It’s official: the L.C. Walker Arena in downtown Muskegon will become the Mercy Health Arena, the Muskegon City Commission decided in a 4-1 vote Tuesday night.
Following months of heated debate that centered around the preservation of Muskegon’s history, the city’s fiscal responsibilities and taxpayers subsidizing the arena, and the separation of church and state, commissioners and city officials spent a good chunk of Tuesday’s four-hour meeting at City Hall discussing the vote and its implications for the community. Ultimately, Mayor Stephen Gawron and Commissioners Ken Johnson, Dan Rinsema-Sybenga and Byron Turnquist backed the renaming; Commissioner Willie German Jr. voted against it.
Vice Mayor Eric Hood was not at the meeting, and Commissioner Debra Warren abstained from the vote and dialogue about the renaming, citing a conflict of interest. Warren is a registered dietician who works for a local bariatric surgeon, and part of her job is as a contracted employee for Mercy Health.
Four votes were needed to approve the renaming agreement, for which Mercy Health will pay approximately $1.6 million over the next 15 years. The city of Muskegon is slated to receive 80 percent of that money; the Lumberjacks—the ice hockey team based at the arena—will receive 20 percent. With the agreement, Mercy Health will be permitted to display its name at the arena’s Western Avenue entrance and on the marquee located by Shoreline Drive, as well as with signage inside the arena. The signage is expected to be installed by March 2020.
“We’ve been straddled with a 1960s albatross,” Gawron said, referring to the arena, which was built in 1960 and is currently named after Louis Carlisle Walker, who, alongside Arch Wilkinson Shaw, co-founded the Muskegon-based Shaw-Walker Furniture Co. in 1899. The company would go on to become one of the city’s largest employers and dominate the region’s, and country’s, industrial landscape.
Since its inception, Gawron noted the city—and its taxpayers—have provided millions of dollars to fund renovation and repair work for the arena. The city has spent $4.91 million over the past five years on the arena, including the recent $1.7 million in renovation and improvement projects at the facility. In addition to the mayor, commissioners Rinsema-Sybenga and Johnson said that the city and its taxpayers have long been subsidizing the arena—and that money, Gawron, Rinsema-Sybenga and Johnson emphasized, could be used elsewhere in the city.
“L.C. Walker’s philosophy was he wanted the business community to step up because he didn’t want the taxpayers straddled,” said Gawron, who noted his wife, mother, grandfather, uncle, and aunt worked at Shaw-Walker. “He wanted the business community to step up and create parks and opportunities [for the public].”
“Sentimentality will not support a building that’s been degraded and was close to a wrecking ball,” the mayor continued. “…The financial realities have hit home, and we want to make those choices where we don’t have to continually ask the taxpayer to shoulder the burden.”
The arena was built with $1.5 million from Walker’s estate, and Walker donated the facility to the city in 1960. Known as one of Muskegon’s most important philanthropists, Walker was an industrialist, banker, author, and patron of the arts who donated significant amounts of his money to the city, including to create a vast system of parks and playgrounds in our community. He died in 1963, just three years after donating the arena to the city.
“The L.C. Walker Arena is not Mr. Louis Carlisle Walker’s greatest legacy,” City Manager Frank Peterson wrote in October. “His investments in our community are so vast that it’s almost impossible to keep track—but they benefit our community abundantly.”
Because of Walker’s leadership, a number of “amazing assets” exist in Muskegon today, Peterson said, including: the L.C. Walker Arena, Pere Marquette Park, Beachwood Park, Kruse Park, Muskegon State Park, Veteran’s Memorial Causeway, Seyferth Park, Progress Field, Reese Field, Sheldon Field, Walker Park, Marsh Field, and many others.
“L.C. Walker’s passion for Muskegon was unparalleled,” Peterson wrote. “The more I learn about him and his actions, the more I believe he is one of our community’s greatest benefactors.”
A number of community members have voiced outrage over the renaming decision, in part because they argue it erases Muskegon history, as well as a name that has deep importance and symbolism in Muskegon. Tina Benson, for example, spoke during Tuesday’s City Commission meeting on behalf of her father-in-law, Dr. Kenneth Johnson, who was Walker’s personal dentist and the team dentist for the Zephyrs and Muskegon Mohawks, both of which were former minor league professional ice hockey teams in Muskegon.
“Dr. Johnson does not support seeing the name change at all,” Benson said, referring to her father-in-law. “He knows from personal experience how important the arena was to Mr. Walker.”
Benson urged the commissioners to table the vote in order to have more time to consider the renaming, and emphasized that the city could use the revenue generated from Muskegon’s marijuana businesses to help fund the arena.
Later in the evening, Commissioner Johnson noted on Tuesday that Commissioner Warren had during a Monday Commission work session suggested revising the Mercy Health Arena name to still incorporate the L.C. Walker name—something like “L.C. Walker Arena presented by Mercy Health.” Johnson said he supported that idea; however, he said Mercy Health was not amenable to it when Peterson brought it up to them on Tuesday. Peterson confirmed that during Tuesday’s City Commission meeting.
Peterson in October said the Walker family has “been anticipating this name change for a number of years.”
“Four years prior to Mr. Shaw Walker’s passing in 2009, we received a letter from the Walker family with the following excerpt: “..the Walker family agrees to release the “L.C. Walker” name associated with the arena,’” Peterson wrote. “‘All family members have consented to allowing the city to make any changes it feels is most suitable for the benefit of the arena.’”
Peterson emphasized that the city “reaffirmed this prior to finalizing the deal with Mercy.”
The city manager also noted during Tuesday’s meeting that Mercy Health has agreed to pay up to $10,000 to honor Walker’s legacy in the arena, potentially including a memorial exhibit. The Lumberjacks have also agreed to “making a significant investment” in the arena’s Sports Hall of Fame, which would also honor Walker, Peterson said.
“Mercy has no concerns of the L.C. Walker name remaining on the ice surface,” Peterson said during Tuesday’s meeting. “There could still be a tribute or name honoring L.C. Walker down there.”
While there has been vehement criticism of the renaming, others in the community have voiced praise for the decision, emphasizing that without corporate sponsorship, the arena could cease to exist entirely.
“I know these kinds of facilities cost a lot to run and don’t pay for themselves by a long shot, unless you get outside support like this,” said Andy Buelow, a Muskegon resident and the executive director of the West Michigan Symphony. “…This is a very generous gift [Mercy Health] is making to the community toward the tail-end of their own capital campaign, so I think it’s a wonderful way they’re giving back to the community and supporting a venue a lot of different people can enjoy.”
The renaming agreement backed by the commission on Tuesday includes a number of changes to the original plan announced in October. Originally, the city and WC Hockey, which owns the Muskegon Lumberjacks, had planned to split Mercy Health’s annual payments of $100,000 for the renaming. WC Hockey is owned by Detroit businessman Dan Israel.
Instead, the deal voted on Tuesday stipulates that the city will receive 80 percent of Mercy Health’s renaming funds. The Lumberjacks will receive the other 20 percent. As part of the new deal, the city will receive 20 percent of the advertisements sold in the arena; WC Hockey will receive 80 percent of the advertisement money.
During Tuesday’s meeting, German, the only commissioner to vote against the renaming proposal, and Johnson cited concerns about taxpayers continuing to fund the arena—Mercy Health’s funding doesn’t mean taxpayer dollars would not be used for the arena—when the arena does not currently draw a racially diverse crowd.
“To me, that’s taxation without representation,” German said.
Johnson urged Peterson and the city to focus on diversifying the arena’s crowds by expanding the sports that use the arena, such as offering basketball, as well as further supporting the sports other than ice hockey that use the venue, including The Risers soccer team and the Ironmen Football team.
Mitch Kahle, a Norton Shores resident and co-founder of the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists, issued vehement criticism over the fact that no team other than the Lumberjacks will receive a portion of Mercy Health’s renaming funds.
“Why is the hockey team receiving any of the money at all?” Kahle asked during Tuesday’s meeting. “…You’re not offering money to the football team, the soccer team.”
Kahle condemned the fact that Israel, the owner of WC Hockey—which owns the Lumberjacks—would be receiving 20 percent of the funding, which he said could then be going back to Detroit instead of to Muskegon. Peterson said he would expect the 20 percent going to WC Hockey would be reinvested in the team.
Peterson emphasized that city officials, as well as commissioners, have done extensive work to increase diversity inside the arena, including opening it up to the Boys and Girls Club of Muskegon County every week.
“Commissioner Dan [Rinsema-Sybenga] and I put a little bit of action into making the arena more diverse,” Peterson said. “Every single Friday we’re out there skating with the Boys and Girls Club…There are a lot of things we’re doing to introduce more diverse crowds into the idea that hockey is an option for them.”
Johnson and German also expressed concerns regarding religious imagery being displayed on a public building. Mercy Health is part of Trinity Health, the country’s second-largest Catholic health system. A Christian cross is incorporated in Mercy Health’s logo.
“The one thing giving me pause is the concern of our residents with regards to that religious symbol,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a problem with it…I do understand our residents having hesitation or concern with it being on our public arena as a stamp of ownership.”
Johnson continued, saying the imagery could alienate some residents, which is “the last thing we want to do.”
“We want the arena to be as inclusive as possible, so I struggle with that,” Johnson said.
German said “there’s definitely some issues with church and state” regarding the imagery that’s expected to be displayed on the arena.
Both Christian and non-Christian constituents have told Johnson they feel the cross should not be on the public building.
“I’ve had residents who are kind of distraught, and I don’t like leaving our residents distraught,” Johnson said.
Rinsema-Sybenga emphasized that “any logo probably is going to alienate someone.”
“A Bud Light logo may alienate more people than the Mercy one does,” he said. “We should think of the possible things that could be up there and how they could be objected to. There are a lot worse things that don’t represent our community up there.”
Should the city be sued over the religious imagery on a public building, city attorney John Schrier said the city would split the cost of joint counsel with Mercy Health. Schrier too said that, historically, courts have not recognized crosses in logos as religious but rather as representative of healthcare.
“The cross has been an integral part of the health system,” such as with the Red Cross, a humanitarian organization that provides emergency assistance, disaster relief, and more, Schrier said. “It’s not viewed by the courts as a religious symbol, but as a health symbol.”
While casting his official ‘yes’ vote, Johnson elaborated on his decision.
“With much respect to all non-Christians in our community and to those who are Christian and who may be bothered by this symbol, I vote yes,” Johnson said, tears welling in his eyes.
To watch Tuesday’s entire meeting, please click here for the full video.