Three challengers running in Houghton
HOUGHTON — Three new candidates are running for the Houghton City Council in November.
At least one of the three challengers — Virginia Cole, Brian Irizarry and Joan Suits — is guaranteed a spot on the council. They are running against incumbents Buck Foltz and John Sullivan, with another seat being vacated by Council Rachel Lankton, who is not running for re-election.
All three said part of their motivation for running was the potential Lakeshore Drive redevelopment project, which they said needs more citizen input. All three received endorsements from the Houghton Waterfront Redevelopment Citizens Group, which was behind a non-binding August proposal to delay the sale of the property to a developer until residents can participate in an open decision-making process about the spot’s future.
Part of the fifth generation of her family to live in the Copper Country, Cole moved to the area full-time in 2010. She works with her brother, redesigning and repurposing the historic properties he buys for more contemporary use.
Cole is also on her second term on the Keweenaw Chamber of Commerce board, where she serves as vice president. She is also part of the Houghton Beautification Commitee.
While she has heard people talk about making Houghton a “world-class city,” she believes the waterfront, views, people and architecture already make it one.
“Part of my job as a community member, currently and potentially as a council member, is to make sure that we continue to value those things,” she said. “And that when we work towards growth and development, that those things are first and foremost, what we want to enhance and not detract from.”
That belief led her to get involved in questioning the process for the potential Lakeshore Drive development project, she said. She would like to see the council follow the steps laid out in the August proposal by postponing any more work with Veridea and engaging in a thorough public participation process.
“I think there’s a lot of incredible ideas, and a lot of incredible experience that we can tap into,” she said. “And I think we can probably come up with a better idea that’s more diverse than just one developer, building something on three blocks of our six or seven blocks of downtown and our waterfront.”
After Veridea finalizes its proposal, the council will have the final say in whether to sell the property. Cole said her priority would be something that is practical and useful, and serves the community. While Cole agrees the city needs to replace the aging parking deck, Veridea’s idea for a mixed-use development centered around a hotel would also be parking-intensive. She pointed to the recent Walker Consultants parking study of downtown, which said the current deck restricts access to the Keweenaw Waterway, and that a replacement parking facility would ideally be placed away from the waterfront.
“I’m hoping, if they do come to the table with something, that it’s different than what their (Request for Qualifications submission) was,” she said. “That’s the first thing: it’s got to serve this community, not just the developer.”
One of her priorities if elected will be looking for cost-effective ways to improve revenues from the city’s assets. Although she acknowledges the federal highway will complicate things, she would also like to improve traffic safety in downtown. She suggested a safe crossing on the west end of Shelden Avenue and a light on Montezuma Avenue to allow for safe crossing between the county offices and downtown.
“We all love walking around this city, and I think the more that we can make it easy to do that, especially in the winter months where we all know it’s not easy to cross the street, that would just be helpful,” she said.
Her work for community organizations has already shown her commitment to the area, Cole said. She thinks voters should also choose her because she would be a good conduit for people who feel less comfortable speaking up themselves.
” I love this community,” she said. “I want to spend the rest of my life here and move my mom up here. And I just think there’s so much to look forward to. And if we can do that all together, I think that would be amazing.”
Irizarry, an Atlanta native, has lived in Houghton for the past three years. He currently teaches Spanish in Baraga and Dollar Bay schools, and has also worked in Hancock Public schools and Finlandia University’s TRIO Upward Bound program.
After working as a grad assistant coach for the women’s soccer team at the University of Georgia, he entered the Marine Corps. While stationed in Japan, he met his wife, a Houghton native who was teaching there. He also subsequently deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Irizarry said he wanted to run to be part of the democratic process he had fought to defend.
The waterfront project motivated him to run, as did the need for improving roads and reducing speeding in neighborhoods.
“I have kids in elementary school, and I just want to make sure the city grows in a way that supports all our families and all our businesses,” he said.
On the waterfront issue, Irizarry said he wants to see the council be more proactive in engaging with the community. The success of the August proposal shows the public’s desire to have more input in the future of the parking deck property, he said.
“A lot of people in Houghton and Hancock want to make sure that our city continues to develop with everyone’s input, maintaining our historical heritage that we have with our mining history, and also progressing it in a way that is good for businesses that are established here locally,” he said. “That is good for tourism, for people to come and to be able to have a place that is attractive to them, as well as good for residents that they can walk to a public space — perhaps it can be a green space.”
Veridea’s final proposal should first be vetted by the community in some format, he said. Whatever development Veridea proposes should also maintain the stylistic elements of downtown Houghton and its walkability, he said.
“If it becomes something really large and built up in a way that is unrecognizable, then I think that would be bad for the businesses and bad for the economy,” he said.
That vetting could take forms such as public town halls for bidders to present their ideas, or sending copies of the proposals via physical mail or electronically.
As for improvements to neighborhoods, Irizarry said the city should be proactive in making sure neighborhood roads are well-paved. He praised the work the Houghton Beautification Committee has done in brightening public spaces, and would like to see it continue.
He would also like to make sure senior citizens and people who can’t drive have better access to food. That could mean mixed zoning to allow a grocery store closer to residential areas, such as a small co-op where farmers could bring their wares.
“I think we need to make sure that everyone is feeling really positive about our neighborhoods so that when tourists visit, or they visit family members here, they’re impressed with what they see,” he said. “And they don’t see a rundown street that’s got potholes that break people’s rims, and they don’t see cars, zooming at unsafe speeds.”
He would also like to see the council work with Houghton schools to facilitate improvements in areas from counseling to school lunches.
Irizarry said residents should vote for him in November because of his commitment to serving the public.
“I’ve always answered the calls for public service, whether it’s in peacetime or wartime,” he said. “And that’s how I operate and I want to make sure that our community is taken care of. And I’ll be very proactive. And even though I don’t have a lot of experience, I have the adaptability and agility to bring this community through this new COVID economy and this pandemic.”
Suits came to the area in 1985. Both she and her husband had jobs at Michigan Technological University, hers as a teacher in the chemistry department. Suits later became a nurse, and then a nurse practitioner.
Suits previously applied to fill the vacancy left by former Councilor Gernot Joachim. She said she wants to be on the council in part to increase the visibility of the council’s work, including making agendas and packets more prominent on the city website. The potential Lakeshore Drive development also spurred Suits, who said she wants to maintain the character of the city.
“I came from a rural area in New Jersey,” she said. “New Jersey has turned into what you see on TV. And I don’t ever want to see that happen again.”
She said she would like to see the council take more input from the public before moving forward. The city’s recent move to make the Lakeshore Drive Redevelopment Committee meetings open to the public is a positive step, she said.
“I think they really need to go back a bit, take a couple steps back, slow down,” she said. “There’s no rush to sell that property. They need to figure out the best use for that property.”
Her vote on selling the property to Veridea would depend on what the proposal looks like and how it was arrived at, Suits said. She hopes the public will be able to weigh in on the final proposal and have any suggested revisions considered before it comes to a final vote.
“It’s just such a prime spot of real estate,” she said. “What we do is going to affect it for years to come. I want to make sure it’s the best decision. I walk or run that stretch every day at least once, sometimes twice, and I’d hate to see it not used appropriately.”
Other priorities include improving the city’s infrastructure, particularly sidewalks and pavement, and continuing to make meetings available on Zoom even after the public can attend meetings in-person.
She would also like to know if the city can have any impact on the maintenance of the Nara trails, which she said have had problems with nettles. Suits also wants the city to see if there are ways to get more revenue from the Kestner Waterfront Park.
Mainly, she said, she wants to improve communication between the council and city residents, on both ends.
“I think people need to feel like they’re part of something,” she said. “I think alienation is such a big thing right now, especially with COVID. You don’t talk with people, you don’t interact with people. Phone and Zoom is not the same. Government is so fractionated, if we can get people to work together in a public venue, I think that would be great.”
Suits said people should vote for her because she is a good communicator, used to working with the public, and always working to find a mutually satisfactory solution.
“I tell people bad things all the time, things they don’t want to hear,” she said. “No one wants to hear about what they need to do … even though nobody likes to talk about compromise, I think I’m good at finding compromise.”