Rinsema-Sybenga Live, Work, Play

November 12, 2006
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MUSKEGON — While the motto "Live, Work, Play" may be just words to some in Muskegon, it is true for Dan Rinsema-Sybenga, manager of the Muskegon Main Street program.

Rinsema-Sybenga, 30, exemplifies the spirit of that motto, with his home just a bike ride away from his job in the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce office and with his efforts to grow and improve the downtown.

After growing up in Sarnia, Ontario, Rinsema-Sybenga moved with his family to Grand Rapids in time for junior high school, attending Oakdale Christian School, then moved back to Canada for high school. He returned to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College, where he earned a degree in French and political science. After graduating from Calvin, he married wife Sarah, and the couple moved to Japan for four years to teach English.

"It really was the experience that kind of shaped our perspective on the world," he said.

Growing up in areas in two different countries that shared his predominantly Dutch heritage, Rinsema-Sybenga said it was an eye-opening experience to live in Japan, where he was a minority. He said it gave him a greater appreciation for diversity and acceptance, and that he realized during his time there how important a person's cultural background is and how important it is to work to understand people of different cultures.

While living in Kumamoto, Rinsema-Sybenga said he experienced Japanese culture from a traditional viewpoint that focused on the fishing-based economy. He said the most important part of diversity is continuing to expose oneself to different people and different cultures.

"You really have to keep pushing your comfort zone," he said. "Keep being willing to go to the limits of it."

Rinsema-Sybenga said expanding that comfort zone is important not just for individuals, but for business and community, as well.

Though he and his wife would have liked to remain in Japan and work with community development there, Rinsema-Sybenga said it was difficult to gain such a position, as Japan has prescribed roles for foreigners. So instead, the couple returned to West Michigan when his wife was offered a job in Muskegon. Now the executive director of Sacred Suds and Bethany Housing Ministry, Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga continues to work there. 

The couple still has hopes of working in international community development someday, but no plans are on the horizon, he said.

When the couple returned to the United States, Rinsema-Sybenga, still a Canadian citizen, decided to continue his education, and received a master's degree in public administration from Grand Valley State University. During his time at the university, he worked at the Community Research Institute as a researcher.

He received permanent U.S. residency status in May 2004 and will be eligible to apply for citizenship next year, which he said he plans to pursue.

During his time at the Community Research Institute, Rinsema-Sybenga said he learned a lot about the way people perceive their communities through numbers.

"Data, in some ways, is a very divisive tool," he said, adding that it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on the different goals and expectations of the interpreter.

"Data always wants to be understood in an individual context, and you have to be willing to listen to the whole story," he said.

While finishing his master's degree in May 2005, Rinsema-Sybenga began an internship with Muskegon Area First, which led to his position as the Muskegon Main Street manager.

"It's just been a lot of fun," he said of the position.

He said he is lucky to be working and living in the same community, especially when he is doing work to improve and promote that community. "I was happy to get a job in what I was passionate about doing, in the community where I was already living," he said.

With all the new developments taking place in Muskegon, Rinsema-Sybenga said the area is showing more and more potential.

"It's going to be different than it was before, but it's definitely going to continue to be a center for arts and entertainment, and the redevelopment and commercial opportunity that comes with that," he said.

Rinsema-Sybenga said six new small businesses have entered downtown in the last 18 months.

"They're the kind of businesses that I really see as being attractive to urban pioneers and are going to continue to be a catalyst for urban development," he said.

One of the challenges of his position is working with various members of the community who have different goals and visions for the future, Rinsema-Sybenga said.

"You have to be able to explain how the project that we're working on is for the whole community," he said.

Another issue is getting people to come downtown and see it as a place where they can live, work and play.

"An important thing is creating a place that's diverse and vibrant. It's what we need to do if we're going to get people away from the mindset of the monotony of everything being the same," he said, talking about strip malls and identical subdivisions and bringing people back to urban centers like downtown Muskegon.

Jim Edmonson, president and CEO of Muskegon Area First, said Rinsema-Sybenga's educational background and strong work ethic, as well as his travel experience and curiosity, make him a good addition to the staff.

"He has brought focus to the Muskegon Main Street Program and, in general, the entire downtown of Muskegon," Edmonson said. "He is able to work with all the players and is responsive to their many needs. Without Dan's assistance, we would not be as far along as we are in the rebirth of downtown Muskegon."

Rinsema-Sybenga helps to keep the organization's Web site current and is not afraid to be creative, Edmonson said. He also prepares statistical reports and assists with other reports and presentations.

"Dan is a great asset to the community," Edmonson said. "He and his wife represent what all downtowns are seeking to attract and keep: young urban professionals."

In addition to working to increase commercial investment in downtown Muskegon, Rinsema-Sybenga is also a board member of the Nelson Neighborhood Association and a youth leader at Bethany Church. He said his hobbies are biking and keeping up on technology news and innovations.

Though he does not know where the future will take him, Rinsema-Sybenga said he sees himself staying in community development.

"I really enjoy being a part of the field of community development: the whole spectrum — from grassroots to macro-economic changes taking place," he said. "I just hope I'll continue to be involved in some fashion of that pursuit."    

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