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Inside Track: The new face of change at Muskegon City Hall
Frank Peterson, a native of Flint, is the Port City’s first new city manager in 19 years.
Don’t ever try to suggest to the new city manager that Muskegon is just a gritty Rust Belt town, a former industrial center down on its luck and struggling to stay alive — like, say, Flint.
Frank Peterson was born and raised in Flint, so he knows the difference: Muskegon has a lot going for it.
“The reality is, it has shown a long history of being able to reinvent itself when it needs to reinvent itself,” said Peterson.
Peterson, 33, became Muskegon city manager last September, the first new city manager in 19 years, upon the early retirement of Bryon Mazade, 55, who had held the job since 1990 and was the second longest-serving manager in Muskegon history.
Muskegon changed a lot during his tenure and it’s still changing. The big paper mill that was on the shore of Muskegon Lake for more than 100 years closed several years ago and the plant is now gone. On the other side of the lake, Consumers Energy’s B.C. Cobb coal-fired power plant, a major employer in the city, is slated to close in 2015.
But Muskegon has a viable industrial base that is enjoying a resurgence after the Great Recession, and its natural resource attractions for tourism and recreation may be second to none on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Its Lake Michigan beaches made Muskegon a summer retreat for vaudeville stars and film actors starting in the 1920s, prominently led by Buster Keaton. The public beach is two miles long, and year-round homes within walking distance can be found for a fraction of what they would cost in other beach communities.
And then there is Muskegon Lake, with its deep-water shipping port adjacent to downtown and direct access to Lake Michigan and the markets of the world. Its 6.5 square miles were once considered repugnant after generations of industrial pollution, starting with the lumber mills that crowded its shores. Later, the city boomed with tank engine production during World War II at Continental Motors. Then, in the early 1970s, Muskegon built a major wastewater treatment plant several miles inland that ended the dumping into Muskegon Lake.
In the intervening years, the lake became cleaner and renewed itself with replenishment by the Muskegon River, which once brought the logs that made Muskegon mills the major supplier of lumber to rebuild Chicago after the fire.
Muskegon Lake is now a mecca for pleasure boaters and sailors, while professional sport fishermen from throughout the Midwest come for its walleye competition.
Peterson describes Muskegon as a really cool mix of “urban living and beach living.”
He comes to Muskegon from a six-year stint as city manager of Springfield, Mich., a town of about 5,260 a couple of miles west of Battle Creek. For two years prior to Springfield, he was the city manager of Grant, which has a population of less than 1,000.
A couple of city leaders made a big difference in Peterson’s life, which may explain why he was drawn to city management as a career. One was the mayor of Grant.
“He gave me a shot to be the city manager at age 24. He believed in me,” said Peterson.
At the time, Peterson was working an entry level job in the redevelopment department for the city of Lafayette, Ind. He had recently been awarded a master’s in public administration at Western Michigan University, and his wife was working on her master’s degree at Purdue. Peterson was beating the bushes looking for a career job — a city management job — when the mayor of Grant saw his résumé and decided to give him a call.
Peterson was at the Lafayette job — which was more like an internship, he said — for a couple of years and he enjoyed it, but “we were ready to get back to Michigan.” The small city of Grant was his launching pad.
The other time a city leader had made a difference to Peterson was when he was just a kid growing up in Flint. His parents had divorced, and he and his two brothers were being raised by his father, a blue collar industrial worker. There wasn’t much money — Peterson said if there was anything he wanted beyond the essentials, “I had to work for it.” As soon as he turned 16, he began to work a variety of after-school and summer jobs. In fact, he met his wife, Sarah, when they were both working at a Bill Knapp’s restaurant.
Long before he reached that point, however, Flint City Manager Matt Collier did something Peterson never forgot: He and his family took several economically disadvantaged kids to Disney World with them. The kids were Flint public school students who were nominated by their teachers based on their high academic achievements.
Collier’s thoughtfulness “impacted my life, and I want to do the same” for others, said Peterson.
After high school, Peterson went to Western Michigan University.
“Coming from Flint, I had a plan to get into something like engineering,” he said, and he initially enrolled in the WMU electrical engineering program. After one semester, however, he realized he was “more of a people person,” as he puts it, and probably wouldn’t enjoy being “cooped up in an office all day, working on a computer.”
Back then, Peterson was an avid participant in sports, especially hockey and league softball. He still enjoys playing indoor soccer a couple days each week.
“Other than that, I’m home with the kids or working late.”
As any city manager can testify, it’s not an 8-to-5 job. Many evenings, the manager is at a city hall meeting, a civic event, or a neighborhood meeting. On the weekends and those infrequent evenings when he can get home around 5 or 6 p.m., Peterson’s job title is Dad. He and Sarah, a full-time speech therapist, have three children, ages 6, 4 and 2.
When asked if he has any hobbies, Peterson joked, “My whole life is a hobby!”
One thing he enjoys is going with the family on outings, such as a trip to Disney World or a weekend in Chicago — things he was not exposed to as a kid.
“I didn’t do that stuff growing up, so I’m doing it all for the first time now. I’m kind of living vicariously through my kids,” he said.
From 2000 to 2010, Muskegon suffered like Michigan’s other industrial centers, with declines in population and household income. The population went from 40,000 to slightly more than 37,000. The trend now is in the other direction.
There is a feeling of optimism in Muskegon, with factories humming again. Major manufacturing employers with hundreds of employees include ADAC Automotive, GE Aviation and the Port City Group. Brunswick, a famous name in bowling balls and equipment, still has about 175 people at work in Muskegon. Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon has 3,600 employees, most of whom are working in the city’s hospitals and clinics, and it is making a $200 million-plus investment in a new medical center there.
A casino has been proposed for the waterfront, and city officials are considering the possibility of someday building a convention center. It would probably also be on or close to that promising waterfront, with its revitalized Shoreline Inn hotel and a pair of major research centers devoted to alternative energy and Michigan’s water resources.
One problem Peterson is firmly focused on is the blight in some of Muskegon’s neighborhoods.
“Having grown up in Flint, I take this kind of thing pretty seriously. Blight spreads faster than people can imagine,” said Peterson. “If we don’t make investments now to make sure we stop it where it is, it could easily overtake a city — even a city the size of Muskegon.”