Familiar faces in race for city council seats

Lisa McKenzie

HANCOCK — Three incumbents are seeking reelection to at-large seats on the Hancock City Council. 

Paul LaBine, Lisa McKenzie and Whitney Warstler are each seeking a new term on the council. John Haeussler, who holds the other at-large seat, is not seeking reelection. Newcomers Zack Osborn and Margo Pizzi are also running for the council.

Paul LaBine

LaBine, the city’s mayor, has been on the council since 2016, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Ward III seat. He then ran for a full term in 2018.

He said he is running for another term to continue working on city projects, ranging from the city’s upcoming master plan review and potential changes to the city’s zoning ordinance to wider issues such as housing.

Paul LaBine

Hancock’s new Redevelopment Ready Communities designation will help with housing development, whether that’s renovating distressed housing or building new developments similar to Spruce Haven, LaBine said. There’s also been talk with the housing foundation for building in West Hancock for senior living. 

The council’s role would be using zoning to encourage development in certain areas, reining in short-term rentals and working with developers to see what housing the city wants, and define terms such as affordable.

“We’d like to try to tackle it a little more thoughtfully than just throwing up a bunch of buildings and making them cheap,” he said. “I’d like to see a little more targeted, thoughtful development. The council is a big part of it, but not the only part of it.”

Although the council is not directly an employer or business creator, it can take steps to create an environment to encourage business downtown, such as improving parking and walkability, LaBine said. The Downtown Development Authority’s recent purchase of the former Risto’s Hardware building, which it will be sending out for bids for developers. He also thought Keweenaw Co-op’s move to the former Keweenaw Chevrolet building on Quincy Street could serve as an anchor for the downtown. 

“There’s a lot of other areas and types of business environment that people are looking at outside of the downtown,” he said. “Downtown itself is probably the heart of the city, and I’d like to try to grow that vertically as much as we can. Being on the Downtown Development Authority and on the council, I’ve seen a lot of change in the right direction on that.”

Whitney Warstler

This year, the council approved a new zoning ordinance, the first revamp in 50 years. LaBine said the move was necessary after having such a long gap between updates. However, he was also glad to see the Planning Commission form a subcommittee to address changes being requested by some members of the public during hearings this summer.

He said the biggest issue to address is the Shoreline Mixed Use district, which includes several areas that had disparate zoning under the previous ordinance. Further discussion might be able to clarify spaces where the city should keep places preserved for conservancy use, which should be single-family homes, or which could be used for business.

“I think those are all important considerations, and I think we addressed that pretty well with our zoning ordinance,” he said. “But there’s certainly room for improvement based on the feedback I saw with this Shoreline Mixed Use, and hopefully that’s something that Planning Commission subcommittee will come up with.”

The city is also working on its upgrade of the master plan. LaBine said he would like the plan to stay consistent with where it was five years ago, but also polish some things. One component could be sustainability and resiliency, in regards to things such as walkability or combatting erosion on the waterfront. 

There has also been talk of adding overlay districts, an additional set of requirements added to an existing district. 

“I think we need to nail down the details on what this overlay districting is, and if we’re going to do any kind of rezoning, we need to have a good plan of attack on that,” he said.

With Hancock’s new Redevelopment-Ready Communities Certification, the city may also have access to funds to bring in an expert planner to assist with the master plan, LaBine said. 

LaBine said other priorities if he’s re-elected including helping the new council member or members get up to speed, the potential acquisition of the Houghton County Arena and promoting the city’s business and technology park.

LaBine said voters should consider him because of his local knowledge and experience as a Copper Country native, and his thoughtful approach to the job.

“I have a lot of skills in finance with my mathematics and I have legal experience being an attorney, so I consider myself a big asset for the city, but of course it’s up to the voter if they agree with that or not,” he said.

Lisa McKenzie

McKenzie first served on the council from 1999 to 2018. She rejoined the council in February, when she was reappointed to replace former Councilor Will Lytle. 

“I’m really re-energized and I feel I’m not done yet,” she said. “There’s things I’d like to see done in Hancock and help Hancock move into its next years.”

One priority is developing downtown housing for Hancock, which McKenzie is also involved with in her job at Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region. McKenzie said the city should also work to obtain more state funding from various programs. The city’s new Redevelopment Ready Communities certification through the Michigan Economic Development Corp. will be key for the city’s redevelopment, she said.

“It’s a beautiful city,” she said. “Once you get things moving, you can’t stop.”

Hancock and other cities have been looking at ways to add more housing. McKenzie said the MEDC could assist with redeveloping buildings downtown; the council’s role would be assisting city staff and providing authority for the city to proceed. There are also vacant areas in the city that could be used for new subdivisions. Some is on city-owned land, while the city can also work with developers to build residences on land they own. 

“That’s why we redid the zoning to make it easier, but yet protect the interests of the community and keep it so you don’t get development that doesn’t fit in with the existing areas,” McKenzie said. 

McKenzie said the city had needed to upgrade its zoning ordinance; the existing plan would not have allowed for development in line with the city’s master plan. She said the zoning ordinance, like the city’s other zoning ordinances, would have to be kept up to date and modernized.

One change McKenzie wants to see is making the ordinance more enforceable. 

“Some of the lights and the glare, that’s really hard to measure,” she said. “It’s all complaint-driven, and I don’t necessarily think that’s appropriate.”

She said the city should also revisit some of the restrictions on someone parking an RV at their property, which she found confusing. 

McKenzie was happy to see the new zoning ordinance allow accessory dwelling units, which she said can be a “tremendous way to promote housing.” The new ordinance also includes greater protection against shoreline erosion, she said. 

Other city ordinances should be revised to make sure they’re still relevant, McKenzie said. She cited one barring elephants dating back to when the circus would visit Hancock. 

McKenzie said the council also has a role to play in growing business in the city, including promoting the city as a positive business environment and making sure guidelines are easy to follow. That will also mean keeping the city’s website up-to-date and making sure relevant information is available, not only for developers, but for the community. That can also lead to more positive engagement from the public, she said. 

She cited the recent example of a person who came to a recent council meeting to suggest signage directing people to Hancock’s downtown. That resident is now working with the planning commission on potential solutions, she said. 

“It’s great when you have people that say, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed this is a problem. Let’s see if we can change it and I’m willing to help,'” she said. “That makes us a community, not just a city.”

McKenzie also wants to make sure the city continues promoting its new business and technology park, which she said would not only help the city grow its business environment but bring new residents to the city. 

“We have our infrastructure and our services, our police department, our fire department — they’re all wonderful, but they’re expensive,” she said. “So we need to continue to grow and develop our tax base.”

McKenzie said residents should vote for her in November because of her experience. 

“I understand how the city works,” she said. “I think that I have still have a lot to offer. I would like to see the city continue to develop and help the administration and the council make it a positive place to live and continue moving forward in a positive manner.”

Whitney Warstler

Warstler works as a communications consultant contracting with the Public Health Institute. She is running for her second term on the council after being elected in 2018. She’d liked the progress she saw in the city, and wasn’t planning on running again until the passage of the new zoning ordinance. 

“I wasn’t on board with all of the changes that were made,” she said. “I really felt like the people needed a voice, and not everyone’s voice was being heard.”

As one example, she pointed to the concerns of residents of Sylvan Estates that a business district was coming too close to their neighborhood. She also disagreed with the Shoreline Mixed Use district, which she thought gave inadequate protection for areas such as the Navy Street trail. 

“I actually think the city should lean into it — it’s such a beautiful area,” she said. “I would like to see that maybe as a park, or with little docks off of it, like they used to have in Houghton, just to allow people to take advantage of it better.”

Warstler said she would prefer changing the zoning in that area rather than just instituting an overlay district, which she said would be easier to change.

Bringing more businesses and jobs to the city that can support families is important, Warstler said. She hopes Hancock’s new business and technology park will be able to create more jobs in the city. 

There also needs to be a lot of attention downtown, “which is always the heart of every community,” Warstler said. Having the Keweenaw Co-op move to downtown next year will be big for the city, she said. She hoped the city can also continue the momentum from the work of the city’s late downtown developer coordinator, Deb Mann. 

“I think Deb was really pushing us forward, and it was such a loss for the whole community to have her gone,” she said.

“I think she was really making strides. Even little things like having the farmer’s market downtown and the movies downtown … she’d been talking to a lot of businesses and trying to recruit, so hopefully that can continue.”

Warstler said she would also like to see city increase transparency about what decisions are being made and why. 

“I don’t think it’s a secret that I didn’t think that the rezoning was well advertised,” she said. “So I think it’s really important that we make the citizens aware that there might be changes … whether they’re going to agree or not, it’s important to know what the citizens feel.”

Warstler said people should vote for her because she cares about the community. 

“I haven’t been there as long as some of the other people on the council, but I’ve lived all over the world and I’ve chosen to make this my home,” she said. “I think I have skills and assets that can help and I really can care about making the community better for everyone and not just certain people.”


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