Edited and condensed by Lawrence Cosentino
David Hollister, mayor of Lansing from 1992 to 2003, put together the private-pubic partnership that kept General Motors in Lansing and spearheaded the city’s downtown revitalization, with the minor league Lansing Lugnuts and downtown ballpark as the centerpiece.
The moderators are Lawrence Cosentino, a writer for City Pulse for all of its 20 years, and editor and publisher Berl Schwartz.
Lawrence Cosentino: This is a distinguished and diverse group, but you all have something in common: You could have taken your talents and energy elsewhere, to a bigger city or a bigger market, but you lived and worked in Lansing for all or most of the past 20 years. Why? How would you compare Lansing today to the Lansing of 20 years ago, when City Pulse began?
Bob Trezise: I’m a Lansing kid — Cumberland Elementary, Otto Middle School, Sexton High, all of that. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I just felt in my gut, as a young person then, that Lansing had really low self-esteem. And I always saw the empty power station downtown with the smokestack on our skyline — it became symbolic of what wasn’t possible, what we couldn’t do together. Of course, it was redeveloped, and now I think it’s a symbol on our skyline of all that is possible.
Rep. Sarah Anthony: Lansing Pride, right? Whether it’s on T-shirts or using the Love Lansing hash tag — there is the sense of pride of either being born here, or blooming here. Twenty years ago, people would say, ‘Oh yeah, I work for state government but I drive home to DeWitt or wherever.’ People are excited about being in Lansing. You see it when folks are branding their events and activities around Lansing. We have a 517 Day that the city lights up. I’ve introduced a Love Lansing resolution at the state House. People are excited about being here and want to identify as being from Lansing. We have all of these different folks who are taking pride in our region in a way that I didn’t, even growing up here.
One more thing: Putting my political hat on, we have seen an increase in diverse political leadership. Look at our City Council, our county commission, our judges. Even here, at the state House, I’m the first Black woman to do this. I don’t know if we imagined that for Lansing, particularly given the actual sheer numbers. We’re still a majority white community, and yet so many of our judges are people of color and so many folks are women, or from the LGBTQ + community. We take that for granted.
Chad Badgero: I’m really pumped about the fact that Lansing just accepts that. We’re not trumpeting it, but we expect that in our leadership, and I really appreciate that.
Rep. Sarah Anthony: When folks look at who is leading in the spaces in our city, from City Council rooms and the county commission, they see themselves. You can see yourselves in the folks who are making decisions. And I think sometimes we take that for granted, but that’s something pretty special about our region that we have amplified diverse voices to make decisions on behalf of all of us.
Bob Trezise: It is remarkable what has happened to the city of Lansing and our region in the last 20 years. The diversification of our local city and regional economy is incredible. Twenty years ago, we were mainly an auto town. It’s a little bit of an overstatement but it’s mostly true. The high tech and entrepreneurial business startups, and all the incubators on the east side and elsewhere — none of that existed 20 years ago. Literally, zero. Old Town, REO Town, the east side and Michigan Avenue — the progress has been unbelievable. What about Sparrow and McLaren? The amount of projects and buildings that they have done along Michigan Avenue and out of the MSU Foundation, and then there’s Rotary Park, the River Trail and people enjoying the river. Regional cooperation was atrocious 20 years ago. I’ve never seen better regional cooperation than it is right now.
David Hollister: In the middle ‘90s it was a different city than it is now. There was just no activity; there was no vitality. If you looked downtown at night, there was no traffic. But there was such a potential. There was no sense of collegiality between the regional leaders. I thought we had all the assets to be a world-class city, with Michigan State, which is world class, and General Motors. I put together a viable plan I thought we could turn around relatively quickly. We had just $1.2 million in Community Development Block Grant funds [a federal program] and decided to concentrate on three areas: Michigan Avenue, from Sparrow Hospital to the Capitol, and the Washington Mall, which is our commercial district downtown, and Old Town. The development started and people started working together. And we began building a world-class city. We never really achieved it.
Bob Trezise: The city of Lansing has done the unthinkable — actual population growth. The city proper, an urban core in the State of Michigan — the only state that did not have population growth in the 2010 census — but not Lansing. That is amazing, and that is by intentional economic development efforts. Honestly, I would defy any urban core city or a region the size of ours to match that. I compare us to, damn, anybody in the entire United States.
Rep. Sarah Anthony: I was an elementary school student when Mayor Hollister was casting that world-class vision. And that actually took hold with many folks like me. Like Bob, I’m a Lansing kid, born and raised on the south side, Everett High School. And in many ways, my story is a very Lansing one. My dad worked at the Fisher Body plant, my mom’s a state employee. And the fact that we could have some kind of working middle-class lifestyle — that is because of the formula that is Lansing. I started to see Lansing as a world-class city, as a city in a community that was bigger than just a small town. And I think that that has driven the public service that I started to have really a passion for.
Chad Badgero: I’m from this area, but a short stint living in New York gave me a really great juxtaposition about what life in other places could be like. Lansing is a place that lifts you up to support your opportunities or your ideas, and is excited to see about what you’re going to do, and is not so large that you feel swallowed up in the city, but is big enough to have big dreams. That’s been really thrilling and exciting to be so supported in that way.
Lawrence Cosentino: In spite of the dramatic progress you all are describing, a host of persistent problems have dogged the city for the past 20 years, including a poverty rate that seems to be stuck at around 25 percent, bad health outcomes for lower income residents and an unequal allocation of resources and overall quality of life across the city and the region.
That poverty rate — that is real. I have folks that had never stepped foot in downtown Lansing, do not go to our new Rotary Park or some of the restaurants and bars. They don’t see Eastwood Towne Center as a part of our community. They don’t see some of the bright and shiny new objects as theirs. And a part of my role as someone who feels just as comfortable in a church basement or a community center, or some of our grittier parts of our community as well as the country club and some of our upper crust areas in our community — being that bridge is one of my roles and responsibilities to say, ‘Look, when we have an arts fair, that’s for you too. The Lugnuts Stadium, that’s for you too.’ There should be no parts of our community that are off limits, because it’s all ours.
Rep. Sarah Anthony: What Mayor Hollister did is cast a vision. But that vision should not just be about the brick and mortar and the infrastructure and the high buildings. When we talk about areas of economic development, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about human infrastructure and human development. I’m in my office and I love the fact that, yes, I have a great view of the Capitol, but I also see the neighborhoods that I represent. And it gives a balanced perspective. And so when we’re looking at success for the region, I hope we’re not just looking at the economic drivers and the businesses we’re retaining and how we’re going to re-imagine downtown, but how are we lowering that poverty rate? How are we ensuring that kids aren’t going to bed hungry? How do we lower infant mortality for folks like me, right? The chances of me carrying a child to full term, in Ingham County, are the worst in the entire State. Those are problems we need to tackle if we really want to attract folks from all over the globe to our capital city. To sum it all up, I think it’s the best of times in Lansing and, for many folks, it’s also the worst of times.
Bob Trezise: I would add that I’m very concerned right now about downtown. The downtown came back a little bit, but it is without question facing an existential threat over the next five to 10 years. I had big meetings this morning with some offices. It’s a roller coaster. The lesson is, there is no beginning to end of these things. You keep at it and keep at it and keep at it and never give up.
Lawrence Cosentino: Big development projects get a lot of attention, but what about the grass roots work on improving life in the neighborhoods that has been done in the past 20 years?
Dedria Humphries Barker: I’m so proud to be living here on the east side. We lived in East Lansing for many years. But then after our children went away to college, that half-acre land wasn’t so attractive anymore. And being in a place for me that didn’t have public transportation — that wasn’t very attractive to me. So we moved to the east side of Lansing, where it looks more like Detroit, which is where we’re from. But it is just so exciting over here to have Hunter Park with a greenhouse and a large garden and a new building going up.
David Hollister: One of the reasons Lansing thrives is it has such vibrant community organizations, neighborhood associations. When you come to town, one of the first thing I tell people, ‘Go visit Joan Nelson. She’ll tell you what’s going on day to day, or go to the neighborhood associations.’
Dedria Humphries Barker: All boats rise with the Allen Neighborhood Center. How much pressure did Joan get to put her new building up on Michigan Avenue? But it’s just so awesome to have it back on Kalamazoo Street.
Joan Nelson: If we look at what’s happened in the last 20 years around food, in 20 years this region has developed 26 farmer’s markets — 26 — and several of those are year round. We have pantries all over town, farm stands popping up in neighborhoods. When the Land Bank began to give out land 10 years ago, community-based organizations worked closely with them to give parcels to urban farmers and gardeners. When you pay attention to developing robust social infrastructure in a place-based way, on a neighborhood scale, it often translates to better access and improved lives for under-resourced neighbors.
Dedria Humphries Barker: A lot of people come in, and they work with one of the major institutions in the area and then they’re on with their career. But the people like Joan, who stay and continue to work and have a vision — those are the people who really make a difference. And you can have all the money that you want, but if you don’t have those people who stay and work on a vision, for the area for everybody then really it’s just a bank.
Lawrence Cosentino: One of the most sadly consistent arts stories in City Pulse over its entire 20 years has been the on-and-off performing arts center. Why is it so elusive and what does that say about Lansing?
David Hollister: We were thrilled when we pulled off the Lugnuts. That was a real coup, and it really brought vitality. And then our focus turned to the arts. We wanted to get an arts center, and were really close to getting one. We hired a consultant who persuaded Gov. John Engler, who was not exactly my friend, to put $500,000 in the budget to do some preliminary work. The wheels came off the buggy in the Great Recession. That got put off. But the plan and the study are still there, and it’s a framework for discussions that are going on even today, so that, while there’s been ups and downs. I think we have kept our eyes on the big picture and not to be discouraged. I’ve often said that progress is not a straight line.
Chad Badgero: What we’re really lacking in Lansing is a vibrant, supported arts and culture sector. What we have is lots of people doing lots of work. When I started Peppermint Creek in 1995 as a theater company, there were three, four theater companies. Now there’s more than 20 — but only two of them have permanent homes.
It is really remarkable for me to hear Mayor Hollister talk about how the conversation about an arts center has been had, over and over and over, and has never come to fruition. I agree with Bob — from the arts and culture perspective, our communication in Lansing and in this region has gone through the roof from what it was in 2000. We were just small little groups of people, just being completely scrappy to make anything happen — festivals, music, events, theater. We still remain a lot of small groups, even down to Lansing 501, who are doing some really awesome cultural events around our city, but they’re doing it in spaces that are not typically considered arts and culture spaces. From an economic perspective of retaining those people, they can create things, but if they’re not given space to do that, or the infrastructure to do that, that makes it hard to keep them around.
Lawrence Cosentino: But, Chad, aren’t you at your best when you’re scrappy?
Chad Badgero: I am, and I’m proud of that. But at the end of the day, a performing arts space is going to take more than scrappy. We have to build a bridge between the everyday person who doesn’t feel they have a voice to be featured in the newspaper, or be on a Zoom call like this, right up to all the people on this call. So those people are bridged in a way that then we can envision and dream about what could be, in a way that actually happens.
David Hollister: We were the winner of a worldwide competition for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at the university. So, Chad, they might not have gotten the arts building. I was disappointed, but it’s still alive. If we can win a world competition that’s going to bring researchers from around the world here, we sure as hell can solve those others. You just have to work together, be patient, persistent and follow the vision.
Chad Badgero: Hallelujah, I say.
Berl Schwartz: Bob Trezise told me about going to the Ottawa Power Station with people from Blue Cross interested in using it. Everyone up till that point looked at it as ‘it’s too big,’ and they looked at it as ‘too small.’ How do we get our leaders, not necessarily our elected leaders, but the ones who have money or access to money, to look at this performing arts center as being important enough to commit to $40 million to $60 million? What is lacking here in our community that this problem continues to be so difficult?
Bob Trezise: I actually know the answer to that. I say this in a positive way, but Lansing and the Lansing area is an institutional town. We’re fortunate to have very large Fortune 500 headquarters. We have a significant set of financial institutions. There’s Michigan State University, state government, GM. But what we lack, and has always been our Achilles heel for 100 plus years, really, is significant, locally grown, locally owned wealth. In other words, billionaires who actually own their own money and thus can make their own decisions. There is a very big difference between asking Mr. Devos for $10 million and asking Auto-Owners Insurance for $10 million, because Auto-Owners is a publicly owned company with a board of directors and shareholders and it’s not just the president and CEO’s money. He or she can’t just say “yes,” and this is the fundamental problem when you talk about something like a performing arts center that costs $40, $60, $80 million, and so many other big ideas that we all have. How about a million-dollar incubator in south Lansing? That’d be my dream along with everything else. But the issue of money is Lansing’s eternal Achilles heel.
Dedria Humphries Barker: I would like to hear David Hollister talk about how you bring people together on big projects, because he’s done that and done it successfully.
David Hollister: I call it “VP3.” You start with a vision. The vision I had was a world-class city. And once you got the vision, then you need three ‘P’s.’ The first ‘P’ is a plan, and we had a plan that started with Michigan Avenue, Washington Square and Old Town. And then you have to have partners who are really committed to the vision. Once you have that, you can move together, and that takes time. You have to educate people, talk about what this stuff means, what’s behind the scenes and the complexity of it all. So we’ve got a plan, we’ve got partners, and then you need the most important ‘P:’ processes. I was in the legislature and I introduced a bill on the right to die. It took me 16 years to get that passed. We lost year after year. We just kept educating and coming back and getting more people around and it just is a matter of having a clear vision, having engaged partners and being persistent.
Rep. Sarah Anthony: I was taking notes about Mayor Hollister’s “VP3.” You’re going to hear it on the campaign trail.
Dedria Humphries Barker: Look what happened with the library system. So many cities don’t have libraries that are really functioning, but some people came together and pulled together the Capitol Area District Library, and that made it possible for all the small communities to keep their libraries and for Lansing to be the hub of that. So these things are all possible. It’s just as David Hollister said: vision, plan, partners and persistence. Just keep believing in it. You need all of those factors to come into play for Lansing because we do have some big projects that need to be done. It’s a good place to live and it’s exciting.
Lawrence Cosentino: How would you evaluate greater Lansing’s overall record on stewardship of the environment and its response to the biggest cloud looming over everything these past 20 years, climate change?
Bob Trezise: I’m not sure you can even look at the issue as in Lansing. It’s a completely global issue. I do not relish saying this, but part of the reason I’m so bullish on our future here is, that the south and California — people keep talking in terms of drought. No, it’s evolving into a desert. That’s what’s happening. There’s going to be a mass migration from the coast and the South. I’m really, really afraid. I don’t relish saying that. And they’re going to move to the Great Lakes area and further north, and I mean soon — 10, 20 years, maybe faster. So when you talk about planning — maybe we should be planning to double or triple our population size in a very short time span by people arriving here, migrating from the United States, because we have water in a relatively safe environment.
David Hollister: When I was mayor, you couldn’t eat a fish out of the Grand River, you couldn’t get people to fish or recreate and get on their kayak, and now that’s changed. It took a united community coming together but here it is, 30 years later, and the river is a major asset and canoeing down the river is an event you can celebrate and enjoy. So, it’s bad on the national and international level, but this community is showing they’re willing to pay the bill.
Berl Schwartz: There are some big changes we saw in the last 20 years as far as social change goes. In the ‘90s, voters said “no” to gay rights. They said “no” to turning Grand Avenue into Cesar Chavez Avenue. Those things turned around in Lansing. What hasn’t been turned around, that you think is accomplishable, in the next 20 years?
Dedria Humphries Barker: I think that public transportation can definitely be improved over the next 20 years. We saw CATA under Sandy Dragoo apply for some really ambitious funds to improve the Michigan Avenue corridor. It didn’t come to pass, but it would be great to see the new administration show some persistence there and improve public transportation up and down Michigan and, quite frankly, through the whole city.
Rep. Sarah Anthony: One of the things that, Lord, if we could shore up, it would be transformational, is closing our educational achievement gap. It is criminal, the fact that when you dis-aggregate our data in Ingham County and you point your finger at one part of Lansing versus Okemos or Haslett — it is criminal how unprepared we are in terms of educating our kids and preparing them for the next step in life. We are passing along generational poverty and setting entire generations up for failure if we don’t actually begin to really get serious about closing those educational gaps. We have to get creative and it cannot just be, ‘Well, the Lansing School District will figure it out.’ I don’t care how much money we throw into economic development and the arts, we have to wrap our arms around closing these gaps in education. We have too many world-class institutions like LCC and MSU for us to see the numbers that we’re seeing in our school districts.
Chad Badgero: I started my career as an educator, supporting and listening to teachers and believing in them and their expertise and their education. I think we’ve come really far away from that. And I think that that is a step one — really listening to what teachers need in the classroom.
Secondly, with my arts hat on, I really believe and hope that in the next 20 years, Lansing will continue to invest in and support and partner more with the arts and culture sector and understand that that is an economic driver and a sense of place as far as people feeling that they want to come to a city, stay in a city.
Bob Trezise: Rep. Anthony is absolutely correct. The single indicator of a more prosperous future for all is educational attainment. Period. If you have a degree certification, let alone a four-year degree above high school graduation, you are going to make far more money through your life. That’s indisputable. A secret weapon of ours might be diversity, equity and inclusion. If we can really make sure that we are an absolutely profoundly welcoming community, better than anybody else in the United States, we will have quite robust population growth, which is critical to make everything work, because that’s actually the only way you can generate revenue to pay for all this stuff that we want.
So I think our future is very bullish. The unknowns are that being a capital city, there could be political violence here. I’m very worried about that over the next number of years. And with global warming, ironically, we could be overwhelmed with huge population migration, which is a different kind of danger for us. But we’re Goldilocks. We’re very, very affordable. We are a perfect balance in life. And if we’re intentional about diversity, equity and inclusion, education and economic development, we’re going to be an incredible community.
David Hollister: Jefferson said that the best cure for an ailing democracy is more democracy. So people must get involved and stay hopeful.
Berl Schwartz: That is an excellent note to end on. It was wonderful seeing all of you again and I want to just thank you all for all you do and have done for our community. I started at City Pulse with the hope that we would create a dialogue among people who really had not been talking to each other, and it’s been great to see City Pulse succeed in that regard, and it’s helpful when all of you may put aside whatever occasional disagreement you may have with us to come together at City Pulse’s request. And I hope that continues for a good long time.
Bob Trezise: I want to say congratulations to the City Pulse on its 20th anniversary. What you’ve done for the arts and culture community is unbelievable. It’s a thriving, robust part of our community and you guys are the showcase of that, every single week, and then your really hardcore investigative reporters who have written a lot of important material and been hard on all of us — correctly, so, at times — but you guys really get after it. And to have a local newspaper for 20 years — the sustainability of that business model is amazing, so congratulations to you.
Rep. Sarah Anthony: I think one thing that the City Pulse has done a good job at is lifting up the diverse voices, from the developers to the activists to the folks who are in and around the Capitol building, and folks who are doing neighborhood engagement work — bringing those voices to the forefront, sometimes in concert, sometimes in conflict. Having a space to amplify all of those different voices is really a powerful mechanism, because it’s all a part of Lansing. That is the reason many of us who are from Lansing either left but came back or stayed here to invest — because that diversity of people and incomes and thoughts and just community has really created an environment that is sometimes messy, but it’s always really beautiful. And so I think that that is really the legacy, not just of the paper, for the 20 years, but our community.