Smith named Lakeshore ATHENA Award recipient

October 12, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Blanche Smith feels she is in the company of "24 ladies who have done a whole lot more than me, in my book."

Smith, executive director of the Muskegon Family Services Workforce Development Center in Muskegon, was selected from a field of 24 nominees to be named the 2009 Lakeshore ATHENA Award recipient.

Three hundred and fifty people attended the fifth annual award luncheon in Ferrysburg last week, a collaboration of the Chamber of Grand Haven/Spring Lake/Ferrysburg, Holland Area Chamber of Commerce and the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce.

In speaking about the nominees at the award luncheon, Dwana Thompson, chairperson for the 2009 Lakeshore ATHENA Award program, said the lakeshore is "honored to have so many women … who are dedicated to improving the communities where they live and work, and who seek opportunities to assist women in reaching their full potential."

Smith's modesty is genuine, but it should be noted that ATHENA recipients must be exceptional individuals who have demonstrated excellence, creativity and initiative in their business or profession, provided valuable service by contributing time and energy to improving the quality of life for others in the community and our region and who actively assist women in realizing their full leadership potential. 

Smith's career began more than 30 years ago in early childhood education, and then in family services in Muskegon. She has also been successful in the public service arena and holds the unofficial title of "first" in several categories. In 1986, she won election to the Muskegon Public Schools Board of Education as the first African-American woman on the board. In 1988, she became the first African-American woman to serve as a Muskegon city commissioner. She then went on to become the first African-American woman to serve as vice-mayor, and ultimately, mayor of Muskegon from 1995 through 1997. 

When she was elected mayor, city officials were looking at ways to build up the Muskegon Lake front and bring people downtown, said Smith. Now, she said, "That's happening."

But it hasn't been easy — Smith is the first to concede that. Muskegon has had more than its share of bad news on the economic front over the years.

Downtown Muskegon had its mall "when I was there," said Smith. "Then, there was no more mall, so we have to build it up again. But it's happening. I'm feeling really good about it. It seems slow, but it takes time."

The loss of many Muskegon retail businesses to The Lakes Mall in nearby Fruitport Township, which opened in 2001, was a blow to the city — but it's come back strong lately, despite roadblocks thrown up by the recession.

Downtown Muskegon just celebrated the opening of the Baker College Culinary Institute of Michigan, and other significant commercial developments have gone up in the last two years there.

"Sometimes when you talk to people, they seem to think, 'Muskegon, you're moving so slow.' But that's the way it is. It would move faster if the economy was better, but it's still happening. We've got good leadership," she said, mentioning City Manager Bryon Mazade and current mayor Steve Warmington, who has helped bring a lot of tourist dollars into downtown Muskegon over the last three years with the annual Bike Time event.

"In that sense, we're doing pretty good," said Smith.

While she no longer serves on the city commission, Smith has stayed involved in the community as a member of the city planning commission.

"I'm still involved in what happens in Muskegon because that's my home. It's what I should be doing," she said.

That's on top of her day job at the Workforce Development Center. When the Business Journal called last week, Smith and her staff were in a major meeting, trying to hammer out a 2010 budget.

Is she nearing retirement?

"Well, I should be — some think. But no," she said, with a hearty laugh. "As long as I'm in good health and still helping people, that's what I'm here for — what I'm put on this earth for — and it's working, so far."

Smith's leadership resulted in the implementation of the Governor’s Communities First Welfare Reform Initiative in Muskegon County in 1994, which led to the Muskegon Family Services Center, a multi-agency, neighborhood-based human services system, which then evolved to the Michigan Works! Family Services Workforce Development Center, where she is executive director.

Smith believes that part of her work, regardless of where she is, is to continually counsel and encourage women, especially those on her staff, to stretch their possibilities and reach what others tell them are impossible goals.

Smith was instrumental in the development of a character-building, abstinence-based program for pre-teens called Girl Talk 101, a program for which several of this year’s ATHENA nominees have volunteered. She also was instrumental in Dads Only, a community-based program for young fathers. She is an active member of the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals.

Another significant membership for Smith is serving on the board for the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum, which has attracted many tourists to the new facility on the Muskegon Lake channel next to the famous World War II submarine, Silversides.

Smith is also vice-chair of West Michigan Therapy’s board of directors; a member of the board of United Way of the Lakeshore; a member of the Frauenthal Center Advisory Committee; and an active member of the Muskegon Rotary Club.

The ATHENA Award is not intended to be a contest or competition, but rather a celebration of excellence. For that reason, the individual selected to receive the award is referred to as a “recipient” rather than a “winner.”

Smith said she was honored just to be nominated.

"If you're nominated for that group, you are a winner," she said.

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