Mayor Lyons seeks fourth term TuesdayPublished 8:53am Thursday, October 29, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Though history will record Mayor Donald Lyons’ third term as dominated by health care accomplishments – the medical arts building bearing his name where Central Middle School used to stand, a new emergency department across the street at Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital, Forest Glen assisted living and, breaking ground Friday, a $9.5 million skilled nursing facility where Dowagiac Nursing Home closed in 2007.
“We’ve had a good first round,” Lyons, 63, of 204 W. Telegraph St., agreed in an hour and a half interview Wednesday afternoon at the Daily News.
“They’re out of room at the health center,” he said. “They have a need for more doctors. They’re running right now with an average of two exam rooms per physician. Current wisdom would suggest you need a minimum of three exam rooms per physician. For the most part, I think they are looking for doctors who have the ability to do family medicine. We don’t need specialists so much as we need generalists. Specialists tend not to be fulltime needs. They might spend a day in Dowagiac. Physical therapy is in an old building on the back side of the hospital, next to the main entrance. The hospital is in the process of acquiring several doctors’ practices. Drs. Patel and Chang are being folded into the hospital physicians group. With that comes a need for more surgical outpatient opportunities.”
Since housing once contemplated along Spruce Street never materialized, space remains for a potential addition that could more than double the size of the health center.
Lyons considers a daily newspaper and the hospital “two unique little gems in this community that most communities our size don’t have. If we lost either one I think it would be devastating.
“The gem we’ve got downtown that I’d love to figure out what to do with is the old Woolworth’s store that had been the Century Theatre. The old architectural elements are still there. It’s a beautiful building. It’s owned now by the granddaughters of the fellow who built it and they’ve taken really nice care of it.”
The health center was a particular triumph of Lyons’ vision, consuming five years and three hospital administrations.
“The biggest problem with that was getting all the players on the same page,” he said. “The hospital had its needs and concerns, the community had theirs, the docs had theirs. To get everybody going down the road in the same direction, that’s the single biggest project I’ve had in my 12 years. Trying to make sure that happened in a manner that was effective and appropriate. I just couldn’t get people to understand that bricks and mortar matter.”
Business acumen has always been his strong suit as mayor, so it’s no surprise to learn that the 88-person payroll he inherited in 1997 has been whittled to 56.
Lyons Industries “is actually doing quite well,” since it fits in the impervious to recession category of a Wal-Mart or McDonald’s.
“We’re largely remodeling. Typically, when new home sales are down, people remodel. When new home sales are up, people are still remodeling. Depending on where our fourth quarter goes and some new product initiatives we’ve got in hand, we’re going to end up with our first- or second-best year in the history of the company,” Lyons said.
He retains the title of chairman of the board, but day-to-day operation of the factory on M-62 West has been assumed by his son, Lance.
“I still have an office and I go in most days and make some phone calls, but he’s doing a great job. I am available to do anything he needs help with, but he doesn’t need much help, which leaves me pretty free to do what I feel like.”
Asking Lyons about his priority for 2010 if he wins a fourth term Tuesday that would tie him with predecessor Dr. James E. Burke, DDS, as Dowagiac’s longest-serving mayor out of 47, offers a glimpse into his personal philosophy.
“It’s not so much a top priority as it is continuing all the little things that we’re trying to do to maintain focus and to move forward. When you start to talk about problems, whether big problems or little problems, in my world problems become unique to the individual. Different people have different problems. The person trying to find a job, obviously that’s their problem. The person looking for day care or a nursing home to put their mother or father, each has a very specific, very real need. There really isn’t one great overwhelming problem, but a need to address a variety of important issues. You really can’t say one person’s problem is more critical or more real than another’s, so what do you do to manage your resources and focus on areas where you can do the most good for the most people. My problems are obviously going to be different than the next guy’s problems.”
That ability to see the big picture and to think macroeconomically is another of Lyons’ strengths.
“You have to do a lot of things well” to run an organization the size of Dowagiac.
“That’s what I always come back to. It’s not just a case of picking out a campaign topic to go after. The minute you do that, everything else goes by the wayside. That’s the very thing you can’t have happen.”
Since his first election 12 years ago, Lyons each term sends out a mailer with a card constituents can send back detailing concerns.
The first one in 1997 asked citizens their thoughts on what needed to be to make Dowagiac a better place to live, work and raise a family.
Responses sorted themselves into four broad categories – attract more jobs, recruit certain retail establishments, including a department store and hotel, improve housing and provide more entertainment opportunities for youth – seven years ago were joined by a fifth topic, health care.
The fact those core concerns remain a priority doesn’t mean there haven’t been successes, but is a confirmation of his personal belief that “no matter how hard you try, how much you work at it, no job is ever done. That’s the other perspective you have to have. At the end of the day you can’t ever say the journey is finished, I can sit back and relax. There’s always more to do.”
Housing is a case in point.
“We both live in old houses so we know what a constant struggle that is to keep up,” he said.
Each year the city allots $10,000 to encourage remodeling aging housing stock.
“We’re at something like 300 homes that have had some kind of maintenance done to them.” The program usually runs out of money before applicants.
There were a few new homes built, such as along E. Division Street, when MSHDA, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, had a program targeted at main arterial routes.
“We took full advantage of that,” Lyons said, much as the city continues to tap MSHDA funds for apartments above stores in the central business district.
“The biggest issue we’ve got with housing right now is we don’t have a lot of upscale housing.”
Hence, doctors and corporate executives settle on Lake Michigan in St. Joseph or over the state line in Indiana.
There might be housing development potential at Witko Ponds.
“I’d like to see 12 to 15 nice homes on that lake,” he said. “We’ve got some hoops to jump through because that property was initially purchased through federal aviation grants back in the ’70s.”
Acquiring Dowagiac Glass gives another prime location to package for commercial or residential development.
“Where do we take the five focus points from here? Good question,” the mayor mused. “We have opportunities. We have issues. But it’s the kind of thing where you have to set priorities, and it’s a difficult, awkward time for priorities. At the end of the day you have to say, ‘Why are we here?’ We’re here to provide quality police and fire protection, good roads, streets, bridges, sidewalks. Beyond that, is there a lot we have to do?”
Lyons said he had lunch Oct. 26 with City Manager Kevin Anderson to discuss how best to clear snow from the city’s 35 miles of sidewalks.
“It takes about 300 man hours” every winter, he said. “Is that something we need to do every last sidewalk in town, or can we cut it out? Can we cut it in half? Can we cut it by two thirds? Can we just do school routes? Where’s the rational point you do that, and if you did, would it really save money? Or have you just removed a service without actually removing any costs?”
In these Michigan recessionary times, every budget line item is under scrutiny.
“We’re literally reviewing everything we do,” Lyons said, “from writing payroll checks to plowing sidewalks.”
The city found a mutual fund company that could cut its payroll for about half the cost of another provider.
“With the ultimate thought in mind,” he said, “that we need to be about 50 people on staff. By the first of the year we’ll be down four more from where we are now. We’ve got some retirements. Real early on we started investing heavily in computers.”
For example, by computerizing meter reading, a vehicle drives the community, picking up signals and downloading them into the central system to generate sewer, water and electrical bills.
“That takes one person a day a month. It used to take a person a month to walk and read meters.”
Not only in the coming year, but in years beyond, the city and partner Silver Creek Township will be developing Russom Field.
“The long-term intent is to use that property as the cornerstone for a district recreational authority, just like we did with the library,” which was discussed when Bill Nelson was still city manager.
The district formed “would be roughly the same as the school district. We would request a fractional millage. A footprint that large doesn’t take a lot of millage to make a decent amount of money. If you’ve got a decent budget, you can combine soccer and baseball and perhaps even softball. Rocket football is very comfortable where they’re at out at Joe Hassle’s place on Elm Street. We’ll build a first-class sports facility for kids and use that as a springboard to put in a districtwide recreation program – whatever that would end up being. I’m hesitant to talk about swimming pools because I don’t know how viable that is. A pool is not one of my hot buttons.”
Silver Creek’s survey indicated strong interest in a bike trail tying Sister Lakes to Dowagiac.
Thanks to collaborating on such issues as Coloma ambulance service, the city has developed a strong working relationship with Silver Creek Township Supervisor Bill Saunders.
Lyons said Coloma “represented to us” it intends to develop a base now that the fire station relocated to Wolf Street, but no specific plans have been exchanged.
“They could not be offering us the deal they are without the hospital,” he said.
“How does Dowagiac get for free what others have to pay for? Because none of those area communities have a hospital. The nursing home’s just going to add to an already positive situation. Transfers are way more profitable than emergency runs.”
“The feedback we get is that it is a viable building that does have future value in usage. It’s not just a lodestone around someone’s neck,” Lyons said of National Copper Products and, before that, Modine, Sundstrand Heat Transfer and Rudy Manufacturing.
“We keep getting people expressing interest who tend to be from way outside the area – Texas, California. People looking for big properties. There is an expectation that’s going to happen at some point in time.”
With a capable administration and veteran department heads, Lyons said he doesn’t spend as many hours as mayor as some might suspect, though that varies.
“Last week was not typical,” he said, “but I had a lunch with somebody relative to city business every day.”
“If I have to be down (at City Hall) doing it for them, then I don’t need them,” he says, not as harshly as it might sound in print.
“I try to stay out of the day-to-day, which is the city manager’s job. So often what will happen, and I’ve seen this phenomenon time and again, staff will be able to bring an opportunity to a certain point, then (the prospect) just wants to talk to the president or the mayor.”
Lyons doesn’t try to quantify the economic impact of something like the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival.
“Certainly, (visitors) buy meals at the restaurants and stay at the hotel, but it would leave a huge hole in the community emotionally if we didn’t have it.”
Sculptures such as the cheetahs have carved Dowagiac an identity.
A woman who visited with a Kalamazoo arts group remarked admiringly, “You’ve really got a a big voice for a little community.”
“I enjoy the challenge,” Lyons answers the question of why he wants to continue as mayor.
“I’m pretty much out of my own business now. That mental challenge of how you find opportunities and profit from them is huge for me. I would really miss having those kinds of opportunities. Quite frankly, the city allows me to do that in a fashion where I feel like I’m giving something back.
“Philosophically, I’ve always felt that some kind of public service component was essential to my career. I’ve held elective and appointed office continually since 1975, from ZBA (Zoning Board of Appeals) to county Economic Development Commission and Woodlands board.”
He and his wife, Joan, both served on school board. They also have a daughter, Shannon.
Dowagiac Rotary Club recognized his long community service by making him a Paul Harris Fellow. His father, Dale, the longtime Board of Trustees chairman, has a building named for him at Southwestern Michigan College.
Lyons enjoys traveling, “but I’ve really gotten back into restoring cars.”
Lyons sold his race cars, including Mario Andretti’s winner from the Indianapolis 500.
“I bought some classic cars and started over,” he said. “I just realized one of my life’s ambitions when I bought a Duesenberg. I promised myself when I was probably 19 years old that someday I’d own one.”
Dowagiac’s Homecoming parade earlier this month was led by his yellow Lamborghini. “I had six cars on my list I always wanted,” he said. “The Duesenberg was one of them. I’ve had a ball with old cars over the years.”
Ironically, “I never aspired to being mayor,” it just sort of evolved.
He never served on City Council otherwise.
At the same time, he’s cognizant of the milestone his tenure is approaching.
“Sure, at some point in time, I’d like to be able to say I was the longest-serving mayor of Dowagiac,” Lyons said.