Mayor ends tenure proud of what Ludington has become

December 5, 2013
Mayor Henderson stands at the west end of downtown Ludington.

Mayor Henderson stands at the west end of downtown Ludington.

By Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — Change is never easy and it often takes the right person to implement it. Twelve years ago a 34-year-old county commissioner was elected mayor of the City of Ludington by a narrow margin. His goal was to buck the system and make Ludington a fun place to live, work and visit. Henderson is now serving the last month of his tenure; the city charter does not allow him to run for a fourth term. On Jan. 1, 2014, Ryan Cox will become the next mayor.

Henderson is proud of the accomplishments that have been achieved since 2012. “You can’t get lazy and you have to stay on top of your game. You have to challenge yourself everyday and that’s what I believe we have done here in Ludington,” the mayor says. “I wake up every day pleased with what has been accomplished.”

He says the key has been to never say something is impossible and to collaborate.

“When we got started 12-plus years ago, I laid out where we were going to go. I think I’ve delivered that plus a lot more. We have built that platform to develop an environment for success for our residents and our community.”

His first step as mayor was to bring unity to the city council.

“There used to be a joke about watching the Tuesday night fights because the council meetings would take place on Mondays but they would be shown on TV on Tuesdays. We needed to have a cohesive government that shared the same vision for our community. Not everyone votes yes all the time, and that’s OK.

“I’m ultimately proud of the way the council and the city is running today. We don’t have those arguments any more. We have debates. Healthy debates. There is a consensus among the council of where we want the city to be and we are all working toward the betterment of the city in a cohesive way.”

Ludington has a city manager/city council government. The city manager is hired by the city to administer the day-to-day operations. The mayor leads city council meetings and appoints committees. He is also required by law to sit on the Downtown Development Authority. However, he has no vote, except to break a tie.

Henderson is most proud of helping revitalize downtown.

“The council and I have really put a lot of time and effort into downtown. When I started as mayor there were three different committees that addressed various issues about downtown, each group trying to lead downtown. We broke them apart and that led to the Downtown Ludington Board, which also serves as the Downtown Development Authority.

“One of its first goals, which it accomplished, was to develop a streetscape program that makes sense. It implemented programs such as the facade loans, which provided tools from the state so our businesses could be successful. It became a partnership between the city and property owners, who began to show more pride in their buildings.”

Then, the mayor pauses and grins a little bit. “We also got rid of those plastic plants that used to hang downtown and replaced them with real plants. It seems kind of petty but something like that made a real difference culturally.”

One of Henderson’s first accomplishments was to transition the James Street Plaza to a walking plaza. The plaza was built in the early ‘90s. As a compromise to the hardcore old schoolers, one lane of traffic was left to run through the plaza. The plaza also included a gazebo. While a valuable piece of infrastructure, it didn’t fit into the vision for downtown so it was relocated to Cartier Park where it now overlooks Lincoln Lake.

The James Street Plaza is now one block of downtown dedicated to pedestrians only. It includes a grassy area with picnic tables, serviced by two restaurants. It also is home to the weekly seasonal farmers’ market and various entertainment tents.

But, Henderson’s biggest two accomplishments for downtown are developing Friday Night Live and the New Year’s Eve ball drop.

“It used to be Fourth of July was the only big event in downtown Ludington,” he says. “Now, we have added Friday Night Live and the New Year’s Eve ball drop. Other events like St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest continue to grow also.

“The key to a having a successful community is to have a thriving downtown. The five-lane U.S. 10 corridor has sucked business away from downtown Ludington and Scottville. We’ve needed to adapt to that. It’s not going away. But, downtown should be the place where the community comes together. It should be a unique experience. Our downtown has business owners who, for the most part, share the same vision of making Ludington a destination not only for visitors but also for locals.

“What we are now seeing are groups of people who are excited about coming up with other events and projects independent from the city.”

During Henderson’s tenure, major improvements were made to Cartier Park. Locals can walk and bicycle a route that takes them along Bryant Avenue and Lakeshore Drive, into the campground and then through the woods. Much of the paved pathways are maintained year-round.

A project that continues to be a work-in-progress is the development of the west end of Ludington Avenue. Steps have been put in place to make the end of Ludington Avenue, in Stearns Park, a gathering place instead of just a parking lot. Last Monday the city approved loaning land to the Mason County Historical Society to house large displays for the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum on the southwest section of the park, located near the channel.

Henderson is quick to give credit to many other people for the accomplishents that have taken place over the past 12 years.

“Being mayor is not a job. It’s being a facilitator who brings people together, whether they are city officials, city employees, residents, business owners or tourists. The mayor is like being a short order cook. You can’t just make one hamburger and call it good. You have to be good at cooking a variety of things.

“Most importantly, the mayor needs to be a cheerleader for the city.”

Henderson works full time as the senior human resources specialist at Oxy Chemical. He started at Oxy’s predecessor, Dow Chemical, in 1990. Since 1991 he has served on the Ludington Fire Department, a role he plans to continue.

He says he isn’t sure what his next role in community involvement will be. He says he plans on getting more active in the fire department again. “I want to do more teaching with the department, that’s for sure.”

Over the past month Henderson has been meeting with Mayor-Elect Ryan Cox and showing him the ropes. Cox, 31, is only three years younger than Henderson was when he was elected mayor. However, Henderson had served on the county commission for five years and also on the city’s planning commission and zoning board of appeals. Despite that, he says he has confidence that Cox will be a successful mayor and will continue to lead the city in the direction Henderson has taken it.

“Ryan is very enthusiastic about keeping the momentum going. I hope that he is 10 times more successful as mayor than I was. I hope that I have been able to lay down the groundwork that gives him the tools to take Ludington to a whole new level.”

A reception honoring Mayor Henderson and City Councilor Wally Taranko will be held following the next city council meeting, which is at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 16 at city hall.


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