Dexter City Council Candidate Zach Michels moved into a nearly century-old home on Dover Street, built by the carpenter who erected the Dexter Mill building, because he grew up in another small-town where everything was either within walking distance or you could lay eyes on it from your living-room window.
“I moved here for the quality of life, which I think is an important thing for us to continue to support … over the last 15 years we’ve gotten a lot of improvements along those lines, like the (Mill Creek) park, the street-scaping, the farmer’s market,” said Michels, who is one of two challengers alongside Peter Meloche vying for three open seats against incumbents Ray Tell and James Smith.
While Michels promised to ensure further investment in quality-of-life improvements and developments, which is a pretty basic campaign promise for any local politician, aspiring or otherwise, he brings more to the table as a candidate, being employed by Dexter Township as director of zoning and planning.
Quality of life over tax incentives
His professional experience in planning and economic development has instilled in him an interesting philosophy that bucks the trend of local units of government giving tax exemptions to local commercial and industrial developments based solely on the amount of money being invested into expanding their facilities and the number of additional jobs that would be created as a result of that investment.
“I would prefer to invest in those quality of life things that everyone gets to enjoy and use as opposed to giving tax breaks to companies, which there’s been a long tradition in economic planning and development of doing,” he explained. “There are a couple of recent cases, where the city of Dallas lost Boeing to Chicago because none of the employees wanted to live in Dallas, because there’s nothing to do in Dallas when you’re not working.”
The Boeing move brought $5 billion in value to the local economy in Chicago. Various quality of life issues, including not only access to amenities, but concerns over infrastructure and commute times also played a role in the relocation of the iconic aerospace and defense company’s headquarters.
It’s not hard to see why Michels has a strong view of local governance and politics from a similar perspective of a young working professional, when you hear him talk about what he likes about living in Dexter.
“My job being in Dexter Township is nice, so I’ve got a five minute commute, which is fantastic,” he said. “I like the cultural amenities, which remind me of the village where I grew up (Shepherd, Mich.), which had 1,500 people in it. When I was a kid you could walk to four different places to buy candy bars, and I was just a block from the schools and two blocks from Main Street.”
Shepherd is similar to Dexter, in that it is less than 10 minutes from Mount Pleasant, which is a major urban hub in a much less densely populated and developed rural and suburban region, much like Ann Arbor is to Washtenaw County and the smaller satellite towns that surround it.
Working professionally in municipal planning, Michels is also no stranger to the life of attending late meetings and the hours of dedication required to be present for the countless staff meetings, working sessions, public meetings, committee meetings and closed session discussions that both elected municipal officials and the administrative staffs that answer to them must go through.
In that way he’s more similar to the incumbents that he’s challenging than a typical newcomer candidate.
“I’ve always kind of been involved with public service,” he said. “My background job is with urban planning, so we’re involved with public meetings every night every week, and I’ve previously served on my village’s planning commission, and when I lived in Indiana I was on the Angola Historic Preservation Commission.
“I think my background in the boiler room of local government would help me with the policy decisions that would have to be made.”
Benefits of professional planning background
One specific area that Michels believes his professional background would be an asset in regards to is the city’s ongoing discussion on where to locate the government offices and also house public safety functions like the Dexter Area Fire Department and the base of operations for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office substation.
Currently the configuration of which of these functions would receive a new building or be moved into an existing building, as well as the extent to which that existing building would need to be renovated and/or expanded, is still being discussed by city officials.
“Dexter Township is in the process of finishing up building a fire substation and I have gotten to see firsthand the good, the bad and the ugly … I’ve gotten to see firsthand the things you’d want to do again, the things you’d want to do different, and the things that would have you running screaming if they happened again,” Michels said.
Michels also said he would like to take a look at the city’s department of public works staff, particularly what’s being done to retain them in light of the city’s push in recent years to increase training and certifications among DPW employees.
“I know that a challenge for local governments is being able to pay the people what they’re worth, and because we’ve spent all this money training them and now they’re in demand from all these other communities, so paying them what they’re worth is a challenge to do without raising taxes,” he explained.
Michels would also like to have input into some of the developments that are being proposed in and around Dexter, particularly the Peters Building Company proposed 200-acre development on the south side of town, which he said would have an impact on the community “for years to come.”
“If it’s done well, it will be an asset, and if it’s done poorly it will be done poorly forever.”