Downtown resident Justin Mitchell announced his candidacy for Three Rivers First District City Commissioner this week, marking the first time the seat will be contested since 2009. Mitchell will face incumbent Pat Dane in November.
Mitchell, 42, is a graduate of Portage Northern High School and lived there most of his life until recently when he and his wife Amy Mitchell and 13-year-old son Alex decided to move to Three Rivers in January 2020 after a trip to Europe of all places.
“My family got really discontented with suburban life, it was like, ‘OK, we live in this nice house, in this nice suburban neighborhood but you don’t ever see anybody, you don’t have community life with people, you can’t walk anywhere,'” he said.
“We started traveling throughout Europe and all of these European cities, they’re so communal. You look out on the street and there are people doing things, and we came back from one of our trips and we’re like, ‘Let’s find somewhere to live where we can live like that.’ We looked at property in Grand Rapids, and we could have afforded property in Grand Rapids or Holland, and several other places like downtown Kalamazoo. But we started to come into Three Rivers because of Kelsey Block Brewing, they had like a trivia night thing there, and we were coming to trivia and hanging out, and we’re like ‘we love this town, we love the people that are there,’ we went to a bunch of events at the Riviera (Theatre), and we’re like, ‘this is everything we’ve always dreamed of.'”
After Justin and Amy got married, he attended Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing to study ministry, after which he served as a pastor for two different churches over the course of 10 years, and as the road chaplain for the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department for approximately five years. Mitchell left formal ministry shortly after his son Alex was born, returning to his roots in information technology like his father before him, who was a professor in computer science at Western Michigan University.
While working in IT, Mitchell also started a real estate company, buying and flipping properties on a part-time basis. A few years ago Mitchell started a software development firm with a friend, writing applications for mid-to-large sized businesses including Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo.
“They’re kind of an easy one to explain, we write the software that connects their distribution pipeline with their sales pipeline,” Mitchell said. “So we’re application developers and I still run the real estate company but we don’t flip many houses anymore because the real estate market is kind of out of control right now but we still own rental properties in the Vicksburg area.”
Mitchell said his experience in rental property ownership is one of the reasons he decided to run for city commission. “I see a bunch of stuff here in Three Rivers that just doesn’t quite get done the way it has been done in my dealings with other municipalities, so I’d like to bring some of that experience to the table.”
Mitchell is a board member of Habitat for Humanity of St. Joseph County, and affordable housing is an issue he cares about a great deal. “I hate the negative connotation of affordable housing. A friend of mine is a pastor of a quite large congregation a couple of blocks away from where the George Floyd thing went down, and they just built this multi-million dollar gorgeous housing complex that looks like some fancy downtown high-rise but it’s all affordable housing, and it was this awesome public-private partnership, so affordable housing can be done in a way that’s not slums.”
Approximately a quarter of housing in Three Rivers are owned by investors who use those properties as rentals, and Mitchell said he would categorize a “a significant amount of those as slums.”
“They are not maintained properly. I’ve worked with the rental inspection program in Three Rivers and it’s a joke,” he said. “In Kalamazoo it’s so restrictive some rental property owners won’t even buy property there because they don’t want to deal with them, but I see it as a positive that it’s so restrictive. None of my properties ever have a problem because if you’re like a decent human being keeping up your property isn’t a problem. But when you don’t have effective code enforcement you’re not going to draw investors like me to this area.”
Mitchell said Three Rivers’ housing shortage is an issue he’d like to tackle if he’s elected in November, which he believes is directly connected to two other issues he’d like addressed in the City of Three Rivers: code enforcement and long term maintenance.
“Even the housing that is available is not up to where it should be, so housing is something I’d love to see us do a better job with, it kind of goes hand-in-hand with another issue I’m very passionate about, it’s not super sexy but code enforcement,” Mitchell said.
“Three Rivers doesn’t actually have a code enforcement person for the type of code enforcement I’m taking about. There’s a code enforcement officer but they don’t go around looking for building code violations, in fact they don’t have anybody who does that, they use to but all of that has been outsourced to a company called SafeBuilt and they don’t proactively search for anything.”
There is no pathway for a private citizen to report a zoning issue, according to Mitchell. “For example, a building kitty-corner to mine has had all of its windows broken out — to my understanding for almost eight years now — and I did a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request about that property, and not a single citation has been written against them because nobody is doing it.”
Earlier this month Mitchell spoke at a city commission meeting regarding the issue of marijuana facilities in Three Rivers, and while he considers himself a proponent of both medicinal and recreational marijuana, he doesn’t want to see a dispensary downtown. Mitchell said there are plenty of “awesome locations in and around Three Rivers” that have more adequate parking and would be more appropriate for those type of businesses.
“There’s just a ton of statistical evidence that it’s a much safer route to go than alcohol is, and I don’t have any problem with it. My only concern about having it downtown is the transient nature of the customers,” Mitchell said. “There’s a medical marijuana shop in downtown Big Rapids, and you see cars coming in, they go (into the dispensary) and leave. So they’re taking up parking but they’re not necessarily participating in the rest of the economy (of downtown).”
Ultimately Mitchell is getting involved in local government because of his love for the place he and his family now calls home. “I’m getting involved in the city commission because I feel like with some changes — not huge things — we can help other people see what we saw, and make it a much more credible destination for people of all different types of income.”
Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor of Watershed Voice.