Freestone Likes The Green Way

June 20, 2002
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HOLLAND — The equation, as Ken Freestone sees it, is quite simple: Green equals green.

His theory, in this case, applies to the age-old rivalry between environ-mentalists and developers. The reasoning is that with evidence showing consumers prefer develop-ments that make use of features such as wetlands, streams and woodlands, while still having close proximity to urban amenities, both sides can achieve their goals if they work together rather than as adversaries.

“Our ‘green’ means green in their pocket,” said Freestone, the executive director of the Macatawa Greenway Partnership, a public-private coalition that’s working to preserve habitats, waterways and environmentally sensitive lands in the Holland-Zeeland area.

Among the organization’s backers are local corporate icons Haworth Inc., Herman Miller Inc., Johnson Controls Inc. and Howard Miller Clock Co.

“We know that development is here,” Freestone said. “We think the best thing we can do is work with developers, and if they are going to develop, do the best development as possible that fits with the environment and also protects as much habitat for both people and wildlife.”

The Macatawa Greenway Partnership’s effort includes acquiring or brokering the acquisition by land conservancies of parcels within the Lake Macatawa watershed, an area encompassing 110,000 square feet in southwestern Ottawa County. The goal is to preserve key parcels and, where feasible, connect them for public recreation, as well as promote the development of a regional trail network.

Preferring not to hold land itself in the long run, the organization has brokered the sale or donation of several parcels to other preservation groups, as well as received some land contributions. One donated parcel covers a 700-foot stretch along the Black River, just east of Holland, that abuts the city’s Paw Paw Preserve.

The organization’s work also includes public outreach and promoting land-management practices that foster environmental protection and preservation, as well as break down the barriers dividing the interest of environmentalists and developers.

“We are first and foremost about protecting land and we have to educate people about why it is important and what it means to the future of the area,” said Freestone, a self-described environmentalist who signed on as the Macatawa Greenway Partnership’s executive director in April 2000.

Before joining the Macatawa Greenway Partnership, Freestone worked in the corporate services department at the Holland campus of Davenport University. He previously held a variety of jobs for a few years after selling a business he owned, Packard Advertising Specialists, from 1987 to 1993.

A sales and marketing professional for much of his career in the audio-visual industry, the 45-year-old Freestone says the position with the Macatawa Greenway Partnership allows him to use the skills he learned in the business world in a new arena in which he’s always had an interest — environmentalism. Only this time, rather than selling a product or service, he’s selling an idea — and in the process making a difference in the region’s quality of life.

“I’m one of those people who have a job I always dreamed of. I’m doing the things I always wanted to do, and I get paid for this,” said Freestone, whose involvement with the Macatawa Greenway Partnership dates beck to the group’s origins.

In 1994, a strategic planning initiative conducted by the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council, a regional planning agency, identified the environment as one of the critical issues facing the area. Freestone, then a member of the Holland City Council, participated in a committee that examined the issue further.

The committee identified river corridors and parcels within the Lake Macatawa watershed that members believed needed protecting. Out of that effort came the idea for linking parcels for public recreation, and ultimately the formation of the Macatawa Greenway Partnership in 1997 to pursue that goal.

The area’s rapid growth and development during the 1990s gave the effort an added sense of urgency, with many of the people involved feeling the need to protect certain lands as a way to preserve their quality of life.

“We said what could we actually do to impact the environment and not impact the environment. We said land preservation was the best,” Freestone said. “Everyone saw the development and growth and a lot of people were feeling a bit nostalgic. ‘I remember where I used to ride my bike, I remember where I used to fish, I remember where I used to play,’ and now those places are gone.”

The partnership today operates on an annual budget of about $100,000, about half of which comes from corporate donors and individuals. One of the first contributors to the effort was Dick Haworth, chairman of Haworth Inc.

That donation, as well as support from other businesses and business leaders, gave the Macatawa Greenway Partnership the credibility it needed to go forward, Freestone said.

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