September 22, 2021

Muskegon business leaders voice support for city manager amid gift card controversy

MUSKEGON, MI – Nearly 50 business leaders in Muskegon have called upon the city commission to end “unproductive nitpicking and bickering,” some of which they say has been directed at staff who have been embroiled in a coronavirus gift card controversy.

The statement, read at the end of the city commission’s meeting earlier this week, praises Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson and his staff for moving the city forward “in ways that we have not seen in this community for the previous two or more decades.”

The statement, which was signed and read by Jeff Musselman, was co-signed by 48 other private sector leaders. Musselman described the group as a “large coalition…growing concerned about what we see as unnecessary and unproductive nitpicking and bickering among the city commission.”

That behavior, aimed at one another and at staff, could “hinder” the city’s progress “if it is not recognized for what it is,” according to the statement read by Musselman at the Tuesday, Sept. 22, city commission meeting.

“We are here today asking you to stand up to the pettiness and recognize the nay-saying for what it is and continue your efforts in creating the Muskegon we all believe is possible by working together, listening, building consensus, supporting your staff and making hard decisions,” Musselman said.

The statement does not provide specifics of the “pettiness” or “nitpicking.”

However, it comes at a time when Peterson is under fire for purchasing $195,000 in gift cards from 39 Muskegon businesses, mostly restaurants, in what the city manager has described as a coronavirus relief effort. The March purchases were not approved by the city commission, and a review by the city attorney determined they were an “unlawful” use of the city’s public improvement fund.

Related: Coronavirus gift card snafu prompts Facebook video from Muskegon city manager

The day after Musselman made his comments, the city commission met in a contentious session when it was alleged by Commissioner Ken Johnson that staff had spent $500,000 out of the same fund without commission approval for a series of concerts in 2019 to celebrate the city’s sesquicentennial.

The commission ended up voting to seek a special audit of the public improvement fund. But before that vote, Vice Mayor Eric Hood called the concerns about the gift card spending a “witch hunt,” and Commissioner Dan Rinsema-Sybenga said it was “disingenuous” to bring up the sesquicentennial celebration as “ammunition.”

At the same meeting Commissioner Teresa Emory expressed concern that the commission had lost the public’s trust, and Commissioner Willie German Jr. said the negative reaction to Johnson’s concerns by some commissioners “doesn’t sit well.”

Related: Probe to explore $500K in alleged unapproved spending on concerts by Muskegon city staff

Musselman did not return a phone call from MLive seeking comment about the statement, in which the signers pledged to be “part of the solution.”

“There is no going back to the days of divisive government that blocks dynamic growth,” the statement reads.

The statement thanks the commission for the “foresight” in hiring Peterson seven years ago and gives Peterson, described as “talented and visionary,” credit for “a breath of fresh air and a boldness in thinking” that has led to “$50 million worth of projects underway in downtown Muskegon.”

The city’s accomplishments are “due in large part to Frank’s ideas, creativity, energy, motivation, team building and spirit,” it states.

Peterson did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Mayor Steve Gawron told MLive he was grateful for the support the business leaders’ statement expressed, adding “there’s always room for improvement in our communications and our decorum.”

“It’s the nature of the beast where there’s contention at times,” Gawron said of elected bodies. “We should be made aware of our own communications and behavior impeding our best work.”

Those signing the statement include John Essex, who has invested more than $5 million in such downtown projects as NorthTown 794 and the Amazon apartments; Max McKee, president of Great Lakes Dock and Market who also is developing The Docks housing development on Muskegon Lake; 10 principals – including Larry Hines, Mike Olthoff and Wes Eklund — of the Pure Muskegon effort to redevelop the old paper mill property into Windward Pointe; up-and-coming developers with downtown projects either underway or in the works, including Joshua Canale and Corey Leonard; Jon Rooks, HighPoint Flats developer/owner and owner of the Shoreline Inn and downtown Delta Hotel by Marriott; builder Dave Dusendang, who is planning housing projects in the city; and Fred Scharmer and Michelle Harris, owners of the soon-to expand The Deck restaurant on city-owned beach property.

Others who signed are Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Larsen; Michigan State University Trustee Brianna Scott, who also is looking to develop downtown; and Mercy Health Muskegon President Gary Allore, to name just a few.

Developments that the statement said Peterson and his staff were instrumental in include the new Muskegon Farmers Market, growth of cruise ship stops, the Western Market shops, improvements to the downtown Mercy Health Arena, and construction of a new convention center.

Also on MLive:

Drive-thru voting in Muskegon a possibility with $433K elections grant

Another expansion coming to The Deck restaurant at Muskegon’s beach

Bus routes change, Saturday service ends in Muskegon soon

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