L.A. On The Lake

June 17, 2002
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HOLLAND — Still California dreaming?

Wake up. If we don’t change they way we do things here in West Michigan, we could some day find ourselves living the urban California nightmare — complete with the traffic congestion, the uncontrolled urban sprawl and the environmental problems that are synonymous with Los Angeles.

Far fetched? Not to the planning consultant who’s looking at the future of West Michigan for a coalition of communities and businesses.

“L.A. on the Lake” is the term Michael Gallis of Michael Gallis & Associates Inc., a nationally known consultant on regional issues based in Charlotte, N.C., has used to describe the fast-growing triangular region that consists of Grand Rapids, Holland, Grand Haven and Muskegon.

It is a broad area that is fast becoming increasingly urban and now boasts a population of 1.1 million people and is forecast to grow to 1.3 million to 1.4 million people within 20 years.

The present population alone puts West Michigan “in a whole new league,” said Jay Peters project administrator for the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, a public-private planning initiative established to look at “the forces that are changing the fabric of our communities” and position the region for the future.

Adequately preparing the region to compete economically in the future, and to handle the growth and development that lay ahead, requires governmental, political and business leaders to work more collaboratively than ever before, Peters said. That, in turn, requires people to adopt a new way of thinking and to take a far broader view of West Michigan as a single metropolitan region, he said.

“It’s a mindset,” Peters last week during the monthly Holland Area Chamber of Commerce Early Bird Breakfast. “People don’t talk like we come from a huge metropolitan area. We talk like we’re in a small town and here are a couple of problems to talk about.”

The future that those who live here face is based on the ability of governmental, business and community leaders to work collectively on a broad basis to address issues such as how to continue economic prosperity, managing growth and development to negate its negative aspects, and preserving and protecting natural resources.

“The way we collaborate will make a huge difference in whether we can maintain the quality of life we appreciate,” Peters said. “The fuse has been lit. The future is clear if we don’t think about any other way to do it.

“This is not the type of activity that’s going to be addressed locally,” he said.

One of the preliminary conclusions of Gallis, who was retained by the Strategic Alliance to conduct the 18-month, $1.3 million study, is that the area encompassed by I-96, I-196 and U.S. 31 along the lakeshore is becoming a “classic major metropolitan grid,” Peters said.

The fastest growth within the metropolitan region is occurring along the main transportation corridors. The new M-6 South Beltline under construction in Kent County and eastern Ottawa County, and the proposed U.S. 31 bypass and planned widening of M-45 in Ottawa County, will only add to the emerging metropolitan grid, Peters said.

In other preliminary findings of the study:

  • The region ranks 9th among the 11 largest metropolitan regions in the Upped Midwest, ahead of Dayton, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky., and had the fastest population growth over the last 30 years.
  • It is also the only region in the group with a growing manufacturing base and had had the fastest job growth over the last 30 years.
  • The region’s largest population center, unlike other areas, is located inland, away from the waterfront. The resulting developing occurring toward Lake Michigan will in turn put increasing pressure on the lake and its watershed.
  • **The region has more units of local government than any other, with four counties (Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan), 48 townships, 38 cities and villages and 71 schools districts.

The Strategic Alliance’s goal is to unite the business community and those communities to develop a unified approach and common strategies for the future.

The Strategic Alliance next May will publish a sourcebook detailing the region’s amenities and demographic data. The first phase of the study, launched in July 2000, will offer insights into the major challenges facing the region in the future. Subsequent phases may look at ways to address emerging issues.

For more on the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, go to www.wm-alliance.org

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