- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—Some people love being mayor and they do it for a very long time.

Take Margaret Doud of Mackinac Island — yes, Mackinac Island is a city, with a year-round population of around 500. Doud, 72, has been mayor since 1975, giving her an imposing 40 years in office.

Just north of Detroit, Huntington Woods Mayor Ron Gillham is close behind. Gillham, 80, plans to retire this year after 34 years as mayor.

Then comes Palmer Heenan, 94, of Grosse Pointe Park. Following a winter bout of illness, Heenan retired a few months ago in mid-term, after 31 years of leading this upscale suburb that abuts Detroit’s gritty east side. So Heenan, despite his admirable longevity — both political and human — won’t earn a record for prolonged tenure. At least not outside Grosse Pointe Park, which today will name city hall after him.

The dedication of the Palmer T. Heenan Municipal Center is scheduled for 9 a.m. Every city employee and elected official in Grosse Pointe Park is sure to be there. What they will assert, in naming the building, is that Heenan belongs in another sort of record book.

Heenan’s record, so to speak, is having presided over an astounding period of change, what some might call it a siege of change — but change almost indisputably for the better.

For more than three decades, Heenan rode an often rocky relationship with his city’s giant urban neighbor, battling charges of racism while trying to keep Detroit’s blight from overtaking the border streets of Grosse Pointe Park. He endured slings and arrows not only from Detroiters but also from many of his own residents, worried by escalating crime and sliding property values, as the big city’s bordering streets fell victim to an epidemic of vacant houses and empty storefronts.

Fighting blight

In winning the blight fight over the past three decades, Grosse Pointe Park used innovative and often controversial tools. It passed a bond issue, then used the proceeds to flip distressed real estate, often behind closed doors. It encouraged the astoundingly wealthy Cotton family to buy and repurpose dozens of commercial properties on the city’s Kercheval Avenue business strip.

Last year, it capped years of threats to blockade Kercheval by placing a temporary farmers’ market shed at the Detroit border, right in the middle of the avenue. As critics howled, that slap became a bargaining chip, spurring a long-term deal with Detroit’s city leaders to raze abandoned buildings and plan investments on their side of the border.

While the mayors of Mackinac Island and Huntington Woods presided over very successful preservation, in towns where the status quo seems perpetually ideal, Heenan — a Princeton preppy, forever seen in a camelhair sports coat or blue blazer — managed to infuriate countless people while building bridges across a daunting racial and cultural divide to a string of Detroit mayors, from Coleman Young to Mike Duggan.

“We have a good relationship with Mayor Duggan now, and we’re really hoping to continue the momentum,” said Greg Theokas, Grosse Pointe Park’s former mayor pro tem, recently appointed mayor to fill the remainder of Heenan’s term. Theokas was among those who pushed Heenan, then a 61-year-old semi-retired lawyer, to make his first run for mayor.

The two shared concerns about the spread of blight and about the school board’s threat to close two elementary schools, Theokas said.

“He kept saying, ‘I’m retired.’ But on the fourth try, we persuaded him — and he ran and won, but just by a few votes,” defeating an incumbent, Theokas said. “In his second election, he defeated the mayor pro tem by under 50 votes — so this wasn’t just given to him. He had to fight for it,” Theokas said.

At the time, Grosse Pointe Park had districts that residents called “seedy” or worse.

“Some people were really thinking that concerns in Detroit were just going to tumble into Grosse Pointe Park and we’d fall into the same abyss” of plummeting property values and vacant properties, Theokas said.

Instead, Heenan led efforts to cut costs, starting with a switch from conventional police-and-fire service to public safety, in which police officers double as firefighters. That change put more cops on the street at the same time it saved money, which was badly needed to enforce code violations, buy vacant properties to keep them from being stripped, and hire planners who could reinvent the imploding East Jefferson business district, Theokas said.

‘Having fun’

Heenan invariably said he found being mayor “is fun.” Yet, he didn’t duck his critics. In December, at Heenan’s last council meeting, City Attorney Dennis Levasseur tried to cut off public comment that was growing heated and focused as it so often it did on how the city was handling its border with Detroit.

“No, let them speak! I’m having fun,” Heenan said, as Levasseur rolled his eyes and some council members politely smirked. This week, Heenan, interviewed at the home of his daughter, Betsy Fox, in Grosse Pointe Farms, reiterated that “it’s a fun job to try to improve a city.”

He added: “I’ve got two unfinished projects that the council will have to do — the art center and the water plant.” That referred to Heenan’s long-term dreams to build a $3-million art center on a large city-owned plot next to the city hall on East Jefferson and to construct a $15-million water-filtration plant on land at a riverfront park, making Grosse Pointe Park independent of the soaring water rates of Detroit.

The latter is sure to add to contention with Detroiters. But Heenan had a comeback: “We’re using such a small fraction of the city of Detroit’s water supply, it won’t be hurtful to them if we leave.” Detroit’s water system serves more than 3 million people while the population of Grosse Pointe Park was under 12,000 in the 2010 census.

Vehement critics

Of course, not everyone has liked the tactics of Heenan and Grosse Pointe Park. Even though he ran unopposed in most elections, Heenan had vehement critics, some aroused by the city’s reputation for secrecy. Its closed-door dealings in real estate spurred one resident to file a lawsuit in 2013, accusing the city of violating Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. The city prevailed but on technicalities.

Other critics have faulted the city for shutting itself off to Detroit and Detroiters. Grosse Pointe Park has a long history of closing or trying to close streets that connect city and suburb. That history peaked last year when Grosse Pointe Park literally blockaded Kercheval Avenue, a century-old thoroughfare. Asked whether the suburb conferred with Detroit about the closing, Heenan shot back at the time: “We don’t have to ask anybody — we don’t need Detroit’s permission to do this.”

The blockade spurred the formation of Diverse GP, a group of Detroiters and suburbanites — many but not all from Grosse Pointe Park — who excoriated Heenan and his council peers for creating what they called a racist and elitist barrier. Among those who spoke out was Detroit Mayor Duggan.

Yet, once Grosse Pointe Park agreed to restore eastbound traffic on the avenue — westbound vehicles must use an alley — Detroit sent demolition crews to raze more than two dozen abandoned houses along its side of the border at Alter Road. And the two cities now have long-term agreements to collaborate on many border issues, said Josh Elling, executive director of a nonprofit growth group in Detroit called Jefferson East.

Heenan’s retirement means that now he can’t challenge the tenure of the nation’s longest-serving mayor, Charlie Long of Booneville, Ky.

Long has been mayor for the last 56 years in Booneville, a poverty-stricken hamlet of some 56 houses, where Heenan’s needlepoint belt and penny loafers would look a bit out of place. Long has never had had an opposing candidate, according to a website about long-serving mayors.

Hearing that, Heenan said: “That would make it a lot easier, I can tell you.”

Contact Bill Laitner: [email protected] or 313-223-4485.

___

(c)2015 the Detroit Free Press

Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

_____

Topics: t000002953,t000138271,t000047694,t000047683,t000002537,t000040348,t000030985,t000030986

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide