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COVER STORY: If Detroit Thrives, Michigan Thrives says new MML President Carol Shafto

By Matt Bach

Carol Shafto League President

Carol taking on the helm of League president.

There are eight assets in the League’s Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3) program, and while they’re all important to new League President Carol Shafto, one of those assets stands out—education.

Carol Shafto was raised with seven siblings in the remote Northern Michigan community of Onaway. To say they lived in poverty would be an understatement. They had a potbellied woodstove for heating, no indoor plumbing, no water, and no electricity. The bathroom was an outhouse in back. When they wanted water they went to the pump in the yard.

“My Mom would wash the cleanest kid first because we all shared the water,” Shafto said laughing; admitting that at the time it wasn’t funny at all. “To me the only way to see a better way of life was education. I wanted more. I wanted to see the world.”

For Shafto, education was her ticket out of poverty. At age 17, fresh out of high school and her graduating class of 60 people, she enrolled at Alpena Community College, an hour and a half from her hometown. For Shafto, Alpena was the ‘big city’ where the family went on its annual shopping trip. It was a major adjustment and a major risk. She went to Alpena initially to earn her two-year associates degree, but has made it her home for 40 years and counting, leaving only for service in the U.S. Air Force and for additional college degrees. She passed the education gene to her sons who both graduated from ACC and have gone on to earn college degrees.

Carol Shafto with lunch buddy

Carol enjoys her time with her Lunch Buddy Angelo Burns, whom she has been mentoring for four years.

Shafto explains education was that pivitol decision that changed her life and brought her to where she is today—mayor, League president, community volunteer, youth mentor, professional planner, mother, and soon to be grandmother. It’s fitting that Shafto is on the cover of this month’s Review, which focuses on 21c3’s education asset. 

“Alpena Community College’s motto is, ‘It’s a great place to start.’ And it really is. If it were not for going to ACC I would not be mayor, I would not be with the League, I would not have a professional career. College is a lifeline, a key to the future, particularly for those from a low income background.”

It’s also education that made Shafto want to give back to her community and her state by joining the League and other organizations. Her involvement with the League started with its educational wing, the Elected Officials Academy. During her opening speech as the League’s new president, she explained her desire to educate others about the importance of bridging the gap between Michigan’s urban centers and rural communities. She truly believes in the League’s motto—Better Communities. Better Michigan. But she takes it a step further.

“‘Better Communities. Better Michigan’ has a flip side—Failed Communities, Failed Michigan. And the converse, when we THRIVE, we THRIVE together.”

Shafto said she was taught early in life to resent cities—especially Detroit—because rural areas cannot successfully compete for resources usually allocated on population. She has seen firsthand the urban-rural divide and how “downstate” means anything “south of me.” But her view changed after participating in a League/MSHDA sponsored public policy forum series a couple years ago.

“I specifically remember it was at the session at the Detroit Institute of the Arts,” she stated in her speech to 400-plus Michigan community leaders. “That morning I had a personal revelation—a very simple concept that probably all of you know—but I integrated it into my awareness for the first time. ‘If Detroit Fails, Alpena fails.’ If our largest cities fail, our smallest cities fail. If urban fails, rural fails . . . we are all inextricably linked.”

Carol Shafto wedding officiant

As mayor, Carol was in the unique position of being able to officiate at the marriage of her son, Shawn Shafto, to Sasha Walker. Photo by Joseph Veselenak.

Shafto is a firm supporter of creating desirable places in Michigan where people want to work, live, and play.  But it’s impossible to talk about building desirable places without talking about the funding. For cities and villages, that funding source is revenue sharing. She said any further cuts to revenue sharing jeopardizes not only each community individually but all communities as a whole.

  “You cannot balance the state’s budget on the backs of the very units that assure Michigan’s success,” Shafto said. “Michigan fails when Michigan’s cities fail. You cannot have a strong state without strong cities and villages.”

  Shafto is the first League board president from Northern Michigan since Jim Sinclair, Rogers City councilmember, who retired “up north” from the Plymouth area. Sinclair, who died in 2007, was League president in 2003-04. He was not only a fellow elected official, but also a mentor and cheerleader-in-chief for Shafto. Sinclair is recognized as one of the League’s outstanding board presidents and the League’s Jim Sinclair Exceptional Service Award is named in his honor.

  Shafto realized that as League president she would be able to shine a light on her community and showcase the city of 11,000 to the rest of the state. “Alpena is geographically isolated,” she said. “People don’t just stumble into Alpena. It’s not on your way to anything else. So we have to work extra hard getting people here by having attractions they want to see and lifestyle amenities that make them want to stay.”

“During Convention, we thanked the six members who were leaving the board and I was particularly struck with how the League, as an association, is a true integrator. As Ken Cockrel Jr., councilmember of Detroit, shook hands and said goodbye to Dave Post, village manager of Hillman—population 685, I saw again how the League really values the diversity of its membership and leadership. This is the outlook and attitude that will make it work for Michigan. As the Mighty Mac unites our upper and lower peninsulas, I hope to use my year as president to help be a bridge between the urban and rural, big and little.”

Alpena Mayor Carol Shafto’s Personal Side

Carol Shafto weightloss

A personal triumph was her recent weight loss of more than a 100 pounds.

When she isn’t working as a professional planner, mayor, or on League business, new League President Carol Shafto pursues other interests—mentoring and staying in shape.
  For the past four years, she’s been a volunteer in the Boys and Girls Club of Alpena’s Lunch Buddy program. During that time she meets regularly with Angelo Burns, 11. Angelo was having trouble in school but has turned his life around, in part, due to Shafto’s influence.

  “When Angelo is with her, he’s so much happier,” said Angelo’s mother, Ja’nae Marotta. “Before he started the program, he was emotional and would have outbursts. Now he’s able to handle things better. I appreciate her very much. I couldn’t get through to him—it had to be Carol.”

  But juggling her many hats isn’t easy. About two years ago, Shafto realized she needed to start leading a healthier life. She began exercising regularly, eating better, and had gastric lap-band surgery. In December 2009 a follow-up elective abdominal surgery resulted in life-threatening post-op complications. A blood clot went to Shafto’s lung and she was airlifted to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City where she remained in cardiac intensive care for 21 days. While there she underwent two additional surgeries, developed an infection, and then got pneumonia.

  “I didn’t realize it was touch and go for many days,” Shafto said. “It was a very difficult time for me and my family. I was scheduled to be home for three weeks and, instead, was away from work for nearly four months.” Showing her true commitment to the League, Shafto’s first major excursion after being discharged from the hospital was traveling to Lansing for the League’s February 2010 board meeting. She has since returned to full strength and health again.

Shafto is very proud to report that she’s lost 100 pounds and is feeling better than ever. “Before, I was the ultimate couch potato,” Shafto said. “But I decided I wanted to live long and prosper, like Spock. Now I work out every day for 75 minutes. I ride my bike every chance I get with a goal of 500 miles per season. It’s a whole different life now.” mml-stopper


Matt Bach is director of communications for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at or 734-669-6317.



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