Meet the candidates: How they hope to impact the future of Lansing's communities

In two weeks, Lansing voters will select a new mayor for the first time in more than a decade, and at least two city council seats will be filled by new faces. Current At-Large Council Member Judi Brown Clarke and State Representative Andy Schor will vie for the seat being vacated by Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, who opted not to go for a fourth term. Clark’s position is therefore up for grabs, which means three newcomers are going head-to-head with incumbent Kathie Dunbar for the two At-Large seats. And the 4th Ward will see a new person representing them — either James M. McClurken or Brian T. Jackson — following Jessica Yorko’s decision not to run this year. Any way you look at it, change is in the air.

Over the last 12 years, Lansing’s downtown, REO Town and eastside corridors have seen huge resurgences, while other areas — including the city’s south side and the pocket near the intersection of Pleasant Grove and Holmes — have languished in neglect. We talked to Schor, Dunbar, and two of the other At-Large candidates, Guillermo Z. Lopez and Peter Spadafore, to get a sense of their visions for the future, what they plan to do to attract and retain talent in mid-Michigan, and their take on the current economic and cultural climate here in the capital city.

This is far from an exhaustive look at all the candidates; it serves as merely a sampling of the issues faced by Lansing residents and its leaders. Notably, Clarke did not respond for an interview request, but a survey of her website and a perusal of her previous media statements show that she is focused on many of the same things outlined here by the other candidates: namely, revitalizing city corridors, working to improve city infrastructure, and attracting and retaining talent to the mid-Michigan area. 

Andy Schor, Michigan State Representative (68th District)

What do you think is Lansing’s biggest opportunity for economic development?

It’s hard to specify just one. There’s a lot of opportunity not just downtown, but throughout Lansing’s commercial corridors. Throughout the city you can point to areas making gains, and we need to accelerate that. There are significant corridors we need to focus on: Pennsylvania Avenue, MLK on the south side, (the) Saginaw/Oakland (area). There’s an opportunity to utilize the lessons learned in the other areas and duplicate that in the sections of the city that need the most help.   

Do you have any ideas for attracting/retaining talent to Lansing?

To attract and retain talent in a community, you need amenities. Bars, restaurants, theaters — everything people want to do when they’re not working or sleeping. We have a lot of that already and I think we can build on that. People want to live in a “place,” and there’s a need right now to engage in placemaking. Of course, we also need housing options. Attracting talent means having a walkable downtown, so someone without a car can work and live. A lot of these things I worked on at the Michigan Municipal League: arts, parks, Internet access, good schools. All these factors lend themselves to attracting and retaining talented people.

What do you think best exemplifies Lansing’s culture? 

There are so many. My wife and I spend time in Old Town at the fairs. We love ScrapFest and Michgian BluesFest. I recently started spending more time in REO Town. The Blue Owl (Coffee Co.) is fantastic, Saddleback (BBQ) is great. But we live on the south side, and there’s not a lot to do down there right now. Developers want to come downtown and to Michigan Avenue, but in my mind they don’t pay enough attention to the south side. I want to give incentives to attract development down there and match the energy going on in these other areas.

I’m going to put up a map of the city, find out who owns what in some of these challenged areas, and maximize new use or reuse of facilities. I’m going to go grid by grid through South Cedar, MLK and Pennsylvania and really work on those blocks. Walter French could be redeveloped. Neighbors tell me that Logan Square needs help. Some things have already started. There’s a new town square in the works at Pleasant Grove and Holmes. Now we just need to keep building on that with more work that’s slower, harder and more focused.

Peter Spadafore, Associate Director of Government Relations, Michigan Association of School Administrators; Secretary, Lansing School District Board of Education

What do you think is Lansing’s biggest opportunity for economic development?

There’s so much possibility in this area, and placemaking is a big part of that. One of the major things I’d like to see is investing in parks. Beacon (Soccer Field) has been a major success already, and we’re already talking about Beacon Park 2 on the south side. We need to create places where young people and families can spend time. We need to bring back grocery stores and fill those empty (commercial) pockets with businesses so people can walk to work.

It’s not that I think city council has been doing placemaking wrong, but I have a different vision, and I want to mesh that with what’s already going on. I want to make neighborhoods and corridors throughout Lansing more desirable rather than just capturing a certain market. You can’t force businesses to relocate, but you can use tools to help areas that have been forgotten.

What do you think best exemplifies Lansing’s culture? 

One of our strengths is our diversity — our culture is very flavorful. It’s a medium-sized town with a small-town feel, which means you can experience a lot and not feel lost. We have a vibrant arts community, and we’re good at celebrating different heritages. Culture isn’t just going to the Wharton Center; it’s things like the Cristo Rey Fiesta and Lansing JazzFest. Besides that, I think of places like the Lansing River Trail and the South Side Farmers Market as places that represent our culture.  

Do you have any ideas for attracting/retaining talent to Lansing?

I began that quest when I said we can do better with the Lansing School District. We need to create a place where talent wants to live, play and raise families so kids become the next generation of talent. It’s just a self-defeating prophecy if we don’t. I worked hard to reshape educational development, and that work is talked about in educational circles around the country. (A school district in) Colorado explored our model of district-wide busing.

It all comes back to education. If we’re not teaching kids, we’ll never get past it. Education made me who I am. I come from a single mother, low-income family. Without educators, I wouldn’t be here, so I see it’s vital that our schools are successful. I’m a fourth generation Lansing resident, so this is all very important for me.

Guillermo Lopez, Trustee, Lansing School District Board of Education

What do you think is Lansing’s biggest opportunity for economic development?

I see of lot of opportunities. I look forward to spending some time with LEAP and seeing what options are open through them. I’d like to put some emphasis on our corridors, revitalizing businesses where we can and bringing new ones in. That will really help out our neighborhoods. A lot can be done on the riverfront. I think we should develop that and always be thinking about users and businesses that would benefit from being on the Grand River.

The casino is probably never going to happen, so why not bring a hotel right to that (proposed location)? That’s what Lansing needs. It will allow people to walk and check out places like Impression 5 (Science Center), the REO Olds Transportation Museum and the State Capitol. We need a concentrated effort — we can’t keep going with the same things we’ve been doing. We’ve come a long way, but we still have some problems. A new set of eyes and a new set of ears will be best for solving these kinds of problems.

What do you think best exemplifies Lansing’s culture? 

I’m a big fan of the (Lansing) Lugnuts. I’ll follow the players, where they go in the major leagues. It’s fun to talk about. And we have a lot of great restaurants. There’s a lot of culture in Lansing.

Do you have any ideas for attracting/retaining talent to Lansing?

That goes hand-in-hand with developing the riverfront and getting amenities going. We need to develop jobs and improve the quality of life in city. That’s what I hear from kids I know who go through schools here, graduate, but then they start looking toward Chicago and other big cities. They say things like, “It was nice when I was there, but I want to raise a family and there are no jobs for me.”

We need to continue building careers here in IT and technology. We have a lot of small businesses now, and we need to keep developing them so some of them can grow into bigger businesses and become larger employers. I want it so that the kids won’t be looking to these other cities anymore. The grass is always greener on the other side.

Kathie Dunbar, Executive Director, South Lansing Community Development Association; At-Large City Council incumbent

What do you think is Lansing’s biggest opportunity for economic development?

I think the FRIB (Facility for Rare Isotope Beams) at MSU is going to bring spinoff industries based on those areas of research to the area, and I think that’s going to be a huge opportunity for economic growth. We’re on the cusp of where a lot of creative, inventive, scientific minds are about to merge, and that’s a recipe for a lot of good potential that will impact Lansing as well.

Also, the city’s planning department (recently) gave a presentation on form-based codes, which would be a new design concept that replaces the current Euclidean (single-use) zoning in the city. Form-based codes overlay industrial, residential and commercial district zoning. It’s something that’s being experimented with in other cities and working for revitalizing corridors. If we move in that direction, it may lead to new types of development here in town, and could influence the kinds of neighborhoods we build and businesses we can attract. It’s also an interesting placemaking driver, and is good for historic preservation.

Do you have any ideas for attracting/retaining talent to Lansing?

I’m on the board at Capital Area Michigan Works!, and we get these really awesome hot jobs reports detailing industries that need workers. We try to match them up with people who need work, helping workers who are evolving out of their own existence and may need training into something new. Right now there’s a huge need for skilled trades, and we need to balance the growing split between those types of careers with the white-collar jobs.

Placemaking will also play a big part in that. I wrote the public art impact grant for the area near Pleasant Grove and Holmes. That area needs to have a cohesive identity — right now, there’s no place to put a Christmas tree. In Old Town, the Eastside Neighborhood, abd REO Town, there’s always a geographic place that represents a center. We wanted to make this space a place that could be a cohesive center point to ground this community.

What do you think best exemplifies Lansing’s culture? 

I am extremely proud of the diversity in this city. I am happy we’re a town that embraces national, religious and ethnic diversity and celebrates those differences.

I also love the creative vibe in REO Town. They create their own new things like Nightmare off Elm Street and the annual Thrift Store Gala. That’s the only place I can go where I can see flame-spinners juggling fire on street corners at night. It makes Lansing what it is, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Allan Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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