Tourist mecca? Muskegon Lake cleanup gives community a new lease on life
MUSKEGON, MI – In 1985, construction began on a new hotel in downtown Muskegon close to the shore of Muskegon Lake – a source of pride and promise of revitalization for the beleaguered city.
But the Holiday Inn turned a cold shoulder to the lake.
The eight-story hotel was built with its windows facing away from Muskegon Lake, which was nothing anyone wanted to look at. Not like today, where rooms at the nearby Shoreline Inn overlooking the lake’s sparkling waters are at a premium.
After 20 years cleaning up a legacy of industrial pollution at a cost of more than $80 million, Muskegon has a lake to show off, to recreate on and once again base its economy on.
Only this time, it’s a “blue economy” – not a blue collar one.
“Over time, people recognized that having a healthy lake made a lot of sense and it was a way to market Muskegon,” said Al Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute located on the Muskegon Lake shore.
It’s a sea change in thinking. For much of its modern history, Muskegon identified itself as a working man’s town – an industrial powerhouse that fueled the war machine during the 1940s. It was the foundries and factories that put food on the table and paid for family cottages up north.
It also was the foundries and factories that filled in the lake, dumped their toxic waste into it and abandoned hulking production facilities for others to tear down and clean up. Muskegon’s identity was tied to its lake, and it wasn’t always pretty.
“Everybody used to be down on Muskegon when I got here,” said Steinman, who came to town in 2001. “It was the prevalent attitude. It was really disturbing the community was so down on itself.”
In the early 1970s, the city acquired the old Lakey Foundry on the shoreline and tore it down. It was the beginning of a revitalization of the sweeping, 7-mile southern shoreline and a shift in thinking.
To be sure, Muskegon’s is a working port. Its size and depth are what attracted sawmills in the 1800s and factories in the 1900s. It still has a healthy shipping industry, pegged by Muskegon County at more than 1 million tons of freight, aggregate, coal and salt every year.
Other aspects of the blue economy – one that’s centered on the water – include marinas, boat sales and repair, research, charter fishing and tourism that includes growing numbers of visits by cruise ships.
The challenge and, in the long run, the enormous benefit of Muskegon Lake and its redevelopment is that it’s big. The foundries and factories that once lines its south shore were sprawling, taking up large swaths of property that now have been freed up for new uses.
Development pace picks up
In 1989, a few years after Muskegon Lake was designated a Great Lakes “Area of Concern” due to pollution, SPX Corp. built an office building on the lake near downtown. It also built a restaurant, now known as Lake House Waterfront Grille.
It was the first new business development on the lake in decades.
A few years later, the first homes went up. The owners of Cole’s Bakery developed Lakeshore Yacht Harbor, a marina, and several condominiums just down the hill from their large plant on the lake.
“They had the vision for what Muskegon’s future was going to look like back then,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.
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Farther from downtown, construction on Harbour Towne condominiums, nestled between Muskegon Lake and Lake Michigan, was completed in 1994, and the 56 Balcom’s Cove high-rise condos went up in 2001.
The pace of planned development has increased significantly in recent years.
The 70-home Terrace Point Landing subdivision near downtown was completed last year and includes some homes with lake docks. It is at the former site of the sprawling Teledyne Continental Motors production plant – the most significant to ever locate on Muskegon Lake.
Next door to Terrace Point, the first of 31 single- and two-family homes at Viridian Shores is going up. That subdivision is just the beginning of a $110 million redevelopment of property known as Harbor 31, plans for which call for a marina, apartments, boat sales and storage, a senior living facility, hotel, retail and more.
A 240-home subdivision and marina called The Docks is planned where the towering, iconic Pigeon Hill sand dune stood before it was mined into oblivion.
The largest undeveloped area is the site of the former paper mill, which has been purchased by an investment group for mixed-use development called Windward Pointe. Environmental cleanup of the 120-acres site is ongoing.
At another heavily used industrial site, Ryan Leestma has plans for a $250 million development called Adelaide Pointe that will include a marina, condos, restaurant, boat storage, event center offices and more. He’s already completely overhauled a crumbling brick building right along the Lakeshore Trail pathway that now hosts small businesses.
Leestma said he has reservations for $15 million in condominiums and can’t keep up with the demand for business rental space.
“In 30 years, I think you’ll see Muskegon will be the jewel of the lakeshore,” Leestma said. “It’s going to become a major, major, major tourist destination because of all the natural resources we have.”
It is the abundant natural resources that make Muskegon unique along the Lake Michigan shoreline and especially marketable, Larsen said. The amount of public beach access is unheard of elsewhere, with Muskegon’s Pere Marquette and Kruse parks, Norton Shores’ Lake Harbor Park and the state’s P.J. Hoffmaster and Muskegon state parks offering more than 8 miles of pristine beach.
A committee at the chamber of commerce is looking to capitalize on those natural resources and is working to attract adventure cruise ships that will bring kayakers, cyclists and other outdoorsy types who won’t have a clue about the city’s polluted past, Larsen said.
While she used to brace herself to explain that past, Larsen said she now realizes “that is not part of the conversation anymore.”
“If you are over 50 or 60 years old, you may be carrying some of the past images of Muskegon in your mind,” Larsen said. “For anyone younger than that, they have no recollection of this. That’s in the history books as far as they’re concerned.”
Preserving public access
One of Muskegon’s biggest challenges is better connecting its budding downtown with the lakefront. The two are separated by a four-lane divided highway – Shoreline Drive – that serves as the business route for U.S. 31.
The city will experiment with reducing the roadway to two lanes later this summer, with the hope that pedestrians will be able to better access, for example, the Heritage Landing festival grounds, Terrace Point Landing, Shoreline Inn or the Pigeon Hill Brewing Co.
Muskegon Mayor Ken Johnson said narrowing Shoreline could also meet one of his primary objectives, which is getting more people from the urban neighborhoods to the lake.
“With considerable collaborative effort at the local, state and federal level, Muskegon Lake has been restored,” Johnson said. “We have an obligation to ourselves and future generations to preserve that progress for public enjoyment and public benefit. That’s not to say that we can’t use Muskegon Lake still as an economic engine. It’s just we must do so in harmony with nature and our residents.”
City staff are striving to ensure historical public access is maintained, including a public shoreline boardwalk popular for fishing on the Harbor 31 property, Johnson said. They also have been working to preserve access to a lookout point near the Shoreline Inn and its adjacent marina.
Public access will be maintained at Adelaide Pointe, through which the Lakeshore Trail runs, that in the long run will help business at the development, Leestma said.
“When you build public parks, yeah it costs you money,” he said. “But don’t kid yourself, more people are going to go there … and where people are, they spend.”
Steinman, the director of the Annis Water Resources Institute, said maintaining public access is critical to the lake’s legacy.
“Private industry polluted the lakes, public dollars cleaned it up,” Steinman said. “Public access to me is a big deal in terms of what the future of this lake is. It’s a public resource, a natural resource, and the public should have access to it.”
Those whose professions have been tied to the lake’s cleanup and health say they have the benefit of seeing what has happened in other beach towns and knowing where the pitfalls, including lack of access, lie.
“We see it as a transition not unlike when the lumber era turned to industry — they thought it was correct at the time.” Larsen said. “Now we have to think long term … We have to look at the waterfront as a gift that we must preserve in a way that will stand the test of time.”
Author: Lynn Moore, MLive