Former mayor David Hollister waxes unsentimental about City Hall

David Hollister smiled at the strange thought that before long, there will probably be angry people with signs, protesting in front of a building with his name on it.

“I hope so,” he said. “That’s how I started out.”

Lansing’s City Hall will be named after Hollister in a public ceremony at 11:30 a.m. Monday.

Hollister, 75, began public service as a classic activist-idealist government teacher at Eastern High School from 1965 to 1970. He still describes himself as a lifelong bleeding-heart liberal but in 50 years in public service, he evolved into a consensus-building pragmatist with a sunrise-pink fringe of idealism.

“When I first ran for county commissioner, I was going to save the world,” he said. He was an Ingham County commissioner from 1968 to 1974 and served in the state Legislature from 1974 to 1993.

“I got into the Legislature and said, ‘Well, if I can just save Western civilization,’” he went on. “When I got to the mayor’s office it was, ‘If we can just save Lansing, one block at a time.’”

The ongoing evolution of Lansing from a battered buckle on the Rust Belt to a place people voluntarily go to live, work and play gathered significant steam under his tenure.

Oddly, the city also announced plans this month to sell, redevelop or demolish the building being named in his honor, but that doesn’t faze Hollister a bit.

“It’s such a junky building,” he shrugged. “Those windows are so flimsy, it’s so poorly insulated, I’d be sitting there as mayor with a heater under my desk to keep warm.”

Bleeding heart or no, Hollister knows a leverage-able asset when he sees one. He thinks people would pay top dollar to enjoy his old ninth-floor view of the Capitol if the building were a hotel or restaurant.

“That’s too valuable a piece of property to be sitting there as an ugly old municipal building that’s patched up year after year,” he said.

He said his team looked at renovation or sale of City Hall but, to his disappointment, the process didn’t get far. He’s hoping the next mayor can work with the City Council to get it done.

“The resolution they passed anticipates that if a new building is built, that the name will go with it, and I appreciate that,” he said.

Another disappointment Hollister had as mayor was a stalled drive to build an arts center downtown. He snagged a six-figure planning grant from Gov. John Engler, with whom he had a good working relationship, but the state’s economy stalled and “the grant went away.”

But there were a lot of high points.

Hollister feels that one of his signature achievements as mayor was keeping GM in the city.

“They had never reversed a decision in the history of General Motors once they announced a closing,” he said. “I was told it was impossible.”

But if you really want to see him light up, turn the conversation to Hollister’s field of dreams — the downtown ballpark, where the minor league Lugnuts play baseball.

Flipping the seedy sin strip along Michigan Avenue downtown was Hollister’s top priority as mayor.

“People thought it was just another boondoggle by the city,” he said. “The city had a reputation of being mediocre at best.”

The logistical challenges were fierce.

Workers dug downward rather than building up. Cedar and Larch streets, state trunk lines, had to be moved. Workers were painting in the snow to meet the April opening day deadline, only one year from the groundbreaking, because team owner Tom Dickson couldn’t afford to lose his shirt waiting a year to move his team from Springfield. At the first practice session, amazed players from the Dominican Republic took their first belly slides on ice.

“It cleared up, they played the game, we were ahead until the ninth inning,” Hollister recalled, drifting into a reverie. “Lost the game on an error. But we broke all records that year in minor league baseball. Set an attendance record for the country. We hosted the All-Star Game that year and won the championship that year. It was a magical year, and it achieved every one of our goals.”

Hollister wanted to get more housing built downtown while he was mayor, but it took time for the city to shake off its seedy reputation. Today, new housing is going up all around the stadium, including a popular block that rings the outfield.

“It’s a thrill to go out there now and see it,” he said. “When I was first mayor, you couldn’t get people from East Lansing to come to downtown Lansing. We had kids go through four years of MSU and never set foot there. We had to break that, and the stadium was part of that strategy and it paid off.”

Hollister left the mayor’s office in 2001 when Gov. Jennifer Granholm picked him to head the Department of Labor and Economic Growth. Lansing’s success with downtown and Old Town was an inspiration for Granholm’s Cool Cities initiative.

He takes almost perverse pride that as DLEG head, he turned down one of the earliest applications for a Cool Cities grant — from Lansing.

“It was weak,” he said. “They were madder than hell at me. They just thought it was automatic it would come to them.”

Quiet, professorial and increasingly frail, Hollister doesn’t cut a flamboyant figure, but as we sat and talked at a downtown coffee shop, several people spotted him and came over to give him love.

One of them was Denise Peek, director of the Entrepreneur Institute, formerly the Lansing Community Micro-Enterprise Fund, a program Hollister nurtured as mayor.

“I just wanted to say you’re awesome and I’ll be there for at the event for the name change,” Peek said. Her organization has helped dozens of entrepreneurs, mostly minority and female, get started in Lansing.

Hollister has his hands full these days with three sons and seven grandchildren, but he still misses being mayor — “some days.”

He isn’t sure he could do it now, though. “Politics has gotten so ugly,” he said. “I always had a challenge with City Council, but I never questioned their integrity or goodwill.”

He chooses to view the City Hall honor as a nod, not to him personally, but to a careful style of civility, transparency and inclusion in politics that he wants to be remembered for. He is hopeful that style will come back as people get tired of dysfunction and rancor.

“We didn’t achieve as much as we wanted,” he said, “but I came out of it with my skin on, and my reputation intact, and a couple of accomplishments that I’m very proud to point to, that said one person can, and did, make a difference.”

Subscribe to Our Newsletter