Alliance Sourcebook Checks Sprawl

August 9, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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HOLLAND — Two years ago when the West Michigan Strategic Alliance began to see the effect development was having on the area and what could possibly result if something wasn’t done, it called in help.

The help came in the form of Michael Gallis, of North Carolina-based Michael Gallis & Associates, and Bob Smith, president of San Diego-based Strategies & Teams. The two were hired by the Alliance to conduct an 18-month study that would create a comprehensive database of information called the Common Framework.

It was the goal of the Alliance to make that information public and to teach the community what it was doing and why it needed to turn to planned development instead of turning West Michigan into a “Los Angeles on the Lake.”

“That saying actually comes from the fact that we are the only major metropolitan area that doesn’t sit on the lakeshore. We are inland. Now, that has done tremendous things for us. That has given us very unique farmland and open space,” said Jay Peters, project administrator for the West Michigan Strategic Alliance. “Much like the inland L.A., you can be in an urban environment and then in about a half an hour be in a resort area. You can’t do that in many places around the country. It is a unique structure. Now, like L.A., that structure is leading us to grow at a rapid rate.”

In another, more frightening parallel, West Michigan also runs the risk of filling in just as L.A. did. Roads have been built in response to the happenstance growth, traffic congestion has become a way of life, the environmental assets are all but gone and the quality of life has decreased drastically.

It is for these reasons that Peters and the Alliance stress the need of a regional plan, a regional vision. The Alliance wants to become a catalyst for ongoing regional collaboration. With more than 100 units of government in the tri-county area and with more than 1.1 million people living here, it is critical that everyone knows their role in regional development.

“It is only recently that Patty Birkholz (R-Saugatuck) began to create some legislation and some incentives for when people do, in fact, begin to plan and coordinate amongst themselves,” said Peters. “Kent County right now is developing at a rate where the land is being gobbled up six times faster than their population growth. Kent County has been quoted in USA Today as the sixth-worst sprawling metropolitan area in the country.”

After establishing the common framework from which to work, the Alliance created a sourcebook — available late this month — which uses visually friendly language as a way for people to see the region as they have never seen it before. The sourcebook takes a complicated subject matter and shows how the region is really interrelated. It contains some projections but mostly is a snapshot of the 10 central activities the Alliance identified as problem areas.

It also places West Michigan in a number of different contexts, from local to global.

“When Gallis came to town and said, ‘OK, you want to look at yourself regionally — that’s great — but let’s just take a step back and let us see what is going on in a global scale — and you might not even know it.’ There were less than a billion people in the Americas and less than a billion people in the European countries, where free world trading took place and regional trade areas were set up around the world, but essentially only half the world participated. Then the fall of the Berlin Wall happened and all of a sudden there are another 3 billion people that are now bigger players in the market,” said Peters.

Adding more players means a changing market, Peters said, and West Michigan, with its heavy manufacturing emphasis, must adapt.

“I don’t think anyone is saying the Strategic Alliance needs to create another layer of government, or that the Alliance needs to help people make their decisions or only have one regional planning commission. But I think we need to make sure that with the challenges that having so many different divisions and new parties entering into the market present, we need to understand those and make sure we overcome them, not suffer from them and bad decision making,” said Peters.

“I think that is part of the recommendation that is coming out of the Alliance or the priority coming out of the collaboration. A number of those priorities require strategy which may require a change of state legislature or state incentives to help provide additional reasons why people need to start thinking and acting.”

Incentives, however, also are part of the problem when it comes to unplanned growth. When a farmer is faced with the reality of receiving $3 an acre to farm the land and $3 million an acre if he sells to a developer, the choice is easy.

The question then becomes how that will affect the quality of life when that farmland is all gone.

Peters noted that until a regional dialogue is created and people really understand all of the components of what could happen, the region will continue to meet the status quo and face the possibility of becoming an L.A. on the lake.

“I don’t think anyone is saying growth, in and of itself, is a bad thing. But uncontrolled growth can be a killer and I think it could be argued that in our region right now we are not very good at coordinating land use, transportation and infrastructure planning. But I think to be fair that could be said about a lot of metropolitan areas,” said Peters.

Eventually, the Alliance must prove itself and its value to the community. Through Gallis’ study, the conclusion was reached that West Michigan is a wonderful place, but it is in a period of transition, and only a narrow window of opportunity is available to act and make this a place where future generations are going to want to live.

“I think we have a stated mission and we are developing a stated vision, that we don’t want to just preserve what we have. We think we have the tools and resources and with the people properly coordinated and motivated, we can potentially become the best place to live, work and play in the upper Midwest,” said Peters. “We can take nothing for granted. I think the goal here is to really make sure West Michigan remains a vital, healthy, socially just place to live.” 

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