Friday, November 19, 2010

Concerned citizens discuss possible uses for public land near County Courthouse

By Michele Bourdieu

Carolyn Peterson, organizer of a citizens' meeting to discuss potential uses of the two-block parcel of public property near the County Courthouse in Houghton, where Houghton County proposed building a Justice Center, leads discussion on various options proposed by the group. The meeting was held Nov. 14 in the First United Methodist Church in Hancock. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)

HANCOCK -- Following the "No" vote against Houghton County's Justice Center proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot, a group of concerned citizens met on Nov. 14 to brainstorm the best uses of the two-block piece of county-owned land where the county had proposed to build a $15 million jail and court facility -- just west of the Houghton County Courthouse.

Carolyn Peterson, who organized the meeting, first asked the group of 18 residents to break up into small groups of four or five to consider and discuss the question, "What is a good use of any or all of this property?"

The idea of having a park on this property was popular among most participants at the meeting.

"I grew up in New England, where every town has a town commons," said Elise Nelson. "I would love to see a green space with trees. Personally I would like a dog run -- a long stretch."

Craig Makens also mentioned he'd like to see a park, noting there is a shortage of park space in Houghton for almost any sport.

John Haeussler of Hancock noted he supported the idea of a Justice Center, but was disappointed at how it was presented to the public before the vote.

"I would love to see a park, and I'd love to see an athletic field there," Haeussler said. "I'd love to see a Justice Center first and foremost."

Haeussler said if the Justice Center were built there he believed the present Pewabic Street Community Garden, which is between the two blocks, might have to be moved, but could also be expanded.

A rough sketch of the county property to the west of the Courthouse shows the location of the Pewabic Street Community Garden between the east and west blocks of the property. The west block was the former location of the old Houghton High School (HHS).

Elena Buzova, who has worked on the Pewabic Street Community Garden since its inception, said she thought a farmers' market -- to be open on alternative days with the farmers' market in Hancock (the Tori) -- would fit well with both a park and the community garden in that space.*

Elena Buzova, left, speaks about the possibility of putting a farmers' market in part of the county-owned property near the Courthouse. Pictured here in the same group during the small-group discussion are, from left, Craig Makens, John Haeussler and Elise Nelson.

"It's a great space. It's in the middle of town. There could be enough parking space there," Buzova said. "I know that the health department has some money for building a farmers' market."

Andrea Puzakulich, fiber artist and designer, said a park could include art as well.

"We could have an art fair on there as far as I'm concerned," Puzakulich noted.

The park discussion also led to suggestions of a pavilion or community building (possibly to accommodate groups such as teens and seniors), as well as ideas for different seasonal activities -- from picnic area to sledding hill.

Rolf Peterson lists group suggestions for uses of a public park on the county-owned land near the Courthouse in Houghton.

Eventually the group narrowed the major items down to six main uses to be voted on: 1) Justice Center 2) rehab / treatment center 3) housing 4) community building 5) outdoor park 6) retail space.

Barry Fink of the Copper Country League of Women Voters, a group that helped publicize the county's ballot proposal for the Justice Center, spoke in favor of putting a Justice Center on the property because of the need for a better jail facility.**

"To utilize property that we have that is adjacent to our Courthouse," Fink said, "can allow us to do something to take care of our needs in the most cost-contained way that is available to us."

Carolyn Peterson said she liked the idea of having the Justice Center in the middle of town, next to a green space and a garden.

"I do believe the Justice Center and the jail should be a place for rehabilitation, and I think the best way to rehabilitate people is in community," Peterson said, "particularly near green space."

Peterson added many towns have done this -- put a jail right next to a garden and had inmates help tend the property.

Haeussler noted the present facility has no accommodation for rehabilitating people incarcerated in the jail.

"That was part of the proposal -- to allow some rehabilitation services to take place," he explained.

Mary Ann Predebon said she believed there needs to be a compromise between what the county wanted in their proposal and what the people of the county -- many of whom live at or below the poverty level -- can afford.

"This is not a wealthy county by any means," Predebon said.

George Dewey, who led a citizen protest against the proposal as it was presented, noted the Justice Center issue -- in terms of the jail and Courthouse needs -- has got to be accommodated, possibly by building something smaller.***

"Another option is building onto the Courthouse," Dewey said. "You would lose parking over there if that option were adopted."

Pictured in this small group are, from left, Mary Ann Predebon, George Dewey, Barry Fink and Carolyn Peterson.

Susanna Peters mentioned a need for a low-security drug / alcohol treatment center for inmates -- and non-inmates -- dealing with substance abuse. She said she envisioned a much smaller scale for the Justice Center.

Participants in the small-group discussion listed their ideas for uses of the county land and presented these to the group as a whole before a "straw" vote was taken to determine the group's priorities. Pictured in this group are, from left, Andrea Puzakulich, Mary Marchaterre, Susanna Peters, Rolf Peterson and Tracie Williams.

Predebon pointed out that it was mentioned at a County Commissioners' meeting that 28 percent of felons released from prisons end up back in a county jail. If the county jail is too big, it could end up housing inmates from outside Houghton County.

The group discussed various ideas for using part of the property for housing, including possibly senior housing. Presently the block to the west, the former site of the old Houghton High School (which could be divided into ten 50' by 100' lots) is being offered for sale. It is now zoned for business, but has some restrictive covenants concerning what can be built there. These can be changed or removed with a majority vote of the Houghton City Council.

A community building was suggested for part of the space.

Haeussler noted the need for a building where technology for teleconferencing would be available, since people actually sometimes go all the way to Marquette for this purpose.

Most participants were in favor of having an outdoor park on part of the property.

Jay Green observed that the City of Houghton would need supplementary funding to support maintenance of a new park, since the city already assumes responsibility for maintenance of several parks.

Gretchen Janssen said while private housing or retail uses would not require public funding, the the park would be the least expensive of the remaining options requiring public funding. She said the park might attract community support or an endowment that would pay for maintenance.

Gretchen Janssen, left, takes notes during the small-group discussion. Also pictured in this group are, from left, Sarah Cheney, Jay Green and Erik Lilleskov.

Dewey added the park is only an option if the facility needs are dealt with first -- the jail and the courthouse.

"The facility needs don't go away," he said.

The results of the group's vote showed priorities as follows: 17 for the park, 11 for the community building, 8 for the Justice Center, 6 for the rehab/treatment center, 4 for housing (including public and private) and 1 for retail.

This chart shows the tally of votes from the citizens' group, indicating priorities among the six main uses they suggested for the two blocks of county land near the Houghton County Courthouse.

After the vote, participants discussed what the next step should be for communicating their concerns to county officials and the general public.

Sarah Cheney, one of the organizers of the Pewabic Street Community Garden, said she would like to see town hall meetings to allow more public participation in the discussion.*

Peterson said it would be important to present a spirit of openness and to have another meeting for further discussion.

Editor's Notes:
* Click here to see and listen to Keweenaw Now guest reporter Eric Rosenberg's audio interview with Sarah Cheney and Elena Buzova last summer concerning the Pewabic Street Community Garden.

** Read about the need for a new jail facility and some public reactions before the Nov. 2 ballot in Keweenaw Now guest reporter William Frantz's August 2010 article, "County justice center proponents seek public support."

See also the Houghton County Justice Center Sourcebook.

*** Read George Dewey's August 2010 article, "Reasons to VOTE NO on the Houghton County Justice Center."

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