A Sudden Sense Of Rejuvenation

May 17, 2002
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It’s only two months into 2001 and things suddenly look lots better for downtown Muskegon than they have in quite some time.

Most Business Journal readers will recall that Muskegon’s downtown mall is fast becoming an echo chamber. The Steketees anchor has little more in it than chrome-plated display racks. The other major store, Sears, is marking time until dragging its anchor to the new Lakes Mall in the southeast suburbs. A would-be four-star waterfront hotel stands half-finished, waving clouded plastic drop-cloth pennants in the wind.

Yet things do look much better. Downtown’s north side, a brownfield site, is the focus of development plans that are beginning to move, thanks to universal community support. The Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce has relocated to an accessible site and its membership is growing. Grand Rapids-commuter members of the chamber talk enthusiastically about a new air of excitement not only downtown but throughout the shoreline community.

Part of the optimism may arise from anticipation of an exciting summer with crowds exceeding 100,000 expected to greet the Tall Ships flotilla in August.

But now comes the tremendous news that Grand Valley State University and West Michigan Market and Dock Corporation have settled their differences. In fact, each is contractually pledged to help establish a naval memorial museum on downtown’s Muskegon Lake waterfront, a project that might come to fruition in less than three years.

In and of itself, the museum never will make more than a modest contribution to commerce in Muskegon. The same applies to GVSU’s neighboring Annis Water Resources Institute.

Yet the two are mutually supporting attractions for a resumed ferry service between Muskegon and Milwaukee. And should ferry service come to fruition, the possibilities for additional downtown commerce really start growing. Suddenly there’s more reason to stretch for completion of a half-finished hotel. Suddenly, there’s more reason to think a Great Lakes Aquarium will become a living, working goal rather than a mere hope.

And perhaps the most intriguing possibility is that expanded commerce will give the Mart Dock itself economic incentive to re-develop some or all of its own land, by far the downtown’s biggest closely held waterfront parcel.

Now there may be skeptics who note that the Mart Dock did nothing with its 40-plus acres of land back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when ferry service was brisk. But back then Muskegon bristled with disdain for the firm’s owners. Moreover, the city and the community could have cared less about the waterfront. And it showed: Muskegon was an archetype foundry town turning its back on the Great Lakes’ finest natural harbor, using that water resource as a toxic waste dilution zone.

Through all that time up to the present, the Mart Dock has been a quietly profitable operation, quietly dealing in construction aggregates, refrigerated and frozen storage and ice making.

But the community has changed dramatically. So has the lake. Once chalky and opaque, it now is a crystalline blue; literally one of the nation’s biggest environmental successes.

To be sure, some interests in Muskegon want nothing to change. Such attitudes exist everywhere. But many more people in Muskegon now are energized about the future and are working with excitement for that future. Thus the arrangement between GVSU and the Mart Dock is not merely a happy ending, but one more partnership in an exciting beginning.

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