Ferry Dust

June 7, 2004
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Sure, Grand Rapids is now a “cool city.”

But what city in West Michigan has the coolest mayor?

Our nod goes to Muskegon Mayor SteveWarmington, who led a delegation of West Michigan VIPs and passengers ashore in Milwaukee last week in the most appropriate way during the maiden voyage of the Lake Express high-speed ferry.

After revving his engine, and accompanied by a group of fellow bikers, Warmington steered his Harley-Davidson motorcycle down the ramp.

Our nomination for runner-up goes to Norton Shores Mayor NancyCrandall, who was holding on tightly while perched on the back of a Harley that followed closely behind Warmington.

Milwaukee, by the way, is the hometown of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

  • But what exactly is a cool city? Ask people to define “cool” and you hear something like, “Well, you know, like ‘neat,’ which in popular parlance means something more than the dictionary definition “orderly, clean and tidy.”

It’s not an idle question, considering that the state is awarding grants of up to $100,000 in its Cool Cities Pilot Program — that’s taxpayers’ money — on the Avenue for the Arts and the Uptown Revitalization. The latter, among other things, will tidy up facades. And the Avenue — well, when completed, maybe it will be cool.

Then we’ll know.

  • It’s always interesting to see how others perceive you. Or, perhaps, it was an oversight, or maybe an indication that Muskegon, despite all of the well-deserved accolades for the partnership required to restore ferry service to Milwaukee, has a little image work to do.

On the cover page of a special advertising section published June 1, the day the ferry service began, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had images of the ferry cruising at speed over the water. On one side of the page, was the image of the Milwaukee Art Museum, an impressive structure with its wing-shaped roof.

On the other side, at the end of a dotted line across the page depicting the trip across Lake Michigan was — not an image from Muskegon, but Holland’s iconic DeZwaan Windmill.

  • The Downtown Development Authority will meet Wednesday, but one chair will remain empty. VerneBarry, 70, the panel’s executive director, died last Wednesday following a second leg amputation brought on by failing health.

Barry will be remembered for many things, both personal and professional, but probably none more so than his love for West Michigan.

He came here after many years as a high-level executive and ended up penniless and homeless on South Division, the victim of some personal demons that were consuming his life at that time.

He overcame those problems, however, and went to work addressing the needs of many who were in a situation similar to his — destitute and without much hope.

That work eventually culminated in his assistance with the December opening of DeVos Place, which earned Barry and others the Business Journal’s 2004 Newsmaker of the Year award.

Even though Barry had no family locally, he obviously will be missed by a great many people in West Michigan.

  • The photograph accompanying today’s Inside Track feature on BillMelvin, CEO of National Retail Equipment Liquidators, also prominently displays an Indian motorcycle, one of several that Melvin is hanging on to and selling himself.

For a guy whose job it is to move things quickly, the Indian brand represents a bit of a conundrum.

From 1901 to 1920, Indian was one of the largest manufacturers of motorcycles in the world and competed neck-and-neck with Harley Davidson through the 1950s. The industry hit rock bottom mid-century, and the company failed, allowing Harley to take over its many police contracts and survive through the downturn.

The name became legend among motorcycle enthusiasts over the next 50 years, and there were several outright fraudulent attempts to resurrect the brand in that time. Finally, in 1998, a group of investors purchased the rights to the brand from T-shirt makers, parts manufacturers, restaurants and others and consolidated Indian into one company, and began to create modern versions of the Indian Scout and Spirit motorcycles.

Unfortunately, the early models suffered from a variety of design flaws, and the fledgling company was plagued by recalls.

By the time Indian got it right, the company’s capital had run out, and only a few dozen of the 2004 models were made.

“Every manufacturer has to deal with recalls,” Melvin explained. “Just a fact of life. If any little thing goes wrong, you have to recall and fix it. Because they were short on capital, they didn’t follow through and take care of the recalls.”

All this came out when Melvin was investigating the company’s records during the course of a purchase attempt.

“It became apparent that a lot of these recall issues hadn’t been addressed, and anyone who started production back up would be responsible for it,” he explained. “The cost of addressing those recalls would have been many, many millions of dollars, and no new purchaser could override those expenses in the foreseeable future. Not even over the course of 10, 15 years.”

Melvin did go ahead with the purchase of the company’s assets, and continued efforts to reopen the plant. For once, the situation NREL purchased was worth more in one piece, as the assembly line was far more valuable than the possible return on its liquidated equipment. Numerous investors were brought in for discussion, including representatives of Orange County Choppers, the Teutul family’s custom motorcycle shop made famous on the Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper.”

But California’s labor and environmental laws scared away all potential investment, and on March 18, NREL liquidated the factory equipment.

The remaining merchandise — 76 motorcycles, including more than 40 built as part of a desperate attempt by ownership and employees to entice new investment through producing the best Indian models ever — were shipped to NREL’s Kentwood warehouse.

NREL has been slowly auctioning off the bikes to enthusiasts. Included in the collection are several high-profile specialty bikes, such as the first redesigned Scout off the production line, autographed by Indian’s entire crew, two 2005 prototypes, and custom models featured in “Terminator 3,” “Scooby Doo 2” and “The Cat in the Hat.”

So if Indian still pulls at the heartstrings, there might be a chance to nab one right here in West Michigan.    

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