Inside Track: Making waves on the lakeshore
Bringing more market-rate housing and mixed-use buildings to downtown Muskegon are two of Jonathan Seyferth’s challenges.
Jonathan Seyferth may not have planned on finding his footing in economic development, but his leadership position at Downtown Muskegon Now has helped the business community begin to rise.
As executive director of the an agency promoting economic development, restoration and enhancement for the roughly 48-square-block area of downtown Muskegon, Seyferth has had a hand in making it into a historic lakeshore community.
Although he originally planned to pursue a career in journalism, Seyferth said he became interested in public administration and government after working in Lansing as district press secretary.
As a congressional staffer for Congressman Pete Hoekstra in the Muskegon office during Hoekstra’s last five years of office, Seyferth said he conducted casework for half a dozen federal agencies, handled an average of more than 750 cases a year, and was involved in public meetings, community events, coalition building and meeting with constituents.
“I ended up being a congressional staffer for a while and then moved into economic development — mainly related to Muskegon’s Blue Water Economy,” said Seyferth.
During his two years in economic development prior to joining Downtown Muskegon Now as executive director, Seyferth helped develop the messaging for the area’s Blue Water Economy, raised awareness of the county’s assets and streamlined communication materials.
“The job I am in now is a cross between economic development and a municipal role. We do beautification, economic development, events — and it is constantly changing,” said Seyferth. “Working with federal and state agencies in the past and then on the economic development side really kind of helped shape how I am able to do this job.”
From snow removal and marketing brochures to downtown beautification, Seyferth said he is responsible for almost anything and everything in the downtown related to economic development, business retention and helping coordinate the logistics of events with downtown businesses.
“It is a wide variety of things and it’s a lot of fun. We have a number of building projects going on right now, and all of the current building projects and some of the ones just finishing up, I had a direct hand in making sure they met the downtown design standards,” said Seyferth.
“It is really cool to see those projects come to fruition and being able to have those impacts.”
Downtown Muskegon Now has a vision to create a thriving downtown area by encouraging new business, retail and housing development, preserving historic sites and green space, and creating a welcoming atmosphere.
Since 2002, roughly 38 projects have been completed in the downtown area totaling more than $123 million in investments. An additional $46.4 million has been proposed for new or in-progress projects, such as the $1 million renovation of two historic buildings, and the $2 million project to renovate and expand the Transit Center.
“I worked closely with the county and their architects to make sure (the Transit Center) sat on the sidewalk, or has what is called a ‘zero lot line,’ to make sure the height of the building was appropriate for the lot it was sitting on, to make sure the simple things like the glass in the windows was clear so you are not just walking by seeing a mirrored reflection,” said Seyferth.
The 48-square-block region Seyferth oversees includes Heritage Village, the Downtown Core, East End, 3rd Street District and the Downtown Waterfront. Although the atmosphere has changed dramatically, even in the last 18 months, Seyferth said one of the challenges moving forward is finding developers to build market-rate housing rental units.
“People are taking time to linger — see what is going on, and that is really attributed to a number of new businesses opening in the downtown and people wanting to explore them,” he said. “We already have a nice synergy there, and being able to take that to the next step would be really great.”
Currently, there are a number of living options in downtown Muskegon, including the $12 million Terrace Point Landing with cottage-style homes priced from $35,000 to $139,900, the recently renovated 1929 Hamilton Apartments with studio, one- and two bedroom units, and Heritage Square Townhomes. However, fewer than 75 units are market-rate housing. The remaining units are income-based or have other restrictions, and the current wait is more than nine months, according to Seyferth.
“Trying to find developers who want to help us get more market-rate housing down here for rentals is really critical. We have a really high rate of income-based housing, which every community needs, but ours is kind of off-balance right now,” said Seyferth.
“We need folks to take a leap of faith, and whoever is the first one in the gate, bites the bullet and has those market-rate apartments available, they are going to do well, and they are going to be able to attract the type of renters they would need to make the project work.”
Another project Seyferth is focused on is targeting a mixed-use development between 3rd Street and 1st Street in the heart of downtown. With 23 restaurants, several dozen retail and other businesses spread throughout the large area, Seyferth said it is difficult to foster the same energy as some of Muskegon’s peer lakeshore communities that only have an eight- to 12-square-block radius and perhaps only one main street.
“Ours is just much more spread out from the nature of what we used to be back in the mid-20th century. Several times a week I am talking with developers who I have existing relationships with or am trying to develop better relationships with, to do a mixed-use building,” said Seyferth. “I spend most of my time trying to find the right person to do that, and that is really our goal: to get something like that going.”
With aspirations to eventually move into municipal management, Seyferth said serving as the executive director for Downtown Muskegon Now has given him the opportunity to work with a number of city departments, which will be beneficial in any future roles. He said he has worked with the police and fire departments, community development and zoning, public works, city manager’s office, treasurer’s office and the clerk’s office.
“This sets me up pretty well to move on to an assistant city manager position or a community development position at some point in the future,” said Seyferth. “It was always a goal of mine to go into city management, but this has been a much better vehicle to have those experiences than I had originally anticipated.”
Seyferth said he views downtown Muskegon’s location on Lake Michigan as a huge asset to the community, along with the diverse cultural attractions, local restaurants and businesses.
“We are the largest deepwater port on the west side of Michigan or east side of Lake Michigan, so there are a lot of development possibilities regarding shipping, recreation and living. That is a huge asset nobody else has.
“And we are home to the West Michigan Symphony, Muskegon Civic Theatre, Muskegon Museum of Art and Muskegon Heritage Museum,” he added. “We have these cultural assets other communities, particularly our size, on the lakeshore don’t necessarily have.”
With roughly 20 locally owned restaurants, the art museum and a hockey arena within walking distance of each other, Seyferth said people can get a sports fix, arts fix and culinary fix with a great view all within a three-block area.
“I would encourage anybody who hasn’t been to downtown Muskegon in a number of years to come and check it out, and see all the different things going on down here.”