By temperament, and perhaps talent, Virg Bernero always had the political makings of a mayor. He chafed at the measured pace of a county legislator, state representative and senator, his pre-mayoral elected offices. But, unbridled as mayor, he was the boss — bold and brash and autocratic. For the past 12 years Bernero called Lansing “His City,” and it was.
How will his tenure be judged?
Bernero, in a long sit-down interview with City Pulse, graded his performance a B-plus, a generous but not altogether inaccurate appraisal. Twelve years covers a lot of political ground, inevitable successes and failures. Overall, Lansing has advanced during the Bernero years, a particularly challenging time for Michigan cities that struggled with the collapse of the state economy, years of hostile Republican government (think Flint and grim rounds of state aid cuts) and a need to resize and, if possible reimagine, themselves.
Bernero had to right-size a city government he inherited from former Mayor Tony Benavides in 2006, trimming nearly 300 employees with little spending budget growth. With fewer resources, it’s easy to find what’s missing, what isn’t being done. The City Council excels at this. But Lansing’s core services like fire, police and parks, the things that concern most residents, are in fine shape. Not the roads, of course. But that’s a state government mortal sin.
Bernero narrowed city services, closing two money-losing golf courses. He offloaded its economic development mission to the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) and offered his lieutenant, Bob Trezise, to resuscitate the floundering organization. A notable exception to a city slim-down was his support for a new Lansing City Market: unnecessary, ugly and a perpetual money loser.
In his City Pulse interview, Bernero cites former Mayor Dave Hollister as a mentor and role model, praising his support for the Michigan Avenue baseball stadium. It changed the face of downtown Lansing and set the stage for two decades of projects that are changing the state’s capital.
It paved the way for Bernero’s monuments. The Accident Fund complex that arose from the abandoned Ottawa Street Power Station fronting the Grand River is a world-class example of inner-redevelopment and job creation. So too is the resurrection of the decaying Knapp department store, now a one-of-a-kind Art Moderne office/housing showplace.
Both projects reflect Bernero’s belief that a vibrant downtown Lansing is vital to the city’s future. He ignored carping from those seeking more support for neighborhoods and complaints that he was in the pocket of developers. The result is a resurgent Michigan Avenue corridor, thanks largely to the support of the Gillespie Group.
The Outfield apartment complex, stretching between right and left field at Cooley Law School Stadium, is unique and has drawn national attention to the city. There are nearby Market Place Apartments, adjacent to Lansing’s most under appreciated asset, the Grand River. There are new mixed-use (housing and business) buildings stretching east on Michigan Avenue, narrowing the commercial and cultural distance between Lansing and East Lansing.
The long delayed and perhaps overly ambitious Red Cedar development planned in the flood plain of the Red Cedar golf course and the oversized, Iron Curtainstyled SkyVue apartment complex would be the midpoint of a larger and more unified Greater Lansing.
Other accomplishments during the Bernero years include the development of the Promise scholarship program — 65 free credits at Lansing Community College and equivalent aid at other state colleges for city high school graduates. There’s the emergence of Old Town as the city’s trendiest neighborhood and the kickstart of a REO Town revival, attempting a similar transformation. And there was the failed, but bold, bid for a tribal gambling casino adjacent to the Lansing Center.
To critics, Bernero’s strong personality has been viewed as a detriment to addressing the regional issues facing greater Lansing. This, in part, is true. He tars those on his mayoral enemies list with derogatory names: fat ass, piece of shit, etc. — well broadcast digs that ensure poisonous relationships.
And he has particular and quite public disdain for the collection of Balkan states that is Lansing Township, labeling it a subsidiary of developer Mike Eyde’s Eastwood LCC ‘s sprawling retail and mixed use empire. The township is an appendage to the city of Lansing, with most of the benefits and few of the costs. It contributes as little as possible to the overall support of the region and illustrates the larger issue that bedeviled Bernero and other mayors. Greater Lansing is a collection of independent townships and small cities that rely on a strong central city but need not support it.
Nonetheless, Bernero was able to build regional support for a zoo and trails millage and pushed for a single chief to oversee the Lansing/East Lansing fire departments.
Whether in time Bernero is venerated like Hollister, crowned with senior statesman laurels, may depend on how his less savory characteristics are weighed.
Bernero’s meddling with the city’s supposedly independent Board of Water and Light resulted in an impulsive $650,000 payout to former chief executive J. Peter Lark. Bernero pressured the board of his political appointees to fire Lark, his one-time ally. There is also the still unexplained $160,000-plus payout for former city attorney Janene McIntyre. Bernero minimizes the money involved, calling it insignificant in light of the city’s $200 million budget.
During his time in office, Bernero expressed little interest in the arts, and Lansing, unlike East Lansing with its Hannah Center, still has no decent venue for music, dance or theater. A centrally located arts center would burnish Lansing’s image and complement its 21st century transformation. Similarly, his musings about an amphitheater or performance site in Adado Park never materialized.
Bernero’s cable-news fueled “Angriest Mayor” in America shtick — fun at first, but overplayed — offered no real benefit to Lansing. It raised Bernero’s national profile, as did his run for governor against Rick Snyder in 2010. He made little progress in addressing the city’s $700 million pension and $442 million health care obligations, most of it unfunded. Selling the BWL could have addressed this crushing debt, but while Bernero raised the prospect he in the end wanted no part of this politically risky solution. Twelve years running Lansing may seem like a long time, but mayors can have a long shelf life. Bernero hasn’t offered a meaningful explanation for his decision not to seek a fourth term or future plans. He simply may have wanted to avoid what could have been some very personal attacks. But a seasoned street fighter, he’d probably have won. Incoming Mayor Andy Schor is a much cooler politician than Bernero, and it may be that reflecting on Benero’s more fiery temperament, people may miss him. It was, after all, for the past 12 years his city.
Mickey Hirten oversaw coverage of Bernero’s years in office, first as executive editor of the Lansing State Journal and then as associate publisher of City Pulse.