Portland’s Public Works Director Mike Hyland was driving to Traverse City on a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, to pick up a piece of equipment that he anticipated would need to be replaced sooner rather than later, when his phone rang. On the other end of the line was City Manager, Tutt Gorman. Tutt asked him if he would please stop by City Hall before he left for the day because he wanted him to look at something. Mike chuckled a bit and responded that it would be a bit difficult because he was miles away and would be really late, but that if it was urgent maybe he could help him over the phone. It was then that Tutt informed him that at the upcoming City Council meeting, to be held the following Monday, that he was going to recommend to the Council that Portland’s newest street, a cul-de-sac off of Culver Road built to serve the planned new Sparrow Family Health Center, be named Hyland Drive in recognition of Mike’s 50 years of service in building and maintaining Portland’s strong public works infrastructure.
Tutt Gorman explains, “In making my recommendation to City Council, there was no hesitation and the choice was clear. The Mayor and City Council strongly supported it as well. I can think of no other name or person more fitting that Mr. Hyland and to name a street after a man who helps build them and who is rooted in our community. In his 50 years of service with the City, Mike’s contribution to the infrastructure and the electrical grid will benefit the community for generations to come.”
In January, the amicable 69-year-old Mike Hyland will mark 50 years as a city employee. He has lived and worked his entire life in Portland. Mike was born and raised in the community in a family of six kids. He and his siblings did odd jobs around town while they were growing up, to earn some spending money, “like shovel driveways for 25 cents”, he shared. He got his first regular job working part-time in a local restaurant when he was 16. When the cook suddenly quit, the owner taught Mike who had now turned 17, to cook. Next, he went to work for Pure Oil Gas Station which was located on the corner across from Keusch’s, where Sanborn Realty is now located. Shortly after turning eighteen, he then took a job at General Motors in Lansing while waiting to get drafted and go to Vietnam. But, it was the time of the Draft Lotto and his draft number did not come up, so he was not drafted.
Mike soon got married and took a full-time job at the Portland Power Plant, working to help run the generator from 4PM to Midnight, at $2.35 an hour. “Back then” said Mike, “We also helped dispatch fire, police and ambulance. It was before the 9-1-1 phone system”. There was also the need to do other electrical work and manage the power lines when there were problems. Employees took turns being on call and “When you were on-call you always got called out”, Mike said. Mike found the hours to be convenient enough that he was able to take on a part-time job, 6-hours-a-day, working at Keusch Service Station. Eventually Mike volunteered for the fire department where he served for forty-two years, twenty-two of them as the Fire Chief.
Mike has been instrumental in the development of Portland’s streets, bridges and infrastructure. “Most people don’t realize that in the 1960’s to early 70’s most of Portland’s streets were dirt”, Mike recalled during a recent visit with the Beacon, as he pulled out and shared dozens of old photographs of city landmarks, buildings and streets that he has in his private collection. “Did you know that Grand River Ave. used to be called DeWitt Street?” he asked. “Then when it was decided to upgrade and become a state route a lot of changes were made in how it was laid out. Houses were moved as the new Grand River Ave. was taking shape.” In one case, Mike shared a photo of one house that was turned so that the porch faced a different direction. Mike narrated the photos with the confidence of a learned historian, that included the names of people who lived in certain houses and on certain lots, dating back into the 1930’s. For example, “Sam Proctor lived in a house that no longer exists but sat on the property now known as Powers Park”, Mike shared. His knowledge of who has lived in which house, and the sequence of people who have lived in it since it was built, seems almost limitless. He has a similar memory of community businesses as well.
But, Mike’s knowledge of Portland’s buildings and streets is not confined to just the physical development of those structures. He also has extensive memory of many of the political issues that came along with development including; when I-96 was being built through the Portland area in the late 50’s early 60’s; the battle in Portland’s attempt to annex adjoining sections in the 1970’s after the State Legislature passed an anti-annexation Bill and created a “Boundary Commission”; and how it was LBJ, while he was still in Congress, who was the impetus behind the Rural Electric Administration, that had as its outcome rural electric lines throughout the Country.
Perhaps Mike’s most significant professional achievement and area of expertise lies in his knowledge of the development of Portland’s electrical grid. Specifically, how and why 85% of Portland’s total power lines are underground. “There was never really a plan to do this”, Mike declared. “It started out on Maynard Road when the city got a grant to pave it. The electrical poles were in the way and so they had to be taken down. It was decided not to put them back up but to bury the wires instead. That was the catalyst. Then the following summer, 1982 or 1983, some people fell through the sidewalks on Kent Street. Several buildings have basements that extended under the sidewalks. There wasn’t much support so after they collapsed, and they were being replaced, it was decided to put in conduits in a two-block area under Kent Street. But, there was never really a plan to bury the power lines before that. Now we’re required to.” Mike reported that he receives regular inquiries from other municipalities about the mechanics of burying public power lines. One city, Petoskey is currently working on this.
When asked about how much power our Portland Power Plant currently generates, Mike replied, “Right now, none”. “It’s cheaper to buy it”, he explained, as he pulled out a pie chart to explain where the city’s power currently comes from. “We are members of the Michigan Public Power Agency (MPPA) which is a group of 17 cities like ourselves, that co-owns or purchases power from seven different sources”. Mike then began a conversation of renewable energy and why its currently cheaper to buy power from the MPPA. But, Mike assured that with Portland’s own power plant right outside his office door that it would not take much time to start up the generator if necessary to have literally uninterrupted service for the community.
When asked about a rumor that he is considering retirement Mike responded, “sure, someday I will probably retire, but I don’t see it happening in the immediate future”. “Of course,”, Mike smiled, “my wife”, who he has been married to for more than 50 years, “may have a date in mind”. When Portland experienced a disastrous tornado a few years ago it did so without losing power. That may seem like a wondrous thing unless you know that behind it all is Mike Hyland who like the city’s buried power lines is generally unseen, reliable and tenaciously dependable to keep Portland powered. When the day arrives for him to retire you can be sure he will have a great plan in place to keep the lights on long into the future for all of us.