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New vision for New Haven

Steven McMichael and other candidates for New Haven’s city council hope to bring about the end of the New Haven C.A.V.E. people

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-10-20


Fort Wayne residents traveling east on 930 towards New Haven are familiar with a portion of New Haven’s 5th district — it’s the stretch of highway between the cloverleaf and the BMV. And unfortunately, says Steven McMichael, that strip of road lined with old buildings, industrial areas, and brown field sites is the only and lasting impression that many people have of New Haven.

It’s also the area that McMichael hopes to represent on New Haven City Council next term. A realtor and New Haven resident since 2003, McMichael is running against Republican Tim Martin, a two-term incumbent who was caucused in his first term and ran unopposed the second time around.

Beyond the brown field sites and the industrial lots on 930, McMichael says, is a city that has an enormous potential building on some of the successes of the past decade… but only if those opportunities aren’t missed due to political inaction.

McMichael is running for political office in part because he felt the people of his district, and the city as a whole, were underserved by the incumbent. While going door-to-door during his campaign, McMichael was surprised that out of the hundreds of people he talked to, maybe seven knew the name of their city council representative. “How could that possibly be?” McMichael says. “I don’t get that. He’s your closest level of government to you.”

The larger implication is that some factions of New Haven’s city government are all to content with the status quo, a status quo that for years kept New Haven saddled with an antiquated infrastructure and weak economy. And McMichael, along with a couple other candidates for New Haven City Council — Republican Craig Dellinger and incumbent Democrat Mickey Hill — offer what they call a “voice and vision of progress” for New Haven.

“They have progressive ideas,” says Doug Geller, who formerly worked on Mayor Terry McDonald’s election campaign and now works on the election campaign for McMichael, Hill, and Dellinger. “There is a group here, we call them the C.A.V.E. people — Citizens Against Virtually Everything. Some of them fought sewer separation, which was federally mandated. They fought the building of a new fire station. They fought City Hall. They fought Jury Pool. It’s constant no, no, no, for everything we do.”

“They say they worry about taxes,” Geller continues. “I’ve got the opinion that if a city isn’t moving forward, it’s moving backward. I think two of the council candidates have no vision for the city, no forward concept of what we should be doing, and we’re trying to get people on council who have progressive views. (McMichael) is one of those.”

To McMichael, quality of life issues like the Jury Pool renovation project — which caused a lot of controversy in New Haven before it went finally forward after a referendum — go hand in hand with economic development. “If I were representing a big company, I think I would want to make sure that before I invested my money in a community, that the community is investing their own money,” he says. “To me, that seems pretty basic.” And that investment includes the kinds of things that would make employees want to live and work in a community. “You need to have reasonable, sound growth, and you need to make sure your infrastructure is taken care of while it’s manageable instead of waiting until it’s a big problem. To me, that seems pretty basic.”

It’s a view that New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald shares. As of this writing, McDonald has not officially endorsed any City Council candidate, but in a brief interview, he used much of the same language and expressed similar sentiments. In fact, he even used the word “progressive,” which you typically don’t hear coming from Midwestern Republican mayors unless it’s accompanied by a sneer. “When I say ‘progressive,’ I’m just talking about progress,” McDonald laughs. “I’m pretty conservative, but I want to make things good, I want to make things nice. I want people to see our community and see that this is a city that cares about itself and its citizens and its investment. Who wants to move into a community that doesn’t take care of itself?”

To hear McDonald tell it, sounds a lot like the old business adage — “you have to spend money to make money.” McDonald would prefer to spend as little money as possible, of course, but… “If we don’t invest in ourselves, no one else is going to. A private businessman is not going to bring his business here, or an established business may not invest in a renovation or upgrade at the beginning of a recession, like this restaurant on main street did. Some of these people running for council have the right idea. They’re visionaries, and those are the kinds of things that inspire me.”

McDonald dismisses the bipartisan mix of the candidates as unimportant. “A Republican doesn’t fix a pothole any better than a Democrat. City government needs to be about the best-qualified people for the job. We need people that can think logically and have a vision for the community, not just fall in behind somebody and just go along with the crowd.”

And it doesn’t seem to bother the candidates, either. McMichael, a Democrat, is full of praise for what McDonald has done since he took the Mayor’s office in 2000. Mickey Hill, a Democrat running for her second term, also credits the Mayor with shaking New Haven out of the “don’t need it/don’t want it” attitude she says it was mired in for a long time. She sites the mandate to fix the sewers as an example. “That came down in the 70s, but we didn’t get to it until the early 2000s, because no one wanted to spend the money,” says Hill, who owns the New Haven branch of Curves. “It was all ‘no higher taxes.’ But really, it needed to get done. We have to pay for infrastructure.”

McMichael is very aware of why many people choose to live in New Haven — as a realtor, he’s turned many buyers on to the city’s “small town” qualities; it’s one of the reasons he chose to move to New Haven himself. But the city needs to grow. “This triple whammy right now, of property tax caps, lower assessed values, and reduction in COE and CEDIT receipts… On the surface, property tax caps are a good thing — my taxes went down,” McMichael says. “Now, I believe government should be efficient, but I don’t believe you starve the beast either. If there’s a fire at my neighbor’s house, I want the fire department there. But property tax caps have cut into tax revenue, lower assessed values have cut into revenue… We can no longer keep raising taxes on the base we have; we need to grow the base. If we do not increase the number of rooftops, be it commercial, residential, or industrial in the community, we can’t make do.”

The belief that New Haven can respect and honor its past without needing to be stuck there is a common one. McDonald says that when he first came to office, he told people that the one thing he did not want to hear is “but that’s how it’s always been done.” McMichael, Hill and others echo those sentiments. “It drives me insane when they say our best days are behind us,” McMichael says. “I think it’s a defeatist attitude. ‘If only we could go back to the good old days…’ I refuse to accept the best days are in the past.”

You can read more about Steve McMichael at stevemcmichael.com

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