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"Government is frustrating today,” says Mike Belsky, who served as the mayor of Highland Park until May 2011. “There’s gridlock in Washington, there seems to be gridlock in Springfield, but at the local level you can get things done. If you like helping people one-on-one, being mayor is a great way to do it.”
Helping the people of Highland Park is exactly what Belsky did during his 16 years of service to the community, eight years as a councilman, followed by eight years as mayor. He championed programs like Healthy Highland Park, which was a preventative take on community health care, encouraging citizens to drop pounds for cash prizes through exercise and diet. Approximately 500 people participated last year. The program featured a group Zumba class in Port Clinton Square as well as free cholesterol and blood pressure screenings at widely-attended public events like the Port Clinton Art Festival or the 4th of July celebration. But it was his concern for the health of our local environment that earned him a Climate Protection Award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors for a group he started, called the Sustainability Green Initiatives Alliance. In order to proactively work toward reducing a city’s carbon footprint, it must first be measured, and the city’s progress has to be monitored from then on in order to see progress. Cities typically employ a sustainability coordinator to deploy and oversee a program of this scale, but Highland Park is too small a city to justify adding a permanent role like that to the budget. “So what if I bring in the school districts, the park districts, the business community, and together we have enough critical mass, then maybe we could hire a private contractor to undertake it,” says Belsky. “I was given the award because they thought that intergovernmental approach was a great model for other cities around the country.”
Under Belsky’s watch, Highland Park didn’t just become a model for other forward-thinking communities, it became a role model for the city’s own youth. It became a city where “character counts,” according to gentle reminders that greet you at every stoplight—“RESPONSIBILITY: Responsible people think ahead,” reminds one; “TRUSTWORTHINESS: Build a good reputation,” is another; “CHARACTER: Character is revealed by what you do when you think no one is looking,” is the wordiest and perhaps my favorite. It gets right to the point. Highland Park wants to raise a generation of adults instilled with responsibility, trustworthiness, and character through their everyday interactions with the world around them. “One of the things we do every year is have a huge event where acts of kindness and acts of courage are noted,” says Belsky. “Kids and adults get these Character Counts awards. I’d give them a certificate and take a picture with them. People from the city nominate them. It could be a kid in grade school who sticks up for somebody on the playground and gets nominated by their teacher, or an adult in the community that’s been involved in a charity for a long time. They get recognized at that same event. Young people are recognized for excellent character and see older people that have spent their lives helping others.”
Part of ensuring the happiness of the next generation is keeping Highland Park’s bustling business district the thriving center of restaurants, shopping, and entertainment it’s always been. Since an abundance of amazing food is one of the enduring fixtures of Highland Park, Belsky launched Taste of Highland Park to coincide with the Port Clinton Art Festival. Local eateries brought the mainstays of their menus to small stands on Central Avenue, and the food kept the street hopping with locals and visitors for hours past the closing of the art festival. When the owner of the Highland Park Theatre, originally opened in 1925, wanted to turn it into an office building, Belsky championed the city’s purchase of the theater, saving this historic landmark and hangout that’s drawn people into town for generations. “My goal in the purchase of it was to keep movies there and perhaps build out some space for live music and live theater,” Belsky says. “Some see the movie theater as an economic loss, but I don’t understand that rationale. When you take into account the number of people that come here and how much they might spend, there are multipliers. For the dollars spent on tickets, there’s another $5 to $7 spent elsewhere in town. When you take that, plus figuring in the tax, it’s making money.”
Though Belsky is currently taking a break from politics, he says we can count on seeing him on a ballot again. “I love this stuff,” he says. “If you’re progressive and thoughtful, it’s possible to have a real impact on a local level.” Those aren’t just words. If you look at his track record, we’ll be seeing the impact of his eight years as mayor for years to come.