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Meet Me in Grand Rapids
Patrick Rollens, 21 Nov 07
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By some strange karmic twist of fate, Grand Rapids seems to be the center of my universe right now. At Greenbuild I was inspired -- like so many of you -- by Mayor George Heartwell's stirring oratory about his city's sustainable future. Days later, I found myself googling Grand Rapids, hoping to learn more about its past accomplishments. At work this past week, I checked my magazine's editorial calendar -- we're a regional business publication -- and sure enough, Grand Rapids was listed as a topic for next month's issue. At this point, the titular city in Western Michigan was staring me in the face (literally).

The weekend was fast approaching, with the rumor of snow (stranger things have happened in Chicago this time of the year). I made the decision: I would travel up the west coast of Michigan to Grand Rapids and see the city for myself. As it turned out, the weekend trip was an uplifting journey through a much-maligned section of the Great Lakes, one that is well-positioned to usher in a new future.

Grand Rapids is only about three hours from Chicago; fewer as the crow flies, but that ignores the magnificent expanse of Lake Michigan. By necessity, travelers from Chicago must head south, looping low around the bottom of the lake through Indiana, then back up along Michigan's west coast.

In contrast to southeastern Michigan, which has (for better or for worse) cast its lot with the struggling auto industry, western Michigan faces a bright future. The shoreline is dotted with dozens of small communities, each a tiny tourist mecca for travelers from Milwaukee, Detroit and Chicago. The entire region is a perfect microeconomy designed to capitalize on the resources of tomorrow: clean water, clear air and a vital wilderness.

These things are found only sparingly in Chicago, where the roar of traffic pervades even the most secluded natural areas.

The idea of seeking quiet and refuge in a place like Western Michigan fits well with the idea of the bright green future we're all striving toward, and here's why: Long-range vacations are supremely unsustainable, while local travel far more attractive. And traveling regionally allows vacationers to to interact with local communities that are dealing with some of the same social and environmental issues.

In Grand Rapids, I found a city in the midst of a rebirth. No fewer than five highrise construction cranes dotted the skyline, and I reminded myself that Grand Rapids boasts an extraordinary volume of LEED-certified space for a city its' size. Touring the downtown, I excitedly pointed out to my girlfriend locales from my previous research -- including the Green Well, the first restaurant in the Midwest to be LEED-certified inside and out. I recalled Mayor Heartwell's remarks about how his city's growth is superimposed onto a broad based sustainability plan. By all accounts, it's paying off in spades.

All of Western Michigan seems surprisingly adept at safeguarding the future of its wilderness. Near Grand Rapids, an innkeeper in Saugatuck described to me how the state has systematically established strong protections for hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.

However, a new dust-up in Saugatuck has brought home the problem of shoreline development. A billionaire developer has painstakingly acquired a collection of lakefront property in Saugatuck and seems ready to move on an expansive mixed use project in the tiny town. My colleague Megan Brody has penned a fascinating analysis of this pending conflict for this month's Midwest Real Estate News:

The community is anxious to see what [Aubrey] McClendon has in mind for the property. Disclosure won't occur until at least 2008. The billionaire could be waiting to make a move until he's acquired more land. His camp is in the midst of talks with surrounding private property owners. Parcels that contain a summer camp and a private business offering dune buggy rides could become part of the future development.

A hike through the Tallmadge Woods to the area known as the Crow's Nest, a picturesque peak on the top of a dune, reveals a breathtaking view of the southern end of the McClendon property. The eye travels across the Kalamazoo River to the largely uninterrupted parcel, then to the white-capped waves lapping the sandy shores of Lake Michigan. The view is stunning and would no doubt be diminished by rows of mansions. It is easy to see why residents and environmentalists want the land to remain in its natural state.

"People come here to experience uniqueness," David Swan says, who leads the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance with Marcia Perry. Swan conveys his passion for the property during the hike just after summer's end, along with his well-behaved golden retriever. He has lived in the area on and off for close to a decade and was drawn to the region because of its natural beauty and trail systems.

"If someone takes that away, they take away our economy," he says, gesturing to the landscape.



Saugatuck's true test is only beginning. Michigan has one of the most extensive freshwater shoreline systems in the country, and other developers are no doubt waiting to hear the outcome of the Saugatuck announcement. Like the rest of Michigan, the town has an abundance of resources and no clear way to safeguard them. It's up to local and regional leaders to pitch in and speak with one clear voice. The opportunity for leadership is tangible, and Grand Rapids might just be able to lend a hand.

Image: Flickr/ifmuth

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