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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Down and out in purest Michigan

K.I. SAWYER AIR FORCE BASE – Driving through parts of the K.I. Sawyer community 30 minutes south of Marquette can startle even a jaded city dweller. A rural two-lane highway rimmed by hearty evergreens and far-flung quaint towns spills into neighborhoods of tightly packed, squat houses peppered with graffiti and boarded-up windows.

But Gordie Warchock wants a tour of the former Air Force base to focus more on the winding streets lined by neat houses, monitored by picky homeowners’ associations. Warchock is the chief of the Forsyth Police Department, one of two towns now responsible for Sawyer.

Warchock is out to prove that Sawyer, located in the unincorporated community of Gwinn, is not the dregs of the Upper Peninsula. He cruises his Chevy Tahoe police vehicle past the K.I. Sawyer Community Center and its new playground. He points out a prairie where abandoned houses were demolished, and a clinic that this year hired the area’s only dentist. Then there’s a tiny store, the only one in the entire eight square-mile community, where a package of bacon sells for $8. And an 18-hole golf course.

Among the thriving nooks, the squalor that has helped earn Sawyer its seemingly unshakable reputation as troubled is stark: Acres of abandoned military dorms and vandalized houses sag behind broken windows. A pile of singed wood sits beyond police tape near the Sawyer International Airport, the result of a medical-marijuana operation that blew up, sending its burned worker to the University of Michigan hospital in a helicopter. Garbage spills from garages on one of three streets where locals say drugs can easily be found.

Sawyer emerged in statewide headlines last year after the Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team along with local and federal police busted a drug ring that moved heroin from the Detroit area to Sawyer from 2012 to 2015. Five people were sentenced in May – a woman and two men from Gwinn, another man from Ishpemig and one from Detroit – to federal prison terms ranging from 30 to 170 months.

Drugs are not just a Sawyer problem. They’re all over the nation, the state, not to mention the nearby towns of Ishpeming, Negaunee and the city of Marquette. This is the refrain that unites Sawyer residents, the poorest and the working class alike.

But due to its problems with poverty and crime, Sawyer has been called “Little Detroit” and the “‘hood in the woods.” It has been, and still is, considered by some Yoopers to be the Upper Peninsula’s slum, the once orderly and insular military base turned ghetto. To some residents who live on the three streets known for the highest poverty and crime, it’s true. But older residents and homeowners say the reputation is overblown.

On the hunt for the true identity of Sawyer, deep in the forests and blueberry patches, a picture emerges.

By all accounts, Sawyer is carving out a community from a ghost town. More than 20 years after the military left, it is an isolated outpost in need of jobs, transportation, a grocery store, laundromat, more activities for youth, as well as additional drug treatment for adults.

And a new identity. That may be the hardest fix.

“In the last six or seven years, resources have poured in from police, churches, the community center and nonprofits have come to help,” Warchock said. “It’s not the wild, west. It’s not what it used to be.”

Somewhere out of nowhere

K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base was once one of the largest, most densely populated communities in the Upper Peninsula, with about 7,000 residents when the military and their families lived there. Opened in 1955 on a lease with Marquette County, the base was home to the 410th Bomb Wing. It sent crews to fight in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 450 men and women to the first Persian Gulf war in 1990. Everyone there had a job, income, medical care, housing and didn’t rely on the townships for police or fire services.

But in 1995, the military packed up and left. The closure drilled a $100 million hole in the area’s economy. Marquette County soon took over the 5,278-acre base and turned the airport with its 12,000-foot runway into an international commercial hub in 1999.

The county sold the residential housing to developers - some responsible, others not so much.

Today, Sawyer has about 3,000 residents. Gone are the bowling alley, the movie theater, roller rink, bank, hotel, beauty and barber shops, restaurants, as well as goods and services that had made it self-sufficient. About a third of it is vacant buildings. Hundreds of civilian jobs vanished, too.

Sawyer’s poverty rate is estimated as high as 46 percent, compared to about 18 percent in Marquette County, according to 2014 U.S. Census data. Unemployment in the U.P. has been historically higher than the state average, which is about 5 percent today. But unemployment at Sawyer has been estimated as high as 24 percent from 2010 to 2014, the same as in Detroit and nearly five times the unemployment rate for Marquette County, Census data showed.

The area’s reputation as a drug den grew out of the late 1990s when some of the first new residents were drug dealers. They hid out in the mostly-empty neighborhoods, cooking methamphetamine and taking advantage of the transitional period when there were few people and even fewer police. Most who moved in since were lured by cheap housing: three- to five-bedroom units rent for less than $400 a month.

The Sawyer directory lists more than 60 businesses, mostly located in the industrial district around the airport and employing about 1,100 workers. Few of the workers live in Sawyer, local officials and residents said.

In 2000, Sawyer was designated a renaissance zone, easing the tax burden for businesses and industries located within its business district, including the Sawyer International Airport. The zone attracted some businesses, but it also left Sawyer “without an adequate tax base to support community development and services,” according to a 2014 report by researchers at Northern Michigan University’s Center for Rural Community and Economic Development.

The report analyzed Sawyer’s assets and surveyed residents about needed improvements. Since the report, of the 11 assets residents said were needed to keep residents safe, just one has materialized – additional medical resources (such as a dentist) were added at the clinic. A gas station was the first of seven services residents said they would support, and one is now operating in Sawyer.

Sawyer’s issues are complicated by the fact it has no single local government to uniformly enforce housing codes or police it. Most of it is located in Forsyth Township and a small portion in West Branch Township.

Marquette County Planning Commissioner Bob Struck is a leader of the Sawyer Community Alliance, which came up with a three-page list of community needs in 2009. A “sense of community” and “positive public relations and image” topped the list along with jobs, social services, recreation, a grocery store, expanded bus service and removal of trash dumped in the woods.

Since then, Forsyth has seen the opening of a polling precinct and community garden as well as the community center with support from Forsyth Township.

Drugs and poverty happen everywhere, Struck said, parroting the unofficial Sawyer slogan. It’s not just Sawyer. It’s also Ishpeming. Negaunee. Marquette.

Perhaps most important, the community needs to believe in its capacity to effect change, Struck said.

“Everybody else is putting them down, saying ‘You’re worthless,’ They need some of these small wins and they’re doing it. They’ve got things going,” he said. “This community needs to know they can make it better. Once they do that, everything else on the list is doable.”

Protect and serve

Basic services have been slow in coming to Sawyer over the past 21 years. But to call Sawyer a slum minimizes the progress it’s seen in recent years.

Ruth Grimsby and Sue Heinz took a break from cooking fried potatoes and parmesan chicken to stand on the front porch of the St. Francis Connection Center last week. The volunteers leaned on the banister and looked off into the distance. The closest supermarket is about seven miles away, assuming residents can afford to shop there. It takes two hours, on three to four buses one-way, to get to the Walmart store in Marquette Township.

Twice a week, the St. Francis Connection Center serves free lunch on real plates. An outreach ministry of St. Anthony Parish in Gwinn, St. Francis opened in 2011 in a townhouse. It is adjacent to the Care Clinic that provides prenatal care. St. Francis also is the place to go for a winter coat or help paying utility bills.

Heinz has lived in Gwinn for 45 years, Grimsby has lived in Sawyer since 2009. Both women married military men and knew the area when it bustled. They remember going to Sawyer to shop. Now they hand out free boxes of groceries on Fridays to Sawyer residents who don’t have money or transportation to go shopping.

“We’re trying to do things like find something for the children to do and bring them things that other people take for granted,” Grimsby said.

On the second floor of the duplex, Catholic Social Services of the Upper Peninsula offers substance abuse counseling at St. Francis.

But it’s not nearly enough.

Garrett Green, one of two health coaches who provide counseling at Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center, the clinic in Sawyer, said when someone comes in for drug counseling it can take weeks to get an appointment. There are no Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Sawyer and residents organized their own Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to support each other through the weekends when drinking and drugging are most common, he said.

Before the clinic opened, some residents who lacked transportation treated their ailments at home or abused substances to treat depression instead of getting help, Garrett said.

“They may not have had a ride to Gwinn to get a tooth pulled, but they had pliers. They had drugs,” he said.

When addicts don’t get help, they could end up being Chief Warchock’s problem.

Sawyer sits on a sliver of the 200-square miles that Forsyth Township police patrol, but accounts for about 70 percent of calls for the 12-person force. Overdoses, domestic assaults and theft are most common. Warchock tells a story of a 911 call to a man in Sawyer who overdosed. Later the same day, emergency responders answered another call to the same man. He had overdosed, again. Forsyth is considering arming its police with naloxone, an antidote to opiate overdoses the legislature approved for police use last year, Warchock said.

“It all boils down to addiction problems,” Warchock said, summing up the worst of Sawyer’s issues. “Until they figure out how to stop the addiction problem in America, addicts are going to find drugs. Law enforcement is not the solution, it’s going to take a multidiscipline approach,” he said.

Ownership has its privileges

Chuck Truitt, 71, was a renter in Sawyer for about a decade and bought a duplex about nine years ago. His Sawyer is a place where people are living down the stigma, where neighbors don’t lock their doors and have manicured lawns.

A retired salesman with a brusque manner and educated diction, Truitt has not seen the drugs that supposedly haunt three streets about a mile from his.

Drugs don’t define Sawyer. Drugs happen everywhere. Ishpeming. Negaunee. Marquette, he said.

“The only thing we have more than you do in the city is guns,” he said. Truitt has 29. It’s an outdoorsy, U.P. thing.

“Change is coming here. I won’t live to see it,” he said with a chuckle. “Sawyer is an unfinished product.”

Scott Bammert, Truitt’s former property manager, said trash piled in garages, graffiti and unmowed lawns mark the properties owned by bad landlords. Bammert manages Macasu Inc. which owns 207 rental units in Sawyer, including some furnished vacation units. The township needs to step up enforcement of local ordinances to make landlords maintain their units and provide garbage removal to all tenants, he said.

Through it all, Sawyer residents who are both fed up and encouraged are battling the blight. A few weeks ago, Bammert was among a team of volunteers who emptied 14 tons of trash from garages behind vacant row houses. Also, the land bank tore down 102 foreclosed residential units (16 buildings) in the past five years, according to the Marquette County Landbank Authority.

And people like Truitt, the 20 percent who own their homes, are a good sign, Bammert said. Homeowners take care of their property. As taxpaying voters they could put political clout behind residents’ pleas for services.

“What makes me sad is that landlords have authority to do something about (blight) and too many don’t,” Bammert said. “Homeownership is making a difference.”

The county banked on the airport and the industrial area attracting businesses and the affordable housing attracting residents. But there is no demand for 1,600 housing units plopped in the middle of the woods.

So was it worth it for county to take on the base instead of, as some suggested, lobbying for the federal government to level it and let the blueberry patches take over?

Scott Erbisch, the Marquette County administrator, says yes. The airport, 60 businesses and 1,100 jobs are a counterbalance to the blight nobody predicted in Sawyer. Yes, Sawyer needs healthy food at reasonable prices, more bus service, jobs and political power. But that’s what happens when several entities – two townships, a county, state and federal government – are tasked with re-populating a ghost town.

“Nobody knew how to transition a base,” Erbisch said. “There was no rule book.”

Not-so-ghetto

Besides the Sawyer Shoppette store, the K.I. Sawyer Community Center is probably the place where residents are most likely to see their neighbors. In summer, about 100 kids a day get free meals there and get a chance to play in the gym, on the playground and make crafts.

On a slow Friday afternoon Forsyth Police officer Trevor Boudreau stopped by during dinner time. Other than a couple domestic disputes, his past two shifts had been uneventful.

Volunteers at the center and neighbors munched on turkey sandwiches and chatted up Boudreau about the neighborhood goings-on, the rugged cruelty that is part of rural poverty at Sawyer. They talk about stolen bikes and hypodermic needles found at Little Trout Lake, where kids swim and hang out. The neighbors tell Boudreau that one resident was living in a tent in the woods after being kicked out of Sawyer.

Sarah King, 36, who goes by “Twiggy,” moved to Sawyer from Taylor, just south of Detroit, and has lived in sketchy neighborhoods in Detroit-area suburbs. To put Sawyer into perspective, she said it’s a place that has ghetto tendencies, but it’s nowhere near as bad as a big city. In a small community where not much happens, what crime does occur gets blown out of proportion, she said.

The last time someone was murdered in Sawyer was 2014. It wasn’t a shooting or drug-related. A man burned his drunk girlfriend to death, police records show.

“It’s not like there’s drive-by shootings,” Twiggy said. “I love it here because it’s much easier than downstate. I don’t fear living here like I did living in the ‘hood.”

The progress toward meeting Sawyer’s needs is like everything else “on base,” she said.

“Everything up here is slow.”

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