Tom Krause fully admits he isn’t a meeting guy, but believes so strongly in supporting a potential downtown Caro project that he’s going to do what he calls “a rare thing” and address the Caro City Council on Monday.
Mike Bauerschmidt, owner of downtown Caro’s Galaxy Office Machines, 107 N. State St., Caro, is collecting letters of support for the same project — a $1.2 million rum microdistillery/restaurant.
Caro resident Heather Edginton has created a Facebook page called “Destination Thumb Rum” dedicated to supporting it, too.
Concurrently, Norm Stephens is collecting signatures in Almer Township for a petition that would result in recent changes to the township’s wind ordinance being put to a township-wide vote — instead of being decided by elected officials.
And Jacki Isenberg has weighed in on both matters — signing Stephens’ petition in Almer and taking to Facebook questioning why Caro City Council would vote against recommending liquor licenses for the microdistillery/restaurant.
“I’m a product of the ‘60s and ‘70s and you know, voicing our opinion is our given right,” Isenberg said. “If you keep quiet, it’s letting status quo continue.”
Krause, Bauerschmidt, Stephens, Edginton, and Isenberg represent a growing number of people in Tuscola County who say they are fed up with decisions being made for them that they disagree with – and doing something about it.
They’re taking to social media, urging people to take action IRL (techspeak for “In Real Life”) or creating networks of citizens who share information and opinions on specific topics. The “Vassar Community Concerns” group – consisting of 1,750 members as of press time – is just one example.
They’re speaking with votes – several officials in Almer and Ellington townships accused of not listening to citizens were effectively ousted in the August primary. Many are now calling for the same thing to happen with the Caro City Council.
They’re using the law to their advantage – filing petitions like Stephens (who says he has all the signatures he needs in Almer) or getting to know the ins and outs of the Open Meetings Act and/or the Freedom of Information Act.
“It’s perseverance. It’s not giving up. It’s looking at every legal avenue you have to approach this,” Stephens said.
They’re showing up at events, too, like Krause, who said he plans to speak at Monday’s Caro City Council meeting.
And, perhaps most importantly, it’s paying off one way or another.
“I am thankful for the no vote we received,” said Scott Romain, the entrepreneur behind the micordistillery/restaurant idea in Caro. ”It made us all stop and think about what we really want our town to be. The outpouring of support from online, phone calls, and in person proved that we were on the right path.
“Regardless of what we decide after the Oct. 3 meeting nothing will stop this town,” Romain said.
The difference between talking about doing something and actually doing something usually comes down to one defining moment in time, according to people like Stephens.
In fact, he says the origins of what’s happened in Almer and Ellington townships (the petition and August primary results) really can be traced to two events in early March.
On March 1, during one of the season’s worst snowstorms, Ellington Township held a board meeting in which the board of trustees discussed a possible moratorium on wind project development in the community. So many people had been expected to show up and voice their opinions originally that the meeting was held at the Tuscola Technology Center instead of the township’s hall.
And while much of the area was already shut down for the next day because of the storm, Ellington Township officials effectively gave people two choices: risk your life attending this meeting to be heard – or don’t.
On March 14 – a Monday – the Almer Township Planning Commission held a special meeting to discuss changes to its wind ordinance. However, the special meeting was not posted to the township’s website as required by law. It was posted only to the township hall door midafternoon Saturday, though emails obtained by The Advertiser would later show commission members knew early Friday of the meeting. What transpired at the meeting would later be declared null-and-void at the suggestion of the township attorney.
“It was right around that time that we said ‘What is going on? This is ridiculous,’” Stephens said.
Stephens, 64, a retired teacher from Caro Middle School, said a belief emerged among him and others that the community as a whole was not being put first.
And that was all it took. Stephens and others began attending just about every possible meeting held by planning commissions and boards of trustees in Almer and Ellington townships.
They formed the Ellington-Almer Concerned Citizens (EATCC) and created a Facebook page to better connect and share information.
They familiarized themselves crash-course style with laws like the Open Meetings Act and the Michigan Freedom of Information Act — and continue to be relentless in making sure the laws are followed completely.
They video recorded every meeting, too, just to be safe.
“It became apparent that officials weren’t listening to the residents and were more concerned with getting something passed at almost any cost,” Stephens said. “Some officials even said they were surprised that we felt we weren’t being listened to, but their actions were speaking, not their words.”
When Almer Township officials passed several changes to its wind ordinance on Aug. 31, Stephens said “the plan was already in motion” to collect signatures on a petition for referendum.
Caro could now be having its defining moment like Almer and Ellington did in March, said Krause, who has owned The Frame Shoppe and Decorium in downtown Caro for 33 years.
The council voted 5-2 against recommending the state grant Romain’s microdistillery/restaurant liquor licenses (one is needed for each part of the project).
When the news broke, Romain received a tidal wave of support — and offers from other communities happy to accommodate his plans.
Edginton started the “Destination Thumb Rum” Facebook page. Bauerschmidt started collecting letters of support.
Krause, who said he has seen business drop 50 percent in 33 years, posted the following online message to Romain:
“For an individual who has the guts to want to open a business in a town that has no foot traffic, my hat is off to him,” Krause wrote. “Wanting to provide jobs where they are needed, provide a performing arts venue in a place where there is none, and a restaurant that will pull foot traffic downtown where other businesses can benefit, all in the face of a stale economy, I say the town should offer all the help they can.
“Instead our city leaders vote down the recommendation that would help this business along. I have stayed in downtown not wanting to leave another empty building in the block that no one wants. My building is worth less now than when I bought it 25 years ago. Why is that? Downtown is dying and the city leaders are not helping. I hope Scott brings this back to the board and there is some serious soul searching and they realize the fact that this would be a benefit to downtown,” he wrote.
Krause later told The Advertiser that it was this latest move by Caro City Council that finally prompted him to take action, adding that he has seen a lot in more than three decades in business in downtown Caro, including the battle over elimination of parking meters, and Walmart’s negative impact on the downtown region.
“The only interaction I’ve had with the city of Caro until now has been when I pay my taxes,” Krause said.
That changes Monday, when he will address the city council for the first time after reaching a kind of breaking point.
“I don’t do meetings,” Krause said. “The fact that you’re going to see me down there Monday night is a rare thing.
“What everybody says is that they are just disappointed that the town’s council doesn’t have the foresight to see what the business would bring to downtown,” Krause said.
“I just don’t want to see downtown Caro die any more than it already has,” Krause said.
“And it’s right on the edge.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org