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An open letter to Houghton taxpayers

I love reading old newspapers when I find one. In a 1970’s Mining Gazette there was a quote that went something like: “Don’t expect the government to open its wallet without you first opening yours.”

This quote stuck with me.

The last year has seen a lot of talk about the big parking deck – with more to come. The bottom line is the city and the taxpayers have paid a legacy cost for the deck over its life so far; pretty much since the year it was built. To build it the city got a grant money, bonded (borrowed money), and did a special tax assessment on the businesses downtown.

It wasn’t “free” when we built it.

If you read the old newspaper articles it was pretty clear that within a few years of it opening, the city taxpayers had to subsidize the deck. That is; the taxpayers’ money made the payments on it.

That’s not to say the deck was a bad decision. The deck did have a hand in keeping downtown Houghton alive through the mall craze and all of the other shopping options which have arisen over the decades. Houghton is better off today because of it, but it has cost us something too.

The big parking deck has been a part of our downtown as long as many of us can remember. It is now 43 years old. It was not built to last forever. About seven years ago, the Houghton taxpayers invested well over $1 million on work to extend its useful life for 10 years or so. We’re seven years into what was thought of as that “10-year fix”; which means it is going to need more work soon.

One estimate done after it was visually inspected in 2020 showed that there’s over $1.5 million of work needed just to the coating, railings and stairtower; and that does not include concrete work or structural work. The question is if we, as a community, are willing (and able) to make that kind of investment again.

There’s been a lot of talk about what we should do. Should we just keep putting money into it? Do we really want an ugly parking deck (come on, it isn’t very nice to look at, is it?) on what is an otherwise a pretty nice waterfront? Maybe we could replace it, but where does the money come from? Does anyone like the fact that it is kind of a dark, scary cave down there? Is it fair to expect all the Houghton taxpayers to foot the bill again?

The city found a solution that would relieve the average taxpayer of that burden and spur some economic development downtown. It would have been the biggest project in a long time.

We had a draft plan in hand to start to work with and a willing investor who wanted to invest in Houghton and build parking along with their project, but that opportunity is gone now. That’s a long story full of rumors, campaigns, Facebook crusades, and so on; too long of a story for now and besides, it is in the past.

In any event we are kind of back to square one. We have an old parking deck that is nearing the end of its intended design life and we, as a community, are going to need to make some hard decisions about what we are willing to do. Whatever that ultimate solution is going to be, we’re going to have to get there together. We’re going to need input. That means you; the Houghton taxpayer.

So, should we keep it? We can, but that means we’re going to have to make some tough choices. The deck is old and it is going to take a lot of money to fix it so it lasts us long enough so we can fix it again; which means more money again someday. We’re talking about a lot of money every year. If we’re going to come up with the money, we either have to use money we already have or we have to get more money.

If we are going to use money we already have; that’s your tax money. That also means we’re all going to have to go without someplace else. We’ll have to again spend some of your tax money on the deck instead of the fire department, sidewalks, paving the streets, better parks, and so on.

It is that simple.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The rest of this letter written by Houghton City Manager Eric Waara will appear in Monday’s edition of the Daily Mining Gazette.

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