fund this.” The city council could either agree or disagree with that or choose different priorities. We’ll put a proposal together that is my recommendation. If they feel they want to change that a little bit, that is definitely within their prerogative to do, as long as what they choose balances the budget because it’s required, and that’s what we’ll do.
Cities are sometimes criticized for not including the public in the budget process early on. Here there’s a budget proposal, then a public hearing, but the budget’s pretty much set at that point. Any thoughts on whether the city should keep the process it has?
I feel like we’ve changed that a little bit already. We had our goal-setting workshop in August and that was publicized. That was the time, not only for the council but for anyone to say, “Hey, this is a priority for the city.” We did that at the beginning of the budgetary process so that if it’s truly a goal or priority for the city council, it could be inserted into the budget. The budget should reflect the goals of the city council.
What’s the city manager’s role in improving the downtown?
I feel my primary goal is followup, followup, followup. It’s all well and good to have a study (completed recently by Jay Juergensen & Associates), but once the study’s done, it’s very easy for that study to go on a shelf in my office and be forgotten forever, and I think one of my responsibilities is to say, “Here are the conclusions from the study; how are we getting from step 1 to step 2?” And when we get to step 2, “How do we get from step 2 to step 3?” There may be a lot of nagging, a lot of followup.
There are some housekeeping things we need to do ahead of time such as reorganizing our downtown organization. The other thing we have to do is to decide how to fund it.
The study called for hiring a downtown manager. Are you in favor of that?
I think that will be a bit challenging to do, especially this year. I understand his recommendation on that, that it would be a very good idea to have someone completely and solely focused on the downtown, but that may be a tough goal to accomplish given the current budgetary constraints that we have. That being said, I think we can put into place an existing staff member whose primary focus can change to downtown.
I’m wearing some conflicting hats here between working on downtown initiatives but also I have a responsibility as a whole and not just the downtown. So it’s trying to strike a reasonable balance between the two.
Some other issues for you are the issues of rental standards and a full-time fire chief.
A rental ordinance in and of itself is fine and dandy, but if we don’t put our money where our mouth is and properly enforce it and if we don’t have complete political support to enforce it, then in my opinion we might as well not even implement the ordinance. This is a tough issue because I think there are some members who feel we need to beef up the living standards of rental properties, and I think there are others who say it’s private property and government shouldn’t be interfering with the rights of private property owners.
My opinion on this is, if we’re going to do this, it has to be funded to a level that will provide solid enforcement of it and there has to be political support for it, because if there isn’t, the whole program can quickly become undercut and ineffective.
What can the city do to attract new jobs?
Sometimes I think we hide ourselves in the tall grass and don’t let people know that we’re here. My goal in bringing this up with the EDC is to raise ourselves above that grass and wave and say, “Here we are, come to us.” That may be having better coordination among the EDC, the city and the county, putting together a brochure or getting ourselves known in economic development circles.
We’re working with Bill Kratz (director of the Ludington and Mason County EDCs) and saying, “Let’s really put the spotlight on Mason County for someone that may want to come in.”
What are the city’s biggest challenges?
Jobs will obviously be a big challenge. If we can provide the environment to attract business and industry I believe that will go a long way toward having those companies come in and provide good-paying jobs on a year-round basis where people not only want to live here but can work here and make a decent living.
We’ve got some older abandoned industrial properties that I’d like to see redeveloped, whether it’s in a new commercial or residential use. It’s one of our goals for next year.
Improving the downtown and trying to create a good place for job growth, those are probably the biggest challenges here. And that means recognizing that we are a tourist town, and we should be a darn good tourist town, but we also have a good manufacturing base here and we have to work to support. And we have to look at any type of high-tech industry too.
The city itself is somewhat limited in space as to bringing in new industrial prospects, but the county is not. The city would work with the county and EDC to bring in a prospect somewhere in Mason County. I believe that if it’s in Mason County it will benefit the city as well.
What do you see as the city’s biggest assets?
Water, for sure. We have one of the largest public beaches in the state and it’s right here in the city, a stone’s throw from the downtown. We have people walking to the lighthouse all the time. We have Waterfront Park, which is just one of the jewels of the city. My kids absolutely love Waterfront Park. Maybe that made it easier, especially for my oldest daughter to move because she just absolutely loves that park. My son would see it and just start screaming.
We’ve got the Loomis Street boat launch and Copeyon Park. There’s a lot of public access to the water and Ludington does a good job of keeping it that way.
We’re just a short drive from one of the prettiest state parks in Michigan. In fact I camped there on two separate occasions long before I moved here. I loved it up here.
What do you want to be known for?
Ultimately, at the end of the day, they can look at me and say, “He really cared about the community. He did what was best for the city as a whole.”
If some of those abandoned industrial properties (such as the structure on North Harrison Street) were converted to, say, residential use or a productive use I think that would be a real added benefit to the community.
I’ve love to see the west end of Ludington Ave. beautified to something other than three guardrails and broken up asphalt, but trying to have some of this development and beautification done in a way that fits with the Ludington community. I think it’s important that what we do fits with this community and make it distinctive to Ludington and not make it look like any other cookie-cutter lakeside community.
What’s next for you? Do you see yourself here long-term?
Well, I wanted to be a wide receiver in the NFL, but since that’s probably not going to happen, and I’m not likely to get my tour card on the PGA tour, I want to stay in Ludington as long as they want me to stay and as long as I’m making positive contributions. We really like it here. I don’t have a five-year, 10-year plan, 15-year plan.
How does a city manager go about keeping his job? It can be a difficult thing. You’ve got seven people who can decide when you’re gone.
A manager learns real quickly you can’t please everyone all the time. So I’m going to look at the facts of the situation, and my job is to give the council the pros and cons of each option and make a recommendation as to which I think is in the best interest of the city, and leave it at that. If they agree with me fine; if they don’t, that’s fine too. I don’t take that personally, and I don’t think they take my recommendations personally either. It’s just based on a professional disagreement and it’s nothing more than that.
I don’t play the numbers games, just trying to please four out of the seven. I treat all seven equally. I give all seven the same information.
Any surprises? There was some controversy before you were hired that didn’t have anything to do with you, but coming in you had to be a little concerned what it would be like.
I wondered if there would be any resentment from people who had supported the former city manager Jim Miller. The pleasant surprise is I haven’t seen that. People have been wonderfully supportive.
If you could wave a magic wand and make one sweeping change, if you didn’t have to worry about the budget or politics, what would it be?
I’d have every water main and sewer main replaced. I’d have all of our roads repaved all at once. I’d have all of our businesses downtown and elsewhere occupied and flourishing all year round. I’d have all the empty industrial buildings converted to new uses.
But I wouldn’t change a thing about some of our assets, the water, the small-town feel. I think the magic’s already there.