Muskegon City Commission candidates address downtown diversity, schools bond, gun violence, and more at debate

Candidates vying for the Muskegon City Commission gather for a debate at Corinthians Baptist Church in Muskegon Heights last week.

From inclusion in downtown development to gun violence and plans for the Muskegon Public Schools facilities bond, candidates vying to serve on the Muskegon City Commission tackled a wide variety of issues at a debate held at the Corinthians Baptist Church in Muskegon Heights last week. 

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 candidates at the debate held last Wednesday, Oct. 30, included:

  • Vice Mayor of Muskegon Eric Hood, Ward I
  • Jeannette Burt-Moore, Ward II
  • City Commissioner Willie German Jr., Ward II
  • Michael Ramsey, Ward III
  • Larry Spataro, Ward III
  • Jack Page, Ward IV

Jennifer Ross is a candidate for Ward I but was not present at the debate, and Teresa Emory, who did not attend the debate, is running for Ward IV.

Muskegon’s first ward, currently represented by Muskegon Vice Mayor Eric Hood, covers all of the Marquette, Oakview, Sheldon Park, and Steele neighborhoods, as well as the eastern portion of the Jackson Hill neighborhood and the northern part of the Angell neighborhood.

The city’s second ward includes the western portion of the Jackson Hill neighborhood, most of the Nelson neighborhood, downtown Muskegon, and the northern part of the McLaughlin neighborhood.

The third ward covers the East Muskegon, Marsh Field and Nims neighborhoods. Commissioner Debra Warren currently represents the area; she is not seeking reelection.

The city’s fourth ward includes the western portion of the city of Muskegon, including all of the Beachwood-Bluffton, Lakeside and Campbell Field neighborhoods, as well as parts of the Glenside and Marsh Field neighborhoods. The fourth ward’s current commissioner, Byron Turnquist, was defeated in his bid for reelection in an August primary.

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

For issues of length and clarity, we are publishing separate articles on each of the three debates [which you can read by clicking here and here].

‘Are you satisfied with the inclusion of people in downtown development?’

Essentially, everyone’s answer to this, to varying degrees, was: no.

Michael Ramsey

Ramsey, a program implementation coordinator with Mercy Health’s Health Project, said that, “while I don’t think anyone’s being excluded at this moment, we run the risk of everyone’s voices not being equal.”

When it comes to the development happening in downtown, and throughout the city, Ramsey emphasized that the changes must better incorporate current residents’ voices and empower those who reside here now.

“We need to make sure the progress we’re making in our neighborhoods is relevant to the people who live there,” Ramsey said.

“As we continue to grow, let’s not just plan for our future but take care of our residents and their current needs,” he added.

Spataro, a recipient rights officer with HealthWest and the president of the Nelson Neighborhood Association who previously served on the Muskegon City Commission from 2000 to 2015, said it’s important to continue focusing on both downtown development and inclusion.

“Are we reflective of our community and are we doing a good enough job? Not yet,” Spataro said. “We still have too many barriers for small business startups by local people…we don’t have very good spaces for people to start up; we don’t have the best programs available to help people get what they need to successfully start a business in this community.”

Larry Spataro

While Burt-Moore, a bus driver with the Muskegon Area Transit System who currently sits on the Downtown District Authority board, said she’s “satisfied with the way downtown is being built,” but emphasized the city needs to make progress when it comes to inclusion.

“We’ve come a long way from where we were 10 years ago, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Burt-Moore said.

Jeanette Burt-Moore

In addition to the city heeding residents’ voices that aren’t always heard, Burt-Moore said part of the conversation about inclusion should center around residents intentionally entering the dialogue.

“We have to include ourselves and be a part of the meetings,” she said. “…If we’re a part of it, we can say, ‘This is our downtown, not their downtown.’”

 German, who has represented the second ward for eight years, said he has been a vocal advocate for downtown development over the past decade but noted that inclusion in that development is not where it should be.

“We have one African-American business owner recently,” he said, referring to attorney Brianna Scott, the co-owner of a development company planning to redevelop the Ameribank building in downtown Muskegon. “I’ve advocated constantly to diversify our downtown.”

Commissioner Willie German

As development continues in the city, German said he plans to work for greater equity in the economic landscape.

“Our momentum is continuing, and I look to continue to diversify downtown Muskegon,” he said.

Vice Mayor Eric Hood

Hood, a city commissioner for close to eight years and a retired policeman who’s the current president of the Muskegon County NAACP, said Muskegon is “moving in the right direction” with development, particularly when it comes to providing housing for low-, middle- and high-income residents. But he said, when it comes to inclusion, “we can do a lot better.”

“We need to go to the Chamber, talk with them and find out what it takes to start a business, come to the meetings, find out what’s going on, get a voice at the table and then implement your plan,” Hood said. 

When it comes to inclusion in development, “we’ve only scratched the surface,” said Page, who is the

Jack Page at a previous debate.

current executive chef at Michigan’s Adventure and previously served on the city of Muskegon’s Income Tax Board of Review from 2007 to 2009.

“Growing up downtown, I learned the importance of working, living and being with my neighbors,” Page said. “…Without inclusion, it fractures your community.”

What do you propose to address the lack of inclusion?

 While they agreed about the lack of inclusion in downtown development, candidates’ opinions vary on how to address the issue.

Burt-Moore said she’d like to “have a community forum for everyone to speak and say what they’d like to see in their downtown.”

City staff should “go out and engage the minority business community,” Page said.

“I’m not sure that’s ever happened,” Page continued. “I would ask staff to go out and engage African-American, Latino business owners and ask them what their needs are and ask what we can do to help.”

City resources can be used to support entrepreneurs, both in downtown and throughout the city, Spataro said.

Ramsey said he himself would “get out there and educate community members…so they can be a part of this process.” 

Once he connected with individuals who’d like to run a business in the city, Ramsey said he could “partner them with city staff so we can help them grow.”

German said he would continue to advocate for more diversity downtown if reelected.

“When we have our meetings, I specifically state we need more diversity…that means we need someone who’s a player in the game, somebody who can add economic wealth and continue to bring in others,” German said. “I’ve advocated for them to look at Blacks, Latinos, and females with the diversity downtown.”

For Hood, part of the answer is rooted in the city going out to “engage Black businesses, bring them to the table, sit them down, and explain what it takes to become and sustain a business.”

“We need to advise them we have micro-loans with low-interest rates you can get from the city,” Hood continued. “We need to make that information public.”

Muskegon Public Schools’ facilities bond

When asked if they support an upcoming Muskegon Public Schools facilities bond, candidates voiced their approval. No one said they were opposed to a potential $87 million (a number that officials have said is in flux) bond that would replace the current 30-year bond that expires in 2021. The public could vote on the bond in May 2020.

As presented by schools officials in September, the possible $87 million bond would not raise taxes and is needed to attract and retain students and address deteriorating infrastructure in aging buildings, administrators said.

The district’s current plan, as outlined in a presentation you can view here, is to shutter the Hackley administration building and move those offices into another facility, most likely the high school. Nelson Elementary would close as an elementary school, the building would be renovated and the middle school would move into the Nelson space. While originally slated for closure, Moon Elementary is expected to remain open through at least 2024. Marquette, Oakview, and Lakeside elementary schools would serve as the district’s main elementary schools; each of the buildings would be renovated and upgraded. The district’s two-way immersion program would move from Marquette Elementary to its own facility at the Glenside site that now houses preschool students. Preschool students would be incorporated into elementary schools.

The current bond proposal calls for the high school’s steam boiler to be replaced with a hot water heating system, and for the school’s lighting system to be replaced with LED lights. The high school’s roof would also be replaced.

When asked if the candidates support the bond, and what role they see the City Commision playing to “ensure the passage” of the bond, Hood said, “I think we need to go to the school board meetings, find out what we can about the [bond], and pass on that information to our constituents.”

Ramsey also said commissioners should attend school board meetings and “partner with our local community-based organizations who are doing work with our youth…so we can get them to be a part of this process.”

Saying he’s “very excited” about the vision Muskegon Public Schools’ new superintendent, Matthew Cortez, has for the district, Spataro emphasized “a lot of the Muskegon Public School buildings are old, tired and need renewal.”

“I’ll be campaigning, knocking on doors to ask people to vote yes” on the bond, Spataro said.

German said he wants “to see students not only be in a safe environment and safe buildings, I want to make sure they get a quality education.”

Page too threw his support behind the bond and said “it tears at my heart to see that our buildings are tired; our students deserve better than that.”

 Burt-Moore said she supports the bond and would “go to neighborhood associations and talk to presidents” about the plan. She too would “go door-to-door and let people know what’s going on and attend more board meetings.”

 Addressing violence in Muskegon

“What do you propose to attempt to stem anti-social behavior in the community?” Judge Pittman asked the candidates.

 To curb violence in the city, Page advocated for greater communication between neighborhood associations. 

“Very few residents in Lakeside would know who’s in the association in Angell or Jackson Hill,” Page said. “More collaboration between neighborhood associations is a good step. I believe the communication aspect will put us on track.”

 Page emphasized the issue “gets to access to guns.”

“Once there’s that many guns out on the streets, what do you do about that?” Page asked.

Commissioners need to start engaging in more dialogue with students in the city and launching mentoring programs in an effort to end the violence, German said.

“I think we need to educate our students and do more parenting,” German said, adding that everyone in the community needs to be engaging with our youth.

“Just because this young man or woman may not be your biological child, you still have the responsibility to show them some type of concern; we want better for our students,” he said.

Noting there are “a lot of organizations out there doing a lot to try to curb gun violence,” Hood said there need to be grassroots organizations that can connect younger people who’ve been incarcerated with students.

“We need kids to relate to them and see people who’ve tried to better their lives,” Hood said, adding that “we need to educate parents to become parents and not friends to their kids.”

Burt-Moore too focused on parenting.

“We have to be better parents as far as policing our children and knowing where our children are at all times, and knowing where our weapons are,” Burt-Moore said. 

Community members must also look out for one another’s children, Burt-Moore emphasized.

“I’ve lost family members to gun violence; when I hear about another child getting killed, it rips me apart,” she said.

 To address violence in the community, the city must create a space in which residents “feel safe going to our first responders,” Ramsey said.

“It’s about us coming together and having a conversation,” Ramsey said, adding that community members must start watching out for one another.

“When we were kids, the community watched us,” he said. “We don’t do that anymore. We don’t know our neighbors.”

 Spataro focused on creating opportunities for youth.

“One of the things the city can do is provide opportunities for young people so they have positive things to occupy their time,” he said. “One thing the city can do is ensure its local young people are being hired for temporary, seasonal positions. Those jobs ought to go to our local kids first.”

The most significant challenge facing candidates’ wards

 When asked what the most significant challenge facing their ward is, Spataro noted the third ward is “very large and diverse.”

“For the Nims neighborhood, their biggest issue is connecting to the waterfront because they have water on two sides of the neighborhood but no direct access to the water. Marsh Field is dealing with declining property values, and Marsh Field and East Muskegon are dealing with higher crime rates.”

For the McLaughlin neighborhood, the biggest issue is “what will happen to the Hackley Hospital campus over the next few months when the last of those services move to the new Mercy campus on Sherman.”

“It’s a diverse set of issues; it’s not one key issue,” Spataro said. “What does each neighborhood need, and what can I do to help that neighborhood achieve its best outcome?”

City Commission candidates Michael Ramsey, left, Jeannette Burt-Moore and Commissioner Willie German. Judge Gregory Pittman stands at the podium.

While agreeing that access to the waterfront, declining property values, Hackley Hospital, and crime are all issues, Ramsey said it’s crucial to address building strong neighborhoods—as well as focusing on affordable housing for all.

“It’s about going to those pocket areas and finding out how the city and its elected officials can respond to the needs of that specific area, community, organization, neighborhood association,” Ramsey said.

“As we look at building our neighborhoods, stronger housing is one of the things we need to look at first,” Ramsey continued. “We need housing at every price point so everyone has a roof over their head, a place to call home, and a safe space to return to after a long day at work or at school.”

For the fourth ward, it’s waterfront development that is the biggest issue facing residents, Page said.

“I believe the Sappi property is the next 100-year decision we’re facing on Muskegon Lake,” Page said, referring to the site, now called Windward Pointe, that’s slated to be a $250 million to $400 million mixed-use development.

“I’m concerned about walling off the waterfront so residents don’t have access to the water,” Page said of incoming waterfront development.

He also emphasized that he’s a proponent for paid parking at Pere Marquette—but not for city residents. Out-of-town visitors should pay for parking at the beach, according to Page.

“I have a difficult time asking anyone in the core city of Muskegon for one more dollar in taxes when we’re subsidizing someone from Chicago’s vacation,” Page said.

For the east side of the first ward, there are “a lot of our problems relate to our roads and street repairs,” Hood said.

“Some streets are still not paved in that area,” Hood said. “With snow removal in the winter, we need to make sure the city gets to the east side of town.”

Curb repairs, break-ins, increased police patrol, and park repairs also need to be addressed, Hood said.

For the second ward, German said he attends all of the neighborhood association meetings to ensure their different needs are being addressed. While downtown “is thriving” and there are market rate homes available there, German said “when you start to go into the core of the city, now you have these disparities.”

“My job as a commissioner is to make sure dollars are allocated to these areas equally,” German said.

For Burt-Moore, the second ward desperately needs to see infrastructure addressed.

“I want to see the roads fixed, especially by Yuba,” she said. “I’ve been living there 55 years, and I see the beauty down there…but the walkability and parks are not where they should be.”

“We have all these parks that have been forgotten about,” Burt-Moore continued.

Additionally, Burt-Moore said she hopes to see development occur outside of the downtown.

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.

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