A Misunderstood Community, by Becky Korpi

K.I. Sawyer continues to confront the stereotypes and debunk the myths as it fights through the growing pains of…
A Misunderstood Community

Overgrown lawns. Curbs overtaken by garbage. Families living without utilities for months. Recent news coverage of living conditions in K.I. Sawyer has been less than flattering for its residents.
Contrary to the three-part series, titled “The Sawyer Dilemma,” that aired last month on WLUC-TV6, several residents said the area’s problems are hardly bad enough to garner the word “dilemma.”
“Those reports were illustrating a problem that does exist,” said Mike Prokopowicz, general manager for the Gwinn-Sawyer Medical Centers. “But we haven’t had the kind of economic development in Sawyer in the last few years that would alleviate this sort of problem. People with job security and jobs that provide enough incomes to maintain a household don’t have the kinds of problems that you see out here right now.”
Prokopowicz also serves on several K.I. Sawyer committees, including the Sawyer Operations Authority board.
“For as many stories as there are about 0709feapeople who lose their homes around here, there are also many homes functioning as well as they would in a typical community,” he said. “There’s only so many times you can say that (to others).”
Prokopowicz said he and his wife, a physician, moved to Gwinn in 1984 because the town did not have a full-time resident physician. Since then, they have watched K.I. Sawyer close as an active Air Force base and reemerge as a civilian community.
“This community didn’t grow and develop into this; this is something they inherited from the government,” he said. “We have our fledgling organizations and our thriving groups doing a lot …to build the community, and I am sure they have their struggles, but at the same time, they are making progress.”
One of those organizations is the West Branch Fitness and Community Center (also known as “the W”) in K.I. Sawyer, which offers a wide variety of programs for people of all ages. Assistant director Bill Hill said despite the negative stigma and stereotypes of the area, the center staff is excited about the present and optimistic about the future.
The center offers educational youth programs about gang resistance, hygiene and fitness, as well as activities like Tai Chi for senior citizens and everything from swimming and dance to mandolin and guitar lessons. The center also serves as a scholastic tool for the community, offering a library, a small computer lab and tutoring programs.
“We meet the needs of the folks,” said Hill, who also is a sports coach and youth minister. “It’s a people’s place, and that’s what this community is about.”
In light of debate at a West Branch Township board meeting last month concerning the W’s finances, W community coordinator Tamara Stratton said it’s difficult to think about money running out for the facility.
“Grants, donations and assistance from other agencies will be our future,” she said. “We’re a healthy asset; South Marquette County has to realize that and invest in us.”
Stratton said she first became involved with the W as a parent volunteer two years ago while she and her family lived in K.I. Sawyer. During that time, she said it has made her job fulfilling to watch people better themselves both physically and mentally by taking advantage of the W’s exercise and volunteer opportunities.
“I remember one woman who could barely swim in our pool, and eventually she swam the Teal Lake diabetes fundraiser,” she said. “I’ve also seen people come in with walkers through the Marquette General rehabilitation program; they make great strides.”
She added that between thirty-five to fifty-five kids were at the facility each day during the summer.
“They come to put themselves in a positive situation,” she said. “There’s no park where they can get the same kind of interaction that they get here.”
Though she has now relocated to Negaunee, Stratton said staying involved with the W and K.I. Sawyer is important to her.
“The people out there are so committed to sticking to the vision of what Sawyer can become,” she said. “You can’t help but get connected and you can’t help but stay involved.”
In order for K.I. Sawyer to move forward in a positive direction, Stratton said she believes it will take the community acting together.
“Some tough decisions will have to be made in the future; they need to decide what they want Sawyer to look like in ten or twenty years,” she said.
Like the W, the Salvation Army Recreation Center (SARC) also offers recreation and education for youth and seniors alike. Through partnerships with area agencies such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the MSU Extension as well as its own programming, the SARC staff provides a safe haven for youth to have fun.
Another positive aspect of the area, according to its residents, is the school system, which consists of K.I. Sawyer Elementary School and the Gwinn Area School System. Karen Anderson, who currently serves as CEO for North Star Academy in Marquette, worked with K.I. Sawyer’s school system shortly after the community became civilian.
“I worked with Gwinn schools and could see that there was hope for Sawyer, so I started working with the people who were passionate about making it work,” she said.
Since then, K.I. Sawyer Elementary School was recognized by Co-nect, a Massachusetts-based organization that provides teaching solutions for schools across the nation. A case study on Co-nect’s Web site details various programs that K.I. Sawyer and Gwinn schools have adopted to improve the instructional quality of their facilities, which includes inviting community members, parents, teachers from other schools and board members to review the progress being made in the classrooms.
Barry Bahrman, West Branch Township supervisor, said K.I. Sawyer is on its way to becoming a successful community and just needs time to work out the kinks.
“They’re getting there with more people looking into home ownership, and it’s going to take more people demanding service levels and ordinances,” he said.
West Branch Township works in conjunction with Forsyth Township to govern K.I. Sawyer, since the two share a boundary that runs through the K.I. Sawyer housing area. Sands Township previously had control of Forsyth’s property in K.I. Sawyer, but relinquished it four years ago. In order to discuss community issues together, West Branch and Forsyth both are represented the Sawyer Operations Authority. Bahrman said it’s sometimes a struggle and there are a few conflicts here and there between West Branch and Forsyth, but for the most part the two try to be as consistent as possible.
“We have a lower tax base than Forsyth and are a little more proactive with landlords and taxpayers before we implement anything,” he said.
The property divide between the two townships also gets complicated in terms of EMS, police and firefighting services. Fire emergencies in K.I. Sawyer are split between the West Branch/Skandia Fire Department and the Forsyth Volunteer Fire Department. The West Branch/Skandia Emergency First Responders and Forsyth EMS balance the medical needs of K.I. Sawyer’s residents, and the security of the area is maintained by the Forsyth Police Department as well as a branch of the Michigan State Police.
Marquette County Commissioner Bob Struck, who represents Forsyth, West Branch, Ewing and Wells townships, said a major concern of K.I. Sawyer residents has been the availability of emergency personnel.
“As with many communities in the U.P., these services are provided by volunteers in Sawyer and it’s dependent on people being available to work,” Struck said.
Progress has and still is being made to ensure that the people of K.I. Sawyer feel safe, he said.
“Over the last couple of years, we have been able to get more EMS training for the area and establish another vehicle for the Emergency First Responders,” Struck said. “The Michigan State Police post out here is now staffed at night as well; that took a great effort on the part of the community. It was because of their concerns that it’s now in effect.”
West Branch Township clerk Doreen Takalo said the situation is convoluted and agreed that both townships having a foot in K.I. Sawyer is a challenge.
“We have our own issues and Forsyth has theirs, and in the middle of all those comes Sawyer,” she said. “It’s like a blooming plant stuck between all these other plants and it can’t branch out. It’s going to bloom and be a full flower one of these days, but it’s a slow process.”
One of those issues is the presence of garbage in vacated housing. Regardless of what township the neglected garbage is in, Forsyth Township Clerk Bonnie Hartzell said it isn’t as easy as just bringing a truck and hauling the debris away.
“You can’t just go on someone’s private property like that; they have to file a complaint with our office and then contact the property owner, who has so many days to remove it,” she said. “It’s the delay that’s the problem, so we’ve taken steps to fix that.”
Hartzell explained that Forsyth Township recently passed a miscellaneous debris ordinance that will give them more power in that arena.
“We needed something with teeth in it so we can remove the garbage sooner,” Hartzell said.
Although K.I. Sawyer’s situation is unique and challenging, Hartzell said she is willing to do whatever it takes to see it thrive.
“I don’t know how to solve the problems, but I want to be part of the solution,” she said.
Takalo said technically K.I. Sawyer is not a village or city, and getting there will take finding the right mix of leaders.
“Sawyer doesn’t have a choice; it’s going to happen, but it has to decide what it wants to be first—a hydrangea or daisy or what?” she said.
Takalo has served as West Branch clerk since the early ’80s and said she’s gotten remarks in the past that the township spends too much time and money in K.I. Sawyer.
“But the people out there are important to me; my thing is working with and for the people,” she said. “I want to help make Sawyer. For me, it’s not the economical thing that it is for a lot of people.”
Bahrman became involved with K.I. Sawyer in 1993 after being appointed to the Air Force base closure committee. He helped negotiate the transfer of property to the community, he said, and considers K.I. Sawyer a crucial part of West Branch Township.
“The largest taxpayers are in Sawyer, and most of this township’s population is out there too,” he said. “They’re a vital part of us.”
He said that although the “Sawyer Dilemma” series was unfortunate, it might have helped spur the community coming together to make change.
“This might have been the catalyst that set the residents off to push and put a movement in place,” he said.
Struck said that the concerns of K.I. Sawyer’s residents do not fall on deaf ears, but inadequate finances keep change from happening quickly.
“People get discouraged because there is a bureaucracy and a system and some of these things take time and certainly everything takes money,” he said. “That’s one of the key problems from state to county to township levels, just a lack of money here in Michigan to take care of these issues.”
From a business standpoint, Red Fox Inn owner Laurel Eagle said it will take a few more years of growing pains before life in K.I. Sawyer reaches an equilibrium.
“We’re a military family and we were here right at the time of the (base) closure, so we’ve seen a lot of things come and go and people can’t always wait the years it takes for those businesses to grow,” she said. “But every area has its growth problems. I do also see a lot of areas that are coming along; private homeowners and responsible landlords are what’s going to happen here.”
Eagle said she and her family choose to remain in K.I. Sawyer because “it’s our home,” and said those who pitch in to help the community feel the same way.
“As a family, we’ve worked food sales at the rodeo and Polar Plunge and turned over all the profits,” she said. “Our business also supports the community in ways that matter and will help people. We get involved and try always to be there when we’re needed.”
Fellow business owner and resident Latonya Redfearn has been making a difference by writing a letter to the editor to The Mining Journal and phoning TV6 in an attempt to counteract what was said on “The Sawyer Dilemma” series.
“I just get sick of hearing all the negativity; they never have anything positive to say about the area,” she said. “I live and work in this community and I had no idea there was a ‘dilemma’ going on.”
In her letter to the editor, which was printed in the August 4 edition of The Mining Journal, Redfearn said she discussed the origins of K.I. Sawyer and how its residents should be given credit for taking a dead community and bringing it back to life.
She also addressed the nine percent foreclosure rate that was mentioned, stating that that’s not uncommon for first-time homeowners and especially not uncommon in a community that had not long ago been entirely up for sale.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was this community,” she said. “They’re still fighting out for just the basic rights that everyone else has.”
Other K.I. Sawyer residents have contacted Redfearn to thank her for her efforts, she said.
“They didn’t even know me personally, just as a member of the community,” she said. “It was nice.”
Scott Bammert, corporate manager of housing development company MACASU, said he has watched K.I. Sawyer evolve from a place with a population of two in 1995 into a burgeoning society of more than 3,000 residents and also feels optimistic about the area.
“MACASU started in 1996 as one of the first housing developers out here and we saw an opportunity for a lot of potential,” he said.
As a result of K.I. Sawyer’s negative publicity, Bammert said he has been receiving a lot of phone calls from residents wanting to know how they can help.
“They want to be part of making Sawyer grow,” he said, and added that communication and education will help put the community on its feet.
“Anyone can be a positive influence starting with their own house and yard, or their own street,” he said. “Have the townships help out; there are agencies out there to help places like us, and we need to ask for help when we need it.”
In order for the rest of Marquette County to understand K.I. Sawyer, Bammert said it’s a matter of seeing the community for themselves rather than relying on impressions given by the media.
“It’s an easy, scenic drive. See how beautiful it is,” he said. “Sawyer is still growing and everyone has to grow together. It has to be a group effort; we help out other townships in Marquette and the rest of the county, so we want them to see us as an asset and ask themselves what they can do to help us in return.”
Bammert also is a board member for the K.I. Sawyer Community Association (KISCA), which has helped facilitate community events, sponsored K.I. Sawyer News and is now working with other organizations such as the Weed and Seed program and Sawyer Family Initiatives to bring funding and services to the community. KISCA meets twice a month and always is seeking public input and participation.
Redfearn said in the future she’d like to see a dissipation of the negative stigma attached to K.I. Sawyer.
“We deserve to be treated equally and fairly and have positive feedback about [our] community,” she said. “We’re working folks, nonworking folks, single parents, senior citizens, American people just like everyone else.”
Although supportive of K.I. Sawyer’s future, Struck said the success of the community ultimately rests with its populace.
“It’s an extra responsibility for them because, in any other community, the resources to make it successful are already in place and they already fit in,” he said.
“In Sawyer, they have to decide whether or not they want to be part of the solution.”
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