Conservative politics, alleged racism and $12.5 million divide Northern Michigan County

One in three people in Alcona County are over the age of 65 yet a senior center has become a catalyst for division in the tiny county along Lake Huron.

Lawmakers approved a $12.5 million grant for a community center and housing project in July, giving Alcona County a financial boost once in a generation, but they can’t agree on how to spend the money free.

Newly elected far-right disruptors put the project in jeopardy before a single spade entered the ground.

In a raucous meeting last week, three-year plans in the making were scrapped. The black executive director who disbursed the funding was shut out and now supports racial bias. Four members of the Alcona County Aging Commission resigned in protest, and staff threatened to walk.

Time is running out now. If the project isn’t finished by September 2024, the county will lose every penny.

Big ambitions

Alcona County, home to about 10,000 residents, is a tough sell for investors. The population has declined by 7% over the past decade, and its elderly population is nearly double the state’s ratio. Median household income ranks in the bottom five counties of the state.

“A lot of people said, ‘This is never going to happen,'” Lenny Avery, executive director of the Commission on Aging, said of the cash infusion.

Early plans for the project were ambitious with a rock wall, saunas and 44 low-income housing units.

Avery’s plans piled on top of each other to propose what would have totaled a $20 million investment. He compared it to making the first jump in a doubles dutch match.

“Someone jumped in and gave us $12.5 million and now it looks like it’s fun for everyone to come in,” Avery said. “What I wanted us to be was the spearhead for rural development in Michigan.”

But community members were confused by the vision and skeptical of the funding source.

Plans were cut when residents complained that the project had lost focus and was growing larger than the county could support. New plans were drawn up for a project that would use exactly the grant amount. But the disagreements continued.

From the outset, the project, approved in a midnight legislative session, has received criticism as “pork barrel spending”.

But Republican Jim Stamas, then chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, felt it was his last gift to the county after serving the district 14 years in the state House and Senate.

While he hoped it would spur economic development, Stamas said he knew the community would question “investment from outside” because “nothing is taken for granted one way or the other.”

“It doesn’t surprise me, to be honest, that there is concern,” he said, though he maintained the need for services for the elderly.

Fighting over a senior center

Months of infighting at the Alcona County Aging Commission came to a head during its January 24 meeting, a six-hour spectacle.

Behind yoga balls and treadmills, rows of folding chairs filled the 1940s senior center gym. A mob of 50 residents arrived armed with iPhones and notebook computers to hold the council accountable. Some had been coming for months while others had watched the drama unfold on YouTube.

The crowd booed, “Amened” and gave standing ovations as the board members chose the project and each other.

When it was their turn, the audience voiced their frustration with the boardroom squabbles for 46 minutes.

Commission members discussed starting over and bidding on a new contract for the project. When asked if they have read the current contract, most said no.

“This cannot continue to be passed down until 2024, because the money will run out and it will all be our fault,” said board member Jacquelyn Schwanz.

However, the vote to terminate the contract passed.

The politicization of the Commission on Aging

Alcona County has long been a Republican stronghold.

The aging commission is not a political body, but the Alcona Conservatives have focused on the commission since September.

Separate from the county’s Republican party, the group sees itself as local news with a mission to “provide truth and coverage about current events and advocate for those who share our constitutional conservative ideals.”

New commission members LeRoy Perrin and Bob Turek have been linked to the group.

Before the aging committee election, Lisa Turek, Bob’s wife, sent an email to Conservatives in Alcona encouraging them to get a free lunch at the senior center so they could vote or run for a free place, according to the documentation on the Alcona Conservative website. In October, the elders voted Perrin and Bob Turek to the council.

Perrin, the newly appointed council president, denies that he and Turek are part of Alcona’s conservatives. Bob Turek did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In addition to monitoring local government, Alcona Conservatives hold their own meetings called Turek’s Tavern.

The website notes that both Bob and Lisa are “very involved and are bringing a lot of attention to the state of corruption within the various government entities in Alcona County.”

This election cycle Lisa ran for Alcona County School Board and Bob ran for County Commission. Both lost.

Merit or melanin

Six hours after the January 24 fight, Avery was waiting for the final blow. A new agenda was approved which added a “personal issue” concerning him.

Ahead of the meeting, Avery told MLive that ongoing control has shifted from the project to him. As the only black member of the council and among 0.7 percent of black residents in the county, Avery said the shunning of him seemed racially motivated.

“When you take away the credit for my job responsibility, what do you get left? Melanin,” she said.

In response to the allegations of racism, the board released the following statement:

“Mr. Avery has not been terminated. He has been placed on administrative leave pending investigation. There are several issues concerning the executive director. This is a matter of merit, not race. This is in no way racially motivated .

In anticipation of his departure, Avery’s staff brought him cards and flowers before the meeting. They promised to go out with him, but he asked them to stay.

Staff members stood in the back, shaking their heads and clearly disagreed as the board voted to crack down on spending limits, revoke staff credit cards, remove security equipment and strip away Avery’s position as a link to the project architect, among other changes.

Emotions ran high when the grievances against Avery were filed. The executive director gave an impassioned 12-minute speech outlining his work to get the grant and his disappointment at seeing it unravel. The president, vice president and secretary resigned citing “drama” and “personal attacks”.

After several minutes of questioning Avery’s authority and work ethic, a question about selling pots and pans was the last straw.

“I’m not going to participate in this madness,” Avery said.

Board members filed a motion to place Avery on immediate unpaid administrative leave. The remaining board members voted 4-1 to approve the firing. Schwanz, the sole opposition, resigned and walked out.

“People don’t really like change”

After the meeting, the village of Lincoln, population 300, calmed down. Businesses were closing at 5pm

One still had the lights on, at least for another thirty minutes, the 50-year-old Lincoln Outdoor Center, where patrons are greeted by a brown bear roar and a “bragging board” showing snapshots of locals holding hunting trophies.

Standing behind the counter, manager Melissa Miller noticed that most of their neighbors were closed or demolished, with the exception of the post office, a saloon and a laundromat. The pharmacy across the street just announced that its last day is next month.

The business keeps its roots, but the clientele doesn’t grow.

“People are not very interested in change,” he said. “No change is good change in their eyes.”

‘Return to starting point’

A week later, Perrin told MLive there will be another election to fill the four empty seats. When asked if the board went political, he replied, “Damn, I hope not. We are here to help the elderly.”

Prior to Avery’s firing, the board voted for Perrin to take over the project given his 50 years in the construction industry.

Current plans include downsizing half of the 30,000-square-foot multigenerational community center with housing as a second priority. Perrin said the goal is to have final plans by October.

“It’s a real shame that there’s just a lot of misinformation being spread,” he said. “We will build this project. We will spend every dollar of it and get something Alcona County can be proud of.”

According to grant documents from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the project’s completion date is September 30, 2024. Perrin said he is confident the project will proceed and the county will not lose funding.

“We’re coming full circle,” he said.

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