Traverse City News and Events

Traverse City's New Mayor On Infrastructure, Growth And "The List"

By Luke Haase | Dec. 17, 2021

New Traverse City Mayor Richard Lewis has a playbook. Literally. He has developed and often carries around with him “The List,” a spreadsheet of what he sees as the city’s biggest needs and issues. And he also knows city government, having served as city manager in Traverse City and other communities for more than 30 years. But Lewis ran unopposed, so many residents might not know much about him. And what’s at the top of “The List?” The Ticker sat down with him over coffee.

Ticker: So what has today looked like so far for Traverse City’s mayor?
Lewis: I had breakfast with four other men of faith I’ve been meeting with once a week since 1994. Then I had a meeting with an individual from Safe Harbor. Then at home I had a phone call with a county commissioner about their meeting tomorrow, and I’ll be there. Then I had lunch with my wife. Now this, then at 5:30 I have a Safe Harbor meeting. But tomorrow’s really my busy day.

Ticker: I assume you really have to watch your time with this job or it will consume you.
Lewis: It absolutely will. And remember, those are just this part of my life. I’m also an active volunteer at St. Francis, and we have a funeral to set up. And I still have a wife, 18 grandchildren and four daughters living locally.

Ticker: You ran unopposed, so there might be a lot of readers who don’t know too much about you. Let’s touch on a few things. What about your politics?
Lewis: If you need to know, I’m a moderate Democrat, which doesn’t much exist today. But a lot of that is because of my career for decades in city management. You just don’t get engaged in politics. I mean, you do, but you don’t. You learn to just do what’s best for the community. You work with the five or seven commissioners and the staff and you give them the information and your best opinions.

Ticker: What about your leadership style?
Lewis: [Laughs]. I depends on the day! I’ve always tried to always be inclusive because I'm not that brilliant. I remember one job evaluation came back to me and there was one commissioner who marked me way down. “Has no vision,” it said. I met with him and told him he was absolutely right. I recognize that in me. I’ve needed [former city planner] Russ Soyring, [former DDA director] Bryan Crough and [former city clerk] Deb Curtiss alongside me. They had the vision and I can implement it. I’ve just been so privileged to have such great people as department heads over all my years. Any success I’ve had was only because of the great city staff.

Ticker: How about similarities to or differences from your predecessor?
Lewis: Jim [Carruthers]? Every one of us comes at this job from a different angle. I thought Jim was a good mayor. He ran a very good meeting, maybe better than me. I think maybe he carried more of it rather than trying to get everyone engaged. That’s just my perception. But he took it very seriously. I just need to work with the whole commission. I need others to be engaged. I’m just one member. But I think he did a positive job. We all have our own different values that we carry forward. Like I said, my career is that I look to more to the middle. Sometimes Jim was a little more to one side, maybe the next person will be on the other side.

Ticker: I saw “The List.” I noted it had 16 items, and nine of those were highlighted as “high priority.” Don’t they often say if you have more than one or two priorities, you really have none?
Lewis: They’re all priority at some level. That list was me listening since April, when I decided to run. I talked to people and put all this together. My thought was how do I put this together so city staff knows what to continue to work on……I made clear it’s mine, nobody else’s, and it can be changed. We will set a strategic plan in January with this commission, and we gotta make some decisions. What I’m hoping is by having this list, we don’t get sideboarded by something else that’s a low area. We only have time, money, and staff, and all three are limited. I will say one thing I put as a high priority is how we treat everybody. It sounds simple, but it’s not common. We just have to treat each other with respect, or what does it say about this community if not?

Ticker: Most of the items on the list are infrastructure-related…
Lewis: Yes. We have two studies done about what we need to be doing with our water and wastewater systems, and we can’t ignore those problems. One of our first actions will be to create a subcommittee to come up with a stormwater utility plan to go to voters…

Ticker: In terms of infrastructure here overall, would you say it’s fine, behind, or in critical status?
Lewis: I’d say critical. What you see on that list is a [water] plant that was built in the 1930s. Look at the guts of that building. It wears out. And that’s just one example. We certainly have things we need to address immediately. And there’s money there. It’s a $22 million upgrade, so you bond for it. We already applied to the state revolving loan fund, and the commission already said this is important. We just have to implement it. 

Ticker: Is Traverse City in good financial shape?
Lewis: The city is in good financial shape, but that doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen. We have an agreement that we will have a general fund of at least 15 percent at all times. Of course we’ve been fortunate with all the recent economic development. But most city managers — and Marty [Colburn] is no different — we look always look at worst case and work to make the opposite happen.

Ticker: What about the recent growth and influx of people to the area? Good? Bad? Both?
Lewis: I think it’s been largely good, and I also think it was inevitable. We as a community — broader than just Traverse City — have done a great job of putting our resources into things like hospitals, colleges, amenities…it doesn’t hurt to have a nice bay, either. But I think it was inevitable that people would come. Now people are looking around when they visit and saying, “I could sell my house back home and buy three of them here!” And the impacts are not unique to us, but of course this affects affordable housing and the middle class and more. I could put my house on the market and get what I want, but if I want to stay, where do I go? 

Ticker: Is there a program or an area of the city government you’re feeling really good about? Something that’s just perfectly set and done.
Lewis: [Pauses}. I’m so much of a generalist that my training has always been to look at the whole together. How the homeless situation mixes with affordable housing. Our street improvements on Eighth Street trigger new development questions and opportunities. It’s all interrelated. But I guess I’d say I see a community that really cares.

Ticker: And yet, like the nation, the specifics of what they care about is split 50/50...
Lewis: I understand that, but at least they care. They’re not sitting back in their homes saying "we don’t care." They will come to meetings and speak to us. And as long as they’re respectful, I appreciate it. We can’t grant every wish, and everybody knows that. But we have a very engaged community. 

Ticker: You certainly seem like an optimist.
Lewis: I have to be one. I have to be or I'll become depressed about all of it. With staff doing their jobs and us as commissioners asking questions, in the end we come out with good decisions. I really believe that. And I’ve given up on the idea I could please everyone. 

Comment

New Marriott Hotel, Senior Center Projects On Planning Commission Agenda

Read More >>

Hagerty Lays Off 6 Percent Of Global Workforce

Read More >>

Eleven Candidates Vie For City Commission Seat

Read More >>

Michigan State Police To Reopen Traverse City Post

Read More >>

Save The Date: Recess of Giving December 7!

Read More >>

Townships Use Moratoriums To Address Hot-Button Issues

Read More >>

Great Lakes Incubator Farm Receives Nearly $700K Grant

Read More >>

Last Call For City Commission Applicants

Read More >>

How NMC's Newest Degree Could Help Shape Water Cleanup Projects In Michigan And Beyond

Read More >>

Downtown Light Parade Rescheduled For Tuesday

Read More >>

Spotlight On Northern Michigan Artisans, Makers & Crafters

Read More >>

Curling Center On Track For January Opening; More Additions Planned At Kmart Property

Read More >>

Road Project Updates: Hartman-Hammond Bridge, Bluff Road, Veterans/Cedar Run/Voice Resurfacing

Read More >>

Snow, Freeze, Thaw, Melt: How Local Ski Resorts Navigate Big Weather Fluctuations

Read More >>