Sullivan, Foltz proud of direction Houghton is heading
HOUGHTON — Five candidates are running for three seats in November’s Houghton City Council race.
Incumbents Buck Foltz and John Sullivan are running against challengers Virginia Cole, Brian Irizarry and Joan Suits. The third seat is currently held by Councilor Rachel Lankton, who is not running for re-election.
Below are profiles of Foltz and Sullivan. Interviews with Cole, Irizarry and Suits will run in the second installment.
Foltz is running for his second term on the council, after being defeated in his first run for the council in 2014. He would have run earlier, he said, but waited until he was no longer a city employee, which could have posed a conflict of interest.
“I ran specifically because I felt that I was a pretty average resident, that I represented what I certainly consider to be a majority viewpoint for the average homeowner and taxpayer,” he said.
Foltz said he brings a working-class perspective to the council, including an understanding of infrastructure. In addition to serving on the Houghton-Portage Township Schools Board, he has also served on the Houghton Fire Department and volunteered in the community on projects such as building ice-skating rinks.
“I’ve done a lot of things to help this community grow,” he said. “I’m certainly honest — I’d like to think sometimes a little too straightforward. But I believe you should mean what you say, and say what you mean. And that’s what I do.”
Probably the most contentious issue in the race, and the one cited as a motivating factor by the three new candidates, is the potential development of the big parking deck property on Lakeshore Drive. The council voted last year to enter into negotiations with the Veridea Group of Marquette, one of three companies who made public presentations in response to the city’s request for qualifications.
Veridea is currently working on its proposal, which is expected to be a mixed-use development including hotels, retail and residential space. It must also have enough retail parking.
In August, a non-binding measure asking Houghton to delay any sale of the property to allow for more public input passed with nearly 80% of the vote.
Foltz said he thought the city’s process has been aboveboard. Soliciting the proposals was a way of addressing the problem of replacing the more-than-40-year-old deck at no taxpayer expense, he said.
Veridea’s proposal will come before the public, Foltz said, with numerous opportunities for public feedback before the council’s final vote.
“We put together an ad hoc committee to specifically try to whittle the thing down and make sure that they understood what we were asking for,” he said. “And I think then, mainly because of the political climate in the country, right now, we were accused — I think incorrectly — of trying to run something past people.”
Foltz said to get his vote, any project would need to have adequate parking for businesses and residents along Shelden Avenue. The project, which stops short of the waterfront trail, should also maintain the public’s waterfront access, Foltz said.
He sees the potential development as something that, combined with the city’s proposed pier project near Mattila Square, could draw people to the downtown.
“The pier project, and this project, I see as a really big opportunity for Houghton to increase the tax base, which pays for everything, and kind of create an area that I think will be really beneficial to the citizens in terms of kind of that downtown meeting place,” he said.
Foltz said one of his priorities if re-elected will be further infrastructure improvements. City Manager Eric Waara recently presented the council with a map showing the areas most in need of paving.
With the area being so remote, it makes sense to put together large projects, also tying in water, sewer and gas improvements where necessary, Foltz said.
That ties back into the importance of growing the area’s tax base, he said.
“If you look at the communities that have empty storefronts, and buildings that are empty, a lot of it has to do with a lack of the available funds to see things get refurbished and fixed,” he said. “Houghton’s not there now, but if we don’t move forward, we certainly will move back.”
Sullivan joined the council as an appointee in 2015 before being elected in his own right the next year.
“I enjoy being on the city council and want to continue to serve,” he said. “I know Houghton’s got government and want to be a part of it, and I enjoy all aspects of it.”
On the potential Lakeshore Drive development, Sullivan said he thinks it’s important for the city to replace the parking deck, which is near the end of its useful life. Brownfield and tax increment financing might be available for the property, could eliminate any city cost for replacing the deck, he said. The development could add to the city’s tax base and bring new jobs downtown, he said.
“The deck has to serve the existing folks who use the deck, especially the businesses who front the deck and utilize it for parking,” he said. “So it’s going to take some good design by the architects. But we’re anxiously waiting for Veridea to put forward a proposal so we’ve got something to act on.”
Sullivan sits on the city’s Lakeshore Drive Redevelopment Committee, which is meeting with Veridea about the development prior to it being brought to the full council. After an Open Meetings Act violation brought against the city, the committee’s meetings are being opened to the public.
“I was surprised that people thought we were trying to do something in secret or do something crazy … I was surprised by the reaction, because I thought it’s all going to be in the public eye eventually before anything’s made solid.”
Sullivan said the committee’s next step will be to elect officers and develop rules for conducting the meetings. The first meeting would come within two to six weeks, he said.
“I’d like to see a development project down there that replaces the current parking deck, and something that fits into our community, looks good,” he said.
In addition to the Lakeshore Drive issue, Sullivan said he would like to see the city pursue a $2 million capital improvement plan for city streets.
“We can’t afford to start rebuilding all the streets,” he said. “But maybe some crack sealing in some areas, seal coating in some areas, pavement overlays in some areas, and a rebuild of as many as we can afford.”
Sullivan said people should vote for him in November because of his 40 years of experience dealing with the city, including 27 years as the city’s engineer while working at U.P. Engineers & Architects.
“I’m knowledgeable in budgeting, engineering,” he said. “I think I can do the job.”