Algoma’s new mayor talks about downtown, keeping residents and attracting visitors
ALGOMA – It's been 10 years, but Virginia Haske has been in the center chair in City Hall before, and she has hopes and ideas for improving the city while keeping taxes as low as possible.
Haske, who served as mayor of Algoma from 2003 to 2012, won back the seat in the April 5 election from Wayne Schmidt, who'd been mayor since Haske resigned 10 years ago for an opportunity to become city administrator. Haske was elected with 57% of the vote.
Speaking with the Star-News last week at City Hall, Haske listed a number of issues she sees as priorities for the city, but first is catching up on recent city business and meeting with members of the City Council, who remain unchanged from before the election.
"The first priority is to go back and read the minutes of previous meetings," Haske said. "I need to meet with the alderpersons and find out the true story of what is going on."
She added that part of the reason is because the council has gone into closed session too many times, which she said has created distrust and rumors. She said she wants her government to be more open than what she says it's been in recent years.
"So much is in closed session," Haske said. "I would like to be more transparent. I went two times where (the council) went into closed session for two hours and came out and said, meeting adjourned. I spent the whole evening here for this?
"Being more transparent keeps all those garbage rumors from floating around out there. It's not good for the city to have all these negative rumors floating around."
Haske said several good things happened for the city during Schmidt's time in office, such as improvements to Crescent Beach, a popular tourist attraction on the Lake Michigan waterfront and host of annual events such as the Soar on the Shore kite festival.
But she said she wants to use her experience to help make improvements to the city's downtown business climate. She holds a master's degree in business administration and co-owned and operated with her husband their own business, The Ceramic Shoppe wholesale ceramic art store, for 43 years in Algoma.
Another big concern Haske cited is making use of the city's parks and the Algoma Youth Club to make the city more attractive to residents and visitors.
"I have a very strong focus on downtown and parks," Haske said. "I'm very concerned about quality-of-life-type of things."
The quality-of-life issue especially extends to making Algoma attractive to younger people and families, including local natives who move to what they see as greener pastures once they become adults, Haske said.
Making more and better use of the parks and youth club is one way Haske hopes to help with that issue. For example, she noted the youth club used to host live music every week, and the concerts were so popular, "you could hardly get in there."
"What do we do to encourage young people to come to the area?" she said. "I'd like to see the youth club and parks get a little more active here, like they used to be. What I keep hearing is we're turning Algoma into a retirement destination. … I would like to grow our population, bring families back in. Kids here grow up, graduate from high school, go to college, then move away and come back when they retire."
Haske acknowledged that to encourage people to stay in or move to the city, more affordable housing is needed. She said the city could be more aggressive about making lots and properties that aren't being actively used available to developers.
"We need to encourage having lots available to build more houses," she said. "We need to say we're looking for lots. If you've got an empty lot, let us know."
At the same time, Haske said it's important to provide for the city's senior citizens and those families that might care for them at home. She said she's been in talks to have something like an adult day care set up in which care-providing families could drop off a parent or grandparent for a day.
As for downtown and the business climate, Haske said, "Algoma has more vacant buildings than I've ever seen" in its downtown. She also wants to lay the groundwork to bring more attractions and amenities for downtown visitors, such as better restaurants. Haske said she plans to talk with current and potential business owners to get ideas on what needs to be done.
"I think I know so many of the business people downtown," Haske said. "I've worked with them, I'm able to sit down with them and make sure we're all on the same page. I think there's a lot to learn just by talking to constituents, saying, what are the issues?"
Haske also said the city needs to raise awareness of what it has to offer downtown and why people should go there. Haske argues the downtown would benefit from more events like the First Friday series that saw art galleries, restaurants and cafes and other businesses stay open late with specials for visitors.
"If we do some of these things, maybe we get more people back downtown," she said. "I think a lot of people don't know what's down there any more."
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To help promote her city's attractions, Haske hopes to work with the city of Kewaunee and the Kewaunee County Promotions & Recreation Department. As a County Board member since 2014, she serves alongside Jeff Vollenwieder, who was elected to his first term as mayor of Kewaunee in April, and Haske said she and Vollenweider have discussed cooperative efforts to promote their cities.
"I'm a believer that if Kewaunee does well, Algoma does well," Haske said. "That's what Kewaunee and Algoma do is market separately. If we work together, it'll go much better."
Another issue facing Haske and the city is the status of the current fire station, which officials say is so antiquated the fire department has to order custom-designed engines and other equipment to fit into the building, as well as not being compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The April election featured a referendum asking to exceed its state-mandated tax levy limit by no more than $250,018 each year for the next 40 years to pay for a proposed new $5.7 million public safety building, but it was handily defeated.
Haske insists more space is needed at the fire station but questioned if residents want to not only shoulder the expense of the previous proposal but also if they want to have a combined police/fire/EMS station as proposed. Regardless, she believes grants may be available to help offset the cost of a renovated or new station and plans to see what may be available.
"Cost, I think, was the big thing," Haske said about the failure of the referendum. "If we even get at least $1 million toward something (through grants), that would get people talking."
Grants are one way Haske hopes to fund at least some of the plans and improvements she seeks. Haske previously was appointed by the state to the Bay Lake Regional Planning and Wisconsin Main Street boards, which help local and regional governments and organizations find grants, and called herself "a big proponent of seeking grants." She said she's also encouraged local businesses to seek grants.
"I got aggressive enough to go around and tell people, hey, there's this program and that program," Haske said. "I think we can leverage a lot of state and local grants to do things."
Like many newly elected officials, Haske said she plans to keep property taxes as low as is reasonable while implementing her plans and maintaining services. She's optimistic that is feasible because properties in the city are being reassessed, and she believes many have long been undervalued. If their value increases, that means it's possible the tax rate would drop correspondingly.
"We have a lot of houses whose tax value is a lot less than what they'd sell it for," Haske said.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Algoma's new mayor talks about downtown, keeping residents and attracting visitors