From urging support for entrepreneurs to helping graduates drowning in debt and addressing racial and economic segregation in our region—and much more—a crowd of community leaders offered insights into creating a thriving Muskegon and Muskegon Heights during a meeting with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist on Friday.
Gilchrist gathered with local legislators, nonprofit and business leaders, community activists, and others at Muskegon Community College’s Sturrus Technology Center in downtown Muskegon for the second stop of his “Thriving Cities” tour. During the tour, the first stop for which was Gilchrist’s hometown of Detroit, the lieutenant governor is visiting about 17 cities throughout Michigan in order to create a legislative blueprint for tackling challenges in the state’s urban areas. The tour is expected to wrap up in late October or November.
“We really need all of your input,” Gilchrist told the packed room. “This is unlike anything we’ve attempted in the state. We can come out with something better than somebody sitting in a room by themselves thinking of policy.”
Prior to Friday’s gathering, meeting attendees completed a survey from Gilchrist’s team about the five main areas the lieutenant governor is focusing on during his tour: generational economic opportunity, kids in cities, environmental quality and justice, transportation and mobility, and available and affordable housing. Of those who completed the survey in Muskegon, 76 percent said the most important, or second most important, issue facing Muskegon and Muskegon Heights was generational economic opportunity.
“Economic development has excluded people of color,” Gilchrist said. “…What if we had opportunities that didn’t make it so difficult to live the life you want to live?”
Support for entrepreneurs
A number of those who spoke during the gathering emphasized the importance of empowering entrepreneurs—and particularly entrepreneurs of color, who have long faced racism, marginalization, and disenfranchisement—in the area.
Cimone Casson, a financial advisor and owner of Cannas Capital, said micro-lending programs should be established to provide crucial small loans of between $500 and a couple thousand dollars to entrepreneurs in the Muskegon Heights and Muskegon area.
“I think that [business] incubators and more education around entrepreneurship should be done,” Casson said.
Dr. Pamela Smith, who teaches business at Muskegon Community College, agreed with Casson and emphasized the importance of teaching the powerful history of entrepreneurship in Muskegon Heights and Muskegon.
“Muskegon and Muskegon Heights have a rich history of economic development,” Smith said. “We need to get back to those levels.”
An economy hindered by student debt
Others in the audience noted that the regional economy would be more likely to flourish if graduates weren’t drowning in debt.
“I was part of a generation that was heavily encouraged to go to college,” said Jocelyn Hines, the founder of the Muskegon Young Black Professionals and a program officer at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County. “We incurred thousands and thousands of dollars in debt. Many of us are living with family and friends because we can’t afford to be out on our own.”
To address this, Hines suggested the possibility of a “reverse scholarship” program that would provide financial support for graduates paying back loans.
“And in Muskegon you have a brain drain,” Hines said. “You have a lot of people moving out of the area because they think it’s not affordable or don’t have access to jobs. If you have opportunities for reverse scholarships, it not only helps you access housing but people can be in the communities they grew up in.”
Creating an economic engine
In a landscape once dominated by industry, Muskegon now lacks an economic engine—and needs to replace the employment that manufacturing once generated, Bishop Nathan Wells of Holy Trinity Institutional Church of God in Christ said.
“Maybe the governor’s office or the state can help to create this environment because Muskegon will never have what it used to have, which is industry,” Wells said. “…We should be looking at something that’s going to draw people to Muskegon.”
As the area rebuilds its economic engine, Virginia Taylor, of Community enCompass, said “employers need to pay more money.” Muskegon lags behind nearby cities like Grand Rapids and Holland when it comes to wages. The average annual wage in Muskegon is about $41,000, compared to $47,000 in West Michigan as a whole and $53,800 in the state of Michigan.
“The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer—the middle class is getting poorer,” said Taylor, who suggested the possibility of financial support for small businesses in order for them to be able to offer living wages.
“On the flip side, there could be penalties for corporations who don’t pay living wages,” Taylor said.
Jim Fisher, of Second Act—an organization that connects seniors and retirees with jobs and mentorship opportunities—added that, in order to create the environment for the “economic engine” Bishop Wells cited, “the most critical ingredient we need is talent.”
“When we look at generational economic opportunity, we’re creating generations of children who are not literate at the levels they need to be,” Fisher said.
In Muskegon County, 44.1 percent of third grade students are proficient in reading, according to state Department of Education statistics. The state average is only slightly higher at 44.4 percent.
To address this, Gilchrist noted that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed state budget includes a significant increase in education funding ($507 million—a plan at which Republican lawmakers have balked), including tripling the amount of state funding for literacy coaches in schools.
“Michigan is the only state in the country that has seen our fourth grade reading attainment decline in the last 10 years,” Gilchrist said. “During that time, our spending in our education system grew at a rate slower than every other state in the country.”
Facing racism and segregation
In order for Bishop Wells’ dream of finding an economic engine to come true, Pathfinders Director Shauna Hunter said the community must deal with segregation.
“Muskegon is segregated: we are segregated socioeconomically; we are segregated racially,” said Hunter, whose organization provides after-school and other educational opportunities for students in Muskegon Heights and Muskegon.
In the wake of this segregation, disenfranchised students are facing violence, trauma, stress, and more, Hunter emphasized.
“The kids are in crisis,” Hunter said. “…I did a class this summer with HealthWest, and I asked how many kids have had stress or trauma and all 50 raised their hands.”
To deal with segregation and the impact it has had on the Muskegon community for decades, Hunter said there needs to be a more equitable distribution of resources—particularly when it comes to funding for organizations in Muskegon Heights. Others in the audience agreed and said more funding must be allocated for organizations led by people of color.
Struggling with violence
Angelita Valdez, a behavioral health therapist and CEO of Servicios de Esperanza, too emphasized the role violence plays in children’s lives. Just last month, two teenagers were shot and killed in Muskegon. Zamarian Cooper, 16, was fatally shot outside a party in Muskegon on Aug. 19, and 18-year-old Mervin Bonner was found on Seventh Street in Muskegon with a fatal gunshot wound to his head on Aug. 25, according to police.
“Kids can’t retain information” because they’re dealing with trauma, said Valdez—who too noted local educational materials, such as information about applying to college, needs to be translated into Spanish.
Residents who want to get involved with conversations around violence in our community can attend a town hall gathering on Thursday, Sept. 19 from 5:30-7pm at Muskegon Heights Academy (2441 Sanford St.).
The economic impact of environment
The environmental ramifications of industry in Muskegon Heights must be dealt with when discussing rebuilding an economic engine in the area, Muskegon Heights Mayor Kim Sims said.
“Those entities have moved out and left the ground dirty,” Sims said, referring to industry. “You’ve got astronomical costs as far as cleanup; that doesn’t make Muskegon Heights look desirable for potential development.”
To address this, Sims said there needs to be an incentive for developers to come to Muskegon Heights.
Providing opportunities for builder of color
A licensed builder since 1995, Rudy Briggs has been involved in construction throughout Muskegon, Grand Rapids and beyond. Throughout the decades he’s spent in the industry, Briggs said inclusion has been a significant issue, especially when it comes to people of color being awarded project bids.
“Inclusiveness is a big issue in Muskegon; we had to fight for it,” Briggs said.
As the city and region works to create a more diverse construction field—which Briggs said is happening with the support from various local leaders, including Muskegon Economic Development Director Jake Eckholm—he emphasized there needs to be a greater focus on equity in the field.
The state, and local community, must encourage and support “minority contractors being able to participate in that [bidding] process,” Briggs said.
Expunging marijuana offenses
Muskegon City Commissioner Debra Warren told Gilchrist that the state must expunge marijuana offenses from criminal records.
“I wanted to bring up how important the expungement of records is,” Warren said. “…That’s a policy the state needs to take care of.”
The lieutenant governor said that expungement, particularly after voters passed the recreational use of marijuana last November, is “something we care very deeply about,” in reference to the Whitmer administration.
State. Sen. Jeff Irwin [D-Ann Arbor] introduced a bill this summer that would clear misdemeanors involving low-level marijuana use and possession from Michiganders’ records. Senate Bill 416 has yet to be voted on by the Senate or House.
Next steps and getting involved
Gilchrist and his team will travel to cities throughout the state over the next couple of months. The Muskegon meeting was posted to his Facebook [you can watch it here], and the presentation Gilchrist gave during the gathering can be viewed by clicking here. Additional information from the other cities too will become available through the lieutenant governor’s Facebook and website.
For those who were unable to attend Friday’s gathering, you may email input to Gilchrist and his team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The suggestions gathered in Muskegon—and the other cities—will help to drive the administration as it moves forward, said Poppy Sias-Hernandez, a regional director of community affairs for Gov. Whitmer.
“We’re going to take this back to Lansing with us, and it’s going to inform the policy and change we’re driving,” Sias-Hernandez said during Friday’s event.
State Rep. Terry Sabo [D-Muskegon] thanked Gilchrist and the Whitmer administration as a whole for visiting Muskegon numerous times since the governor took office.
“I really appreciate the time and effort you’ve taken to listen to the voices of this area since you’ve been in office,” Sabo told the lieutenant governor. “Thank you for listening to what the people of Muskegon have to say.”