This lawyer has faith in future of Muskegon

January 12, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — Chris Kelly is a diehard believer that there is no place like home. In his case, home is Muskegon, and even back when it was more of a gritty, heavy-industry town, it still held more allure for him when he'd finished law school than the sunshine and excitement he had experienced in Southern California.

Kelly, a partner at the Parmenter O'Toole law firm located on the shore of Muskegon Lake, grew up in the Glenside neighborhood a little south of the lake. He recalls that when he was a kid riding in the family car on a sunny day, if they were heading east "all of a sudden, it got dark out." That was the air pollution from all the industrial plants clustered around the east end of Muskegon Lake.

The kid from a working-class family got a good education. Kelly said that he, his dad and brother used to vigorously argue the issues of the day, which may have sparked his interest in law and debate. By the seventh grade, he was absolutely sure he was going to be a lawyer; when his class was assigned to write a paper about their career plans, he even put it in writing.

Kelly graduated from the University of Michigan in 1982. At that time, there was a recession going on and the Michigan economy was hurting. Kelly and a buddy of his planned to attend law school, but since things were so dismal in Michigan, they applied to a school in sunny California: California Western School of Law in San Diego.

Each summer during law school, he came back to Muskegon to work as a law clerk at the firm of O'Toole, Stevens, Johnson, Knowlton, Potter & Rolf. When he graduated in 1985, he had a job offer at a small law firm in San Diego but decided his heart was back in Muskegon. So he returned to West Michigan and was promptly hired as an associate attorney at the O'Toole firm, which later merged with the Parmenter firm.

He says his employment there is "the only job I've ever had," and it is right where he wants to be. He's been a partner since 1988.

His life focus is divided into three areas: first and foremost, his wife and three daughters; then his law career; and then his home town, which has undergone a real renaissance.

"To me, it's just amazing what happened here in the last 15 years," he said.

Christopher L. Kelly

Company: Parmenter O'Toole law firm

Title: Partner

Age: 48

Birthplace:Muskegon

Residence:LaketonTownship

Family/Personal: Wife, Kim, and three daughters, who range in age from 10 to 17.

Business/Community Organizations: Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Muskegon Summer Celebration board, Muskegon Country Club, Muskegon Commerce Bank board, University of Michigan Club of West Michigan, American Business Club, Muskegon County Bar Association, State Bar of Michigan, Michigan State Bar Foundation, American Bar Association.

Biggest Career Break: "Two things: One was going to the University of Michigan, a life-changing event. And the other was getting this job."

Parmenter O'Toole has old aerial photos showing square miles of industrial properties near the east shore of Muskegon Lake. One of the most striking features of the photos is the huge Continental Motors plant, and next to it, on the lakeshore, is a large power plant — precisely where the Parmenter O'Toole building now sits, completed in 2006. Almost all of the industrial structures in the old photos are long gone, with large swathes of open area available for development between the lake and downtown Muskegon today.

Kelly said Muskegon still is an industrial town, but the industry is "just not on the lake anymore."

Kelly said one of the most important events in the history of Muskegon took place in the 1970s when the huge Muskegon wastewater treatment facility was built several miles to the east of the city. All the industry in the area was required to connect to it, which ended the generations of industrial pollution of Muskegon Lake that had started with the lumber mills.

As a boy, Kelly recalls being on Muskegon Lake in his father's boat and crossing through various colors of water, due to the industrial contamination. But over the past 30 years, the lake has become "crystal clear," he said, a mecca for boaters and fishermen — and even bird watchers. Bald eagles sometimes fly past the lakeside windows of the Parmenter O'Toole building, he said.

Kelly predicts that "it's going to continue to expand down here" on the new Muskegon Lake waterfront with future hotels, restaurants, condos and other developments. Muskegon Lake, of course, has direct access to Lake Michigan.

The economy has slowed down investments everywhere, but Kelly said downtown Muskegon is lucky to have a number of new construction projects under way or recently completed, such as: the Hines Building, the new home of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce; the $11 million culinary arts building being built by Baker College; the Sidock Building; and a new sports bar/restaurant, the Muskegon Athletic Club.

Three entities deserve the credit for the revitalization of Muskegon in the last few years, he said: the Chamber of Commerce, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, and the city of Muskegon through its Downtown Muskegon Development Corp.

Kelly's legal expertise is commercial law, oriented to business transactions and real estate deals.

"I'm a writer," said Kelly. "I write contracts and put together deals," adding that he enjoys the intellectual challenge of a complicated transaction.

One of the biggest deals he played a role in was the purchase of Treetops Resort near Gaylord in 2002. Kelly represented the group that bought the well-known golf resort. He has been involved in a number of golf course deals and is an avid golfer. At Treetops, he played with Lee Janzen, two-time winner of the U.S. Open, and he is well acquainted with famed golf coach Rick Smith.

As for his personal interests, "most important is family. I spend a lot of time with the girls," said Kelly. His three daughters range in age from 10 to 17, and the family does a lot of boating on Muskegon Lake in the summer.

"Just about everything we do is as a family," he said.

Kelly has long had a high profile in the Muskegon community, especially in connection with the summer events for which the city is now well-known. He was a founding board member of Muskegon Summer Celebration when it began in 1993 and is still on the board.

Kelly said Summer Celebration is pretty much the same organization that put on the Seaway Festival years ago, but they "really improved the lineup" of musical performers for Summer Celebration, booking Crosby, Stills & Nash, Aretha Franklin and other big name acts in recent years.

Kelly was also very much involved with the Muskegon Air Fair, serving on that board of directors for 11 years, and as chairman from 2001 through 2006.

Summer Celebration kicks off the summer for 10 days starting in late June; then there's Bike Time, a Christian music festival, an Irish music festival, a Buster Keaton convention … There's never a dull moment for very long in Muskegon.

Like many other old industrial communities, Muskegon "had a bit of a confidence problem back in the 1980s," said Kelly. The creation of festivals and weekend events to celebrate the city, bring out the population and attract tourists helped to change that.

"The sense of community has really been defined by these festivals," he said.

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