Muskegon Heights City Council candidates tackle economic development, gun violence, education, Mona Lake Park & more at debate

Judge Gregory Pittman, at podium, moderated the debate featuring [pictured left to right] Muskegon Heights City Council candidates Ulis Ellis, Kellie Kitchen and Dari Hines.
From attracting businesses to Muskegon Heights and improving Mona Lake Park to gun violence, education and much more, candidates vying to serve on the Muskegon Heights City Council tackled a wide variety of issues at a debate held at the Corinthians Baptist Church in Muskegon Heights on Oct. 30. 

Held the week before the Nov. 5 election and sponsored by 103.7 The Beat and M106-FM, the debate was moderated by Muskegon County Family Court Judge Gregory Pittman.

The Muskegon Heights City Council candidates at the debate were Dari Hines, Muskegon Heights City Councilwoman Kellie Kitchen, and Ulis Ellis Jr. Derrick Collins is also running in the race for the Muskegon Heights City Council but was unable to attend the debate because he had to work. Muskegon Heights City Councilman Marshall Cook is running for reelection; he did not attend the debate.

In addition to the Muskegon Heights City Council candidates, the event featured debates among Muskegon City Commission candidates and Muskegon Heights mayoral candidates.

For issues of length and clarity, we are publishing separate articles on the Muskegon Heights City Council debate, the Muskegon City Commission debate, and the Muskegon Heights mayoral debate.

Economic development in Muskegon Heights

When asked what economic development means to them, the Muskegon Heights City Council candidates’ responses included attracting new business to Muskegon Heights, revitalizing its downtown, supporting companies currently in the city, and focusing on emerging technologies and the role Muskegon Heights could potentially play there.

Kitchen, who has served on the Muskegon Heights City Council since first being elected in 2015 and who currently works for the city of Muskegon Heights’ Department of Health and Human Services, said she wants to attract new business to the city, as well as ensure it is prepared to support a growing commercial landscape.

“It means bringing in the businesses that complement the vision we see for our city; it means encouraging and soliciting businesses,” said Kitchen, who was born and raised in Muskegon Heights. “…But it’s about not only soliciting businesses, but preparing our environment for those businesses to come. It’s about increasing our tax base so we can provide more amenities for our citizens.”

Ellis, a retired science and chemistry teacher who also served as a managing supervisor with Chrysler, said it’s crucial that Muskegon Heights take a look at the green economy, climate change, nanotechnology, and globalization when forming a blueprint for its economic future.

“These are areas that can entail and include many people here in Muskegon Heights,” said Ellis, who was born in Muskegon and raised in Muskegon Heights.

Included in such an economic plan, Ellis emphasized Muskegon Heights legislators could partner with educators to ensure there are programs available for students to learn the skills needed in a green economy—in other words, an economy that aims for sustainable development while promoting environmental and social well-being.

Hines, who served as a Muskegon Heights firefighter for 20 years before becoming a corrections officer at the Michigan Department of Corrections, said economic growth must be championed in the city.

“We’ve had businesses close and leave throughout the years, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get new businesses here,” Hines said. “I’d like to see the downtown area of Muskegon Heights thriving again with small business, and I’d like to make sure the big businesses already here stay here by offering them incentives to stay.”

Additionally, the Mona Lake area should be developed as part of a plan for economic growth in the area, Hines said. 

“Economic growth is vital for our tax base so that we can offer more to the citizens, offer a cleaner city, a better city, a thriving city,” he said. “I would encourage you all who have business minds to develop a small business and bring it to the city so we can help it grow.”

 The current business landscape

After Judge Pittman asked the candidates if they are satisfied with how Muskegon Heights’ economy is currently operating, each of those running for office said city officials must do more to encourage growth.

Councilwoman Kellie Kitchen, left, and Dari Hines at last week’s debate.

For Hines, that encouragement includes a city government that provides information about, and support with, starting a business in Muskegon Heights.

“When you have an idea [for a business], you should be able to come and get ideas on small business growth and entrepreneurship from the city,” Hines said, going on to emphasize the crucial role small business plays in connecting residents.

 “That Peck and Broadway area when I was growing up was full of businesses,” he said. “Every neighborhood had a neighborhood store. It’s those small businesses that bring a community together because you know the people who own them…We haven’t reached out enough to our people with ideas. Unfortunately, people with ideas [for businesses] have been discouraged.”

 For Ellis, much of the economic growth in Muskegon Heights revolves around residents being able to control and have a say in future growth and development.

“The first thing that’s necessary for Muskegon Heights is to develop a vision” for its economy, Ellis said. 

“If gentrification can come in and kick people out, then we can revitalize our own,” Ellis continued. “We can look at the skills necessary to rebuild, renovate and maintain the current abandoned houses, as well as the commercial buildings.”

As part of that rebuilding, renovating and maintaining buildings, Ellis said he’d like to see apprenticeship programs encouraged with local unions.

Kitchen said the city “should and could do more” when it comes to economic growth.

“I think, at the end of the day, business owners have to have the desire to come to our city,” Kitchen said. “For that to happen, we have to present our city as one that’s accepting of businesses, small or large.”

In order for that to happen, city officials must collaborate with business owners and those working to launch their own companies, Kitchen emphasized.

“The city should be able to provide them with the necessary tools, encouragement and backing to support them,” she said.

 Public safety 

All three of the candidates said they are not satisfied with the way in which Muskegon Heights is addressing safety issues in the city. 

A specific vision for the city must be crafted when addressing public safety in the city, Ellis said.

“If we say there are to be no guns, then we have to participate in making that happen,” Ellis said. “If that means we need more police, then, based on what our vision is, we have to go in that direction. If we need to have some auxiliary-type law enforcement, like volunteers, then we need to do that. Over time, whatever our vision is, whatever those priorities are, it can be accomplished.”

While everyone must be involved with public safety, “it definitely should start with our local police department,” said Kitchen, who said she’d like to see the Muskegon Heights Police Department become more technologically savvy.

“Some of the techniques I’ve seen have been a little antiquated,” she said. “…We have to use more technology. Drug dealers aren’t standing on the corner anymore; they’re texting and delivering.”

Too, Kitchen said she’d like the city’s neighborhood associations to be strengthened in order to “have a plethora of people looking out for things that are wrong in our community.”

“I think with increased technology and increased involvement with community officers, we can increase safety throughout our entire community,” she said.

Addressing the current police force being understaffed is a crucial part of tackling public safety issues, Hines said. 

“We’re asking our officers to do a lot,” he said. “They have an incredibly hard job to be doing without adequate staffing.”

There not only needs to be additional officers added to the force, but officers who “reflect our community,” Hines added.

The root causes of ‘anti-social’ behavior

When Judge Pittman asked what the candidates “believe is the reason for the unhealthy anti-social behavior that seems to so often manifest in the city of Muskegon Heights,” they focused on parenting, socio-economics and poverty, and providing opportunities for youth.

“I’m a [Child Protective Services] officer, so I see a lot of poor parenting, a lot of kids who are not disciplined, a lot of kids who are experiencing trauma,” Kitchen said. “I see a lot of kids who don’t have anyone to turn to. We need to get more involved with our youth and make sure they understand there are people out there who care for them. It doesn’t have to be a parent; it could be a teacher or a coach or a fireman.”

Muskegon Heights City Council candidate Ulis Ellis, left, and Judge Gregory Pittman at the debate.

Ellis focused on the financial and social barriers community members in poverty face and how that relates to crime.

“The economic status you’re relegated to is premised on how much education you have,” Ellis said. “If you’re 18 to 25 and you’re female and have a couple children, it’s hard. Something will be lacking. We know as Black people we’re paid less in America, and you need money.”

For Hines, much of the problem is rooted in younger residents’ visions for their lives.

“If we had programs for them to show them there’s a whole world out there and expose them to different things they can do, they may start to see that, OK, there’s more than just what I’m doing where, than just hanging out,” Hines said. “There’s a lot of life to be lived out there. That’s probably the biggest thing: they’re in a bubble, and we need to expose them to more.”

Education in Muskegon Heights

“Is there a role the City Council can or should play in improving the educational experience of the students who live in Muskegon Heights?” Judge Pittman asked the candidates. “And if there is a role, what is it?”

The City Council must partner with the public school system to both support students and attract new residents to the area, Hines said. 

“In every city that’s going to grow, one of the first things potential citizens look for is how good is the school system?” Hines said. “The City Council needs to work with the public school system.”

“We need to get with the [school] administrators and ask them what they need and how can we as a city support them—whether that’s more policing, if it’s more public involvement,” Hines continued. “We need to make sure they know we as city administrators are there to support them.”

Muskegon Heights schools must offer programs that allow students to enter growing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—otherwise known as STEM—fields, Ellis emphasized.

“Our students can’t deal with the technology” needed to be successful in STEM jobs “because they have no learning related to it,” Ellis said. 

“As a community, we have to have a united front to do whatever’s necessary for our students to be competitive,” Ellis said.

 Kitchen also said the Council must forge a partnership with the schools.

“To support and become a partner with the school district is something we should be doing,” she said. “It’s something we’ve discussed.”

To create that partnership, officials have also looked into the possibility of changing meeting times; currently, the City Council meetings and the school board meetings are held at the same time.

Council members should also be volunteering as mentors for the school system, Kitchen added.

The future of Mona Lake Park

When it comes to their vision of Mona Lake Park, Muskegon Heights’ only waterfront property, candidates focused on developing and beautifying the green space and making it more accessible to families.

“I’d love to have a marina developed at Mona Lake Park in the unused portion that would resemble [the city of] Muskegon’s marina and would bring in just as many tax dollars as Muskegon’s because it would be a business owned by the city of Muskegon Heights.”

Kitchen said she’d like to see the park “become more family-friendly so all the citizens are able to enjoy it.”

The councilwoman also noted she’d like to operate the park as both a place for residents to relax and play sports, as well as a business for the city—including potentially renting out building space.

For Ellis, Mona Lake Park has the chance to outshine—or at least shine as brightly as—other waterfront facilities in neighboring communities, including Grand Haven, Holland, Muskegon, and Whitehall.

“Gov. [Rick] Snyder came here a few years ago and those neighbors met with him, and their waterfronts are constantly improving with new buildings, with the lake, with the preparation of seasonal tourists, and we can do the same,” Ellis said.

 The most significant challenge confronting the city

“Muskegon Heights is becoming marginalized; we have to vote, vote, vote,” Ellis said in response to Judge Pittman’s question about what the most significant challenge is confronting the city.

“In 2015, the population of Muskegon Heights was 10,753; registered voters equaled 8,150—and the amount of people who voted are 1,151,” Ellis said. “These figures are important because they equate to 14 percent of the people voting.”

“The Council has to represent the 10,753 people…but instead they represent this 14 percent,” Ellis continued, arguing that lawmakers end up paying more attention to “special interests” because of this low turnout.

“Federal and state agencies, businesses, they see this 14 percent,” he said. “That means the special interests become the interest of the state.”

 Kitchen focused on crime as being the city’s most significant challenge.

“When a city is plagued with crime, it’s not inviting,” Kitchen said. “As much as we’d like to bring in businesses or improve our neighborhoods, crime makes us less inviting.”

“I believe in what this city is and what it can be,” Kitchen said. “…Every citizen deserves a place where they can live, die, be educated, and work.”

For Hines, the biggest challenge facing the city is to see it return to the way in which it once thrived when he was growing up.

To find out more about the election on Tuesday, Nov. 5, including seeing a sample ballot, finding out where you vote, and more, you can click here. To follow Tuesday’s election results, you can go here.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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