John Matthews knows he is an outsider and he knows he might be a long shot in the race for one of three Elk Rapids Village Council seats up for grabs this November.
Matthews has only lived in Elk Rapids for a few years and the only family he’s got in the area is through marriage: his wife and father-in-law.
Also, he comes from a group of outsiders who believe the village council should have better listened to residents about a proposal from Short’s Brewing Co. to transform vacant industrial property in the village.
Perhaps most notably, though -- he is the first African-American to run for office in Elk Rapids or Antrim County, as far as anyone can remember.
In fact, we’ve asked around and believe he might be the first African-American to run in a local election in all of northwestern lower Michigan.
RACE A ‘NON-ISSUE’
Matthews downplays race and says he doesn’t believe it will be a factor in the election.
He said he’s been made to feel welcome since he moved to the village in 2009 and opened a small engine repair shop.
Last year he moved his business, Heartbeat Power Products, to its current location on US 31 North, and he now also runs a small engine dealership.
“For me, (race is) entirely a non-issue,” Matthews said. “I grew up in a middle class white neighborhood and I’ve lived in middle class white neighborhoods my whole life.”
He said he hasn’t had trouble since he moved to Elk Rapids.
“What I’ve found is that people wanted to know my story and it’s been a very welcoming and accepting community,” he said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a business here.”
CALIFORNIA TO NORTHERN MICHIGAN
Matthews, 46, came to Elk Rapids from Arizona, where he ran a go-cart racing business. Before Arizona, he was in California, where he was an IT administrator and where he met his wife, Barb Termaat.
They both have Michigan ties. Matthews’ father was born and raised in Detroit and Termaat grew up in Michigan. Her family bought a vacation home in Elk Rapids in the 1970s.
The couple loved the area and bought their own vacation home in the village in 2007. Before long, they decided to live here full-time.
The couple have a daughter who is now a freshman at Elk Rapids High School and the quality of the school system was what made their decision to move here, Matthews said.
LOCAL POLITICS HEAT UP
Matthews said he has always been interested in local politics. In Mesa, Ariz., he served on the Human Rights Advisory Board.
“So when I moved up here, I decided I wanted to be involved,” he said. He asked around and was appointed to the Downtown Development Authority.
Then came furor over the Short’s proposal. As bulldozers waited to tear down a former mustard plant on the Elk River, which Short’s wanted to turn into a brewpub, frustration grew over how the decision-making process worked.
The frustration led Termaat to help form the Elk Rapids Citizens Action Group, a nonpartisan group that has around 60 members, Many in Elk Rapids wanted to give Short’s a shot at the 215 Dexter Street property. It was thought to be a chance to have a first-rate attraction in Elk Rapids that would bring in year-round visitors and boost to the economy.
Others, including residents with ties to the nearby marina, wanted the buildings torn down and replaced with open space.
Matthews said he believes the debate over the Dexter Street property proved it’s time for some new people on the council. “I would like our village council to be respectful of and responsive to the citizens of our community,” he said.
In particular, he believes some members of the council were argumentative with members of the public.
“Once you are elected to the council, your responsibility is to listen to citizens and to ask clarifying questions about what their views are. You don’t need to convince them your decisions and thoughts are the correct ones,” he said.
He also said that the DDA twice sent letters to the village council offering any assistance they could offer to aid in the development of the Dexter Street property and both of those letters were ignored.
Matt Drake, Short’s operations manager, is also a member of the DDA. “It bothered me that they never responded to that letter,” he said.
Round one of the political battle has concluded, and the buildings have been torn down and grass has been planted.
Members of the Elk Rapids Citizens Action Group next turned their attention to the election.
They looked for candidates and found Matthews. The group hoped to have four candidates to run against the four seats up in November -- three village council seats and the village president seat -- but two of their candidates were disqualified on technicalities.
Matthews and Mark Halverson are running against three incumbents for three open four-year terms. The incumbents are Douglas Bronkema, Jim Janisse, and Robert Orschel.
Dan Reszka, the village president, is also up for reelection, though he is running unopposed.
Bronkema said he welcomes Matthews to the race, but he defended the process over the Dexter Street property. He said the council listened to all sides.
He also said he considers himself an outsider and he doesn’t believe Elk Rapids is run by a good-old-boy network, as some council opponents allege.
“I was not born and raised in this community and I guess I’m an outsider also,” Bronkema said.
He said the Dexter Street debate divided the community and emotions ran very high, but village council meetings maintained a level of civility. It got heated, but there was no name calling.
“As one who sat through every one of those meetings on the Dexter Street property, were other views considered? Certainly,” he said. “When the discussion and the debate is over, then you are forced to make a decision based on what you have.”
He said the ultimate fate of the Dexter Street property has not been decided.
What was decided earlier this year, he said, was that the village should hold on to ownership of the land and not put the land up for sale the highest offer, be it Short’s or someone else.
THE LOUDER IT GOT
Trustee Janisse said he voted against tearing down the buildings. He agrees with Matthews that the debate got heated.
“The attitude of ‘everyone has a good idea, but mine is the best!’ was hard to work with, and the louder they shouted to get their opinion heard, the harder it was to hear them,” Janisse said. “Mr. Matthews wasn’t the only one who was frustrated with the process.”
Though the debate was contentious, Janisse believes everyone was heard and treated with respect.
As for the Short’s proposal, he said the village attempted to come up with a plan to lease the property to Short’s, a proposal Short’s rejected because they want to own the property.
“That was their business decision to withdraw and not counter the offer from the village. I respect that,” Janisse said. “What did they do instead? They doubled their investment in the (existing Elk Rapids) brewery from $1 million to $2 million and have the potential of doing more with the property they have.”
‘BLACK, WHITE, GREEN, OR OTHERWISE’
Jim McGee, president of The Place Inc., a promotional products distributor located on River Street in Elk Rapids, has worked in the village for 23 years, though he lives in Acme Township and cannot vote in village elections.
He said he would vote for Matthews if he could, however.
He said doesn’t know what kind of chance Matthews has in the election. He believes some people are outsiders and other aren’t, and Matthews is an outsider, but that’s not due to the color of his skin.
“I’m sure that there’s a level of distrust of anybody who comes from the outside, I don’t care who you are,” McGee said. “Black, white, green, or otherwise, it doesn’t make a difference.”
McGee said Matthews would be a breath of fresh air on the village council and he’s got the qualities that make a good local elected official.
“He’s just a good guy. A very solid guy,” he said. “But is that going to get him the job? I have no way of knowing.”