Discussion with Marquette Mayor Jenna Smith and City Commissioner Cody Mayer
David Haynes sits down with Marquette Mayor Jenna Smith and Marquette City Commissioner Cody Mayer to discuss the challenges currently faced by rural cities like Marquette, and what their thoughts are on where the future is headed for rural cities in the Upper Peninsula.
Jenna Smith began serving on the Marquette City Commission in December 2017. She was born and raised in Marquette, and went on to attend the University of Michigan where she earned a degree in Psychology and Environmental Studies in 2008. Smith was appointed Mayor in 2017, and then elected as Mayor in 2018.
Cody Mayer was elected to the Marquette City Commission in November 2020. Cody was raised in Sault Ste Marie, and is a member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Cody attended Northern Michigan University where he received a degree in Public Administration. He has served as an enlisted soldier in the Michigan Army National Guard since December 2014 and currently holds the rank of Sergeant.
In this episode, Mayor Smith and Commissioner Mayer discuss the challenges of funding and revenue, affordable housing, and the lack of childcare in Marquette and other communities. They also discuss the future of development for properties like the old hospital building in Marquette. This is a great discussion with two of Marquette’s youngest and brightest leaders!
Good evening everyone. We welcome you to this edition of Rural Insights video and podcast. And we’re really pleased to have two distinguished public servants with us tonight. And that is the mayor of Marquette Jenna Smith, the honorable Jenna Smith, and commissioner Cody Mayor of Marquette. Both of them are dealing with very compounded problems that every city around the United States is dealing with, big, small in the middle. So let me just start with a concept of what are the biggest challenges each of you see for rural cities? You know, we have, what I counted, is five cities of size and they’re important cities. They’re important to the economy, the region and the state, but what do you think of the challenges that you face in a rural city in the next few years?
Yeah. You know, thank you, David. I appreciate you having us on. And I would say one of the biggest challenges is probably funding and revenue, and that’s something that is a challenge for a city or a municipality of any size, but in Marquette, especially we’re the biggest in the U.P. or one of the biggest anyway, in any way you measure it. But that’s difficult when we are geographically separated pretty far away from downstate from other similar sized communities. So we’ve got to really work with some of our wonderful partners and municipalities who are much smaller size and find a way to work together.
Bonding is an issue. I would say staffing can be an issue. We’ve got amazing talent in the city of Marquette, and we do everything we can to retain them. And when a position does come open, it can be pretty difficult to fill because again, geographically we’re limited, but I would say that that geography, I think that we all know and love here in Marquette. To the north, we’re limited by Lake Superior, but I wouldn’t really say that’s a limitation. That’s probably one of our greatest resources. So it’s definitely a catch 22 and we see the advantages as well, but it doesn’t make it any less of a hassle sometimes when we’re dealing with funding, especially.
Commissioner Mayer, what are your thoughts?
Well, I think you’re right Jenna, the lack of revenue that a lot of our communities here in the U.P. have, or I should say all of our communities have, it makes things a lot more difficult on our side, on the more local side of trying to figure out how to solve issues when they arise. Even trying to plan ahead and just even on a couple issue basis that just our communities face. Everyone’s struggling with housing across the country right now, but rural communities struggle with having internet access for our residents. We struggle with having any sort of options when it comes to childcare. There’s a lack of access to healthcare as well, typically in rural communities, not only that, there is just less, better paying jobs for residents to be able to afford any of those other things that quite frankly typically come from or have up here.
Oh, we did some research on Rural Insights using some students at Northern Michigan university helped me to look at childcare costs. And we’ve interviewed a lot of single mothers and fathers and parents, working parents, $600, $700 per child per month for childcare, whether they’re a professor, a police officer, a Walmart employee, it doesn’t matter, everyone’s dealing with it. Is this an issue that you all deal with and think about?
All the time, this is an issue that I am extremely passionate about as an individual. To date childcare is not a direct strategic or master planning goal, but that’s something I’m hoping that we can get into our questionnaire as we get into the master planning process in the next year or so. This is a topic that I spend some of my free time working on with folks at the state level, with folks in our community, as a mom, to two children under the age of five, it is extremely difficult to find childcare, even when you have resources in this community. So I know that those who do not have resources, it becomes even more difficult. You know, I paid more for childcare for two kids than I do for my mortgage. And I know many people that do the same, and it is really hard to find quality childcare, especially for children under the age of three.
So the infants are the most difficult in our community. On that same note, I had a conversation today about, about car seats. So, there are the traditional city things that I’m working on, but there are a lot of things on the side that as an active member in the community and someone who people see as connected you end up getting pulled in on, and that’s kind of the fun of it for me, is trying to problem solve and help out in the community. But childcare again today is not a specific goal of the city of Marquette to be working on. But I do see it as a really strong correlation with our talent attraction and retention with our low income, middle income folks, and helping them kind of get set and get ahead. And I think it’s a critical issue, especially coming out of COVID. I think we realized how, how dire that has become
Commissioner, you have a view on this. You want to jump in?
You know, as someone that has a toddler I can attest to the fact that it is very difficult to find childcare that doesn’t cost $65 a day. And like mayor Smith pointed out having a child under three, there are additional hoops you have to go through and typically more, you have to pay for that. And it does make it difficult in coming out of COVID like, you’re talking about David, a lot of people got to work from home remotely during the pandemic, and now we’re coming out of that. And some people have to leave their jobs because they can’t afford their job plus the daycare. It just doesn’t make sense. And it is definitely one of those challenges that it’s difficult to face because like Jenna said, I would love for the city to try to focus on this. But it’s one of these issues where we need state partner’s help with something like this. It’s just not something the city can do on its own.
It’ll be interesting to watch. We’ve been working on the data here on the impact that a childcare tax credit and the estimates federally and in Michigan, the governor shows that it reduces poverty by 50%, with that help of several hundred dollars a month towards this. It’ll be interesting to watch and Marquette how that happens. It’s such a huge issue. And I hear it all the time if we’re talking. I have to tell you as somebody who looks at me in the video knows I’m pretty old. So I have looked up the other day, found a, I don’t know how I found that in an old file. I’m sort of a paper rat. I found my daughter, my oldest who lives and works in Marquette. In 1970, she went to tiny tots childcare or 71 in Marquette.
And when I looked at the number, I’m embarrassed to even say at the time we were students and I was shocked at how much it costs me. And now it’s almost, it’s just stunning where it’s gone from to. One last thing on childcare, you don’t have to answer this enough, but it is interesting to me that the two biggest employers, the hospital, a for-profit corporation and Northern Michigan university, a non-for-profit, if you will, state entity used to provide childcare, they no longer do. One of the arguments was, and this came up when I was president and it happened prior years, was the regulatory costs and liability costs that I was talking to a number of employees at both institutions going my goodness, they both have so much empty space. Why can’t the city county and those two entities work on some sort of childcare piece? And I thought that is sort of a way to find out if there’s a liability waiver of some kind or something, but it just is so prevalent. So I’ll go on from there. So what do you think, unless someone wants to say something to that?
I would just say that even a couple of years ago that I knew that they were trying to get that started again, but the regulatory, the red tape that has to be gone through, especially the hardest to serve population, children under the age of three, is insurmountable. And that’s something that I would really like to spend some more time with the state on having some conversations and how we can make that easier on our childcare providers to be able to offer services. Other states do it differently and are able to provide care a little more easily with safe conditions. So that’s something that I’ve been navigating for.
Yeah, that’d be great. I think that’d be a great conversation is doing brainstorming with the state as how we can do that and be open to the ideas. I don’t know if any of you watch Ted Lasso on TV, the series, but Ted Lasso, it’s a wonderful series that I have a quote in my column this weekend. And he said, he was talking about being open to new ideas and he said, don’t bring an umbrella to a brainstorm. You know, you got to be open to finding, maybe there is some solution. Well, that’s great. Let me go back, you mentioned housing. That’s the other one I hear when I’m interviewing people and people write to us and comments, we get a lot of email from talks about affordable housing. I know you all have had a task force on it in Marquette, I know Sue Saint Marie is working on the issue of affordable housing in their community as they get an influx of federal workers. And can you afford housing and any thoughts on just, I know you’re working on it and, and you have passports, any thoughts or updates about the issue of Marquette city affordable housing?
Yeah, I would say that we had an ad hoc committee on affordable housing, which is really focused on workforce housing, attainable housing. I don’t know what you want to call it, but it’s to be able to afford living in Marquette for your average worker, maybe a teacher, a firefighter… workforce housing, right. People who want to live and work in Marquette that can’t afford to buy the $400,000 house that’s just popped up on the market. You know, our next steps with that are to probably have a work session. And we’re looking at maybe in December for the commission to look at the findings. There’s several recommendations that committee put together. Things like zoning, things like seeking partnerships, things like getting creative with developers and how we package things to make it more appealing for folks to offer that workforce type housing.
So we’re looking at all those options we’re pushing forward at the same time. There’s kind of an exciting task force at the county level that we just, last night, appointed one of our staff to. So while we are really excited to be working out at the city level, we know we can’t do it alone. Our housing in the city of Marquette is limited. It would be great, and it is great that we’re starting to look at the more regional approach because you know, people live in Marquette township, which is right next door. I mean, I can almost see it out my window here and live in Marquette and work in Marquette, but they don’t live in the city and we need to be able to partner with those neighboring communities and they call them bedroom communities at times, they live in Chocolay township out in Harvey. And I know that’s the same in a lot of places. We’re continuing to look at that and try to get creative. And I think you’ll see some interesting potential developments coming in the news and future weeks and months.
Commissioner, any thoughts you want me to add on housing?
I would just add, I would say at the start of this year, the housing market in Marquette kind of started blowing up even more than it already was. And what I started noticing, and I think a lot of people did was that there just wasn’t a sufficient amount of any of affordable housing in the city itself. So a lot of people that wanted to live in Marquette or by Marquette and maybe they will still work inside city limits. They started all trying to get places in the surrounding communities. And as a result, the county as a whole, the housing markets costs of buying a home increased substantially. So I think this county approach in this partnership, we’re looking at seeing if there are options there, I think it could be really beneficial because the city itself isn’t going to be able to solve it, but taking more of that regional approach might have some better results.
I think regionalism is a great concept to get us all to work throughout a place with only 300,000 people in it, without regionalism were in trouble, probably in a future. The hospital, is no secret, is owned by a global hedge fund. The very, very wealthy one. They’ve got a lot of acreage of empty land sitting there, any chances that the city and the state could come together with some state money and federal money to help clear that land and get, so it becomes more marketable for affordable housing, or is that just something that is an impossible thing to do? It’s up to the owner of the property. Is there-
I know David, I think very few things are impossible. So (laughing)
I think something will happen. Are you talking about the old hospital in Marquette? I think something will happen there. I don’t know what exactly yet. It’s definitely on our radar to be working on, we’ve got ongoing conversations. And I think that we’ll find a way that is, for me, talking about maybe either Brownfields or getting creative, that’s one of the top properties in my mind that we need to do something with. There’s a few properties in Marquette that we have opportunity to develop on, but that one is so close to NMU to a neighborhood, right near third street, which is part of our downtown corridor, we need to make sure that that doesn’t become an obsolete property. So we are working hard to see what we can do there. I don’t think it’ll be too long before we are able to find a solution.
Cody. Anything I’m sorry, commissioner, anything you want to add?
You know, I would agree with that, but that site would definitely require a strong public and private partnership to make that a viable area to develop anything on. And to what mayor Smith was saying, the location itself is ideal for building some pretty significant amount of housing units there. The area is already zoned mixed use. So it wouldn’t be unrealistic either to even have some small local businesses in that area as well.
So one other… we’ll move on with it. But one other chunk of property, which is a really nice chunk for the state and the university to come together on for affordable housing for students or graduates or anybody, is their Summer Street apartments, they took down, that’s a huge chunk of property tax to the campus, not as big as the Apollo hedge fund property, but it’s a big… but you’re right. There are sections all over the city. So I, that’s encouraging to know that the city and the county and the region and legislature is going to try to work together. So, I don’t want to keep you too long. Talk to me about what your vision is of the cities of the future. You know, I’m of the age where you know you have more memories behind you then ahead of you, but I thought I’d like to think I could dream about the next five years. What do you think about Marquette and Holton and Escanaba, Iron Mountain, Sault Sainte Marie, what do you think about our cities of the future, rural cities in the future, in the upper peninsula or in Michigan for that matter? What do you see?
I think everyone’s dealing with a lot of challenges right now, but I also think there’s a great amount of opportunities. So it’s a really nice time for us in the city of Marquette and all of the cities in the U.P., all the municipalities, whatever that size may be to take a step back, reflect on kind of the insanity that has been COVID, financially, emotionally what that meant for us for work and zoom versus in person and all those things. And use that as a catalyst to ask the hard questions, what do we want the future to look like? So I know in Marquette, some of our goals is, we’re looking at moving forward while also recognizing our history and our past. So a big goal that we’ve been working on is that the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, which links many communities here in the Marquette area, and there’s a potential grant that could do some really exciting things that we approve support for last night.
But in addition, we’ve been trying to get some more interpretive signage to help connect us to our past and kind of bridge that gap to the future. While also looking at things like climate change, Lakeshore Boulevard is a huge one, but when we do a new road, we want to make sure that we’re looking at bigger floods potential. When we’re looking at potential recycling, which is a bit of an issue or question in Marquette right now with a grant that we have for recycling carts and the potential mandate of those carts, which hasn’t quite been determined yet.
But I understand folks’ concerns and we’re looking at that, but we’re trying to be innovative and push on a lot of fronts and we’ll adapt as we go. But I see bright things in the city of Marquette, city of Holton, city pf Sault Sainte Marie, Iron Mountain Escanaba, Munising all those great places. And I think we are really better together. I think we all do better. You know, the tide rises, that concept of when one does well or when we all do well, we do better together. So I appreciate being able to lean on some of those folks and see what they’ve been up to and look at the future. Thanks, David.
Commissioner, would you like to add anything?
Yeah, I would just add that, innovation creativity really is going to be a very large part play for a lot of us up here in the U.P. We have to do things differently than a lot of the communities down the state would have to, for a lot of the reasons we already talked about. But, I think taking Iron Mountain, Holton [Mosu 00:19:40], Munising, Escanaba, Marquette taking essentially those micropolitan communities that for the U.P. region, for us to really focus on being the economic drivers for the region as a whole, I think is going to have a really big impact on it. And working on things like increasing our technology capabilities while also working on keeping the place vibrant, focusing on keeping the environment that we’ve all come to know and love in the U.P. As vibrant as it is while still moving forward as the economic cities for U.P.
Well, thank you. In closing, I just want to say those are great comments on both of you. I really, really appreciate it. And they’re very interesting. It starts a lot of conversations for us in the future. I’ve been checking around the U.P. on future leaders of the election it’s happening across the country, future leaders like you, that are now leaders, a new generation of leaders coming in. And I was thinking, there are five of you under 40 on the commission now, is that right? Is there 5 (silence)? Four of you, not that there’s anything wrong with being over 40 (laughing). I just want to point that out. It’s someone who’s been there, way over 40. I thought it was sort of fun, I was wondering it will be a great poster, a picture it’s sort of the “Marquette Squad”, of the four of you together.
I just have this great vision of this new leaders of Marquette as a motivational tool. We got to get one of those pictures, like the squad in Washington with you, but any case, thank you for what you do. I know being an elected official in cities and school boards is a really hard job. And especially right now with our country so divided and people in some sectors so angry and other sectors, people hurting so bad, to struggle their way through the economy and their kids and things like you all raised housing and taxes and childcare. So thank you for what you do. And thank you for sharing this half hour with us. I really appreciate it. And I’m sorry to interrupt, to do this during your dinner hour, you probably don’t get to eat dinner very often. But anyway, thank you very much.
Thank you, David. Much appreciated.
You’re welcome. You’re welcome.
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