Ray Kestner sign dedicated at park

HOUGHTON – When Ray Kestner started as city manager in 1971, the place he stood Friday was an industrial wasteland.

Thanks in part to his actions, he was instead in the Houghton waterfront park that bears his name, where a sign marking his accomplishments was unveiled Friday afternoon.

“I wish they would have just said public works, police, fire, the whole works,” he said after the ceremony. “I was the talker, they were the doers.”

Kestner, a 1955 Michigan Technological University graduate, returned to Houghton in 1971, staying on as city manager and director of public works until 1997.

Scott MacInnes, who worked under Kestner as assistant city manager and followed him as city manager, said discussions about the sign began about six months ago. Similar signs have also been put up in the city for former police chiefs Ralph Raffaelli and Jim Janda.

“We wanted to make sure we honored Ray in an appropriate way, something that told a little of the story of Ray’s accomplishments,” he said.

Kestner’s younger granddaughter, Ellie Groven, unveiled the sign following speeches from Mayor Bob Backon, MacInnes and Kestner.

At the time Kestner took over, MacInnes said, “the highlight of M-26 was the Houghton landfill.” The water and sewer systems couldn’t handle additional development. The downtown was a shambles. And the waterfront was so polluted, people were discouraged from swimming there.

“Ray had an incredible vision for what he wanted to do with this community,” he said. “Early on when I started working with him, he had a master plan that was actually done for Houghton and Hancock and he asked me to read that plan. When I got done reading it and gave it back to him, I said ‘There’s no way in a million years you’re going to get this done.'”

Houghton is what it is today because of Kestner’s vision, MacInnes said. Chutes & Ladders park was an early example of its kind, and the first the Department of Natural Resources funded. Houghton also had the second Downtown Development Authority in the state.

“He formed a partnership on almost every project that we did,” he said. “He got the project done, he got it done on time, and we never asked for any money. I think the biggest hurdle Ray had in getting grants was that all the other communities were mad because Ray kept getting all the money.”

In his speech, Kestner said instead of sending in a grant application, he would leave at 3 a.m. for Lansing and set up an afternoon appointment.

He would ask the people at the agency if they’d ever been to Houghton. If they got the grant, he promised, he’d see that they came up for the award ceremony. Then he’d give them a video about the city, made by MacInnes and John Sullivan.

“I’d have a meeting with them until 3 in the afternoon, I’d drive home and get home at 3 in the morning,” he said. “We had seven children before I started that. We haven’t had one since.”

He also recalled developing the Isle Royale Sands. In exchange for giving Moyle the stamp sands on the land, which they used for blacktop, Moyle brought in regular sand from up the hill. U.P. Engineers & Architects then created a subdivision on the land with 50 lots.

“The state approved it, we turned around and sold the lots, and it didn’t cost us one dime,” he said.