Muskegon is undergoing massive change. Major waterfront development is on the horizon, there's increased investment in the city, recreational opportunities abound, businesses are opening, companies are moving there. Why is this all happening? Look to its water.
Not long after the sun rises, the people start coming.
They arrive slowly at first, older couples appearing in pickup trucks, men and women in helmets jumping off motorcycles, children tumbling from cars packed with blankets and jackets. It is Sunday, the first of October, and last week’s heat wave that pushed us to seek refuge from the soaring temperatures at Pere Marquette and Harbour Towne Beach is now a memory; autumn has come to Muskegon.
The crowd thickens at the Grand Trunk Launch Ramp, the public boat launch located about a block away from a string of businesses lining Lakeshore Drive: Harbor Cinema, the Lakeshore Tavern, Zaloma’s Pizza Company, to name just a few. As the sun spreads out across Muskegon Lake and 9am nears, the parking lot is overflowing. Cars are on the grass. People pack the edges of the parking lot, their eyes glued to a 200-foot tall concrete tower in the distance: the last remaining smokestack on the site of the former Sappi Fine Paper Mill.
An aerial photograph of the paper mill in 1920. Photo courtesy of the Hackley Library
After decades of jutting into the sky, the structure at 2400 Lakeshore Dr. is about to come down. At 9am, smoke appears. Thirteen seconds later, 100 sticks of dynamite bring this concrete behemoth to the ground, eliciting claps and gasps from a crowd filled with workers from the former paper mill.
Originally opened as the Central Paper Co. in 1899 and taken over by the South African-based Sappi in 1994, the paper mill was once one of Muskegon’s largest employers but permanently closed its doors in 2009 due to the “global economic downturn,” according to Sappi.
As the crowd watches the demolition, numerous people could be heard saying, “Wow. It’s the end of an era.”
And it is. For many in the city, the felled smokestack is emblematic of the sweeping changes happening in a region that has seen its fair share of ups and downs, maneuvering from being known as the “lumber queen of the world” in the 1870s and 1880s (after a devastating fire left one-third of Chicago’s population homeless in 1871, it was rebuilt with timber from Muskegon) to a city battling pervasive pollution and high unemployment rates after hemorrhaging the factory jobs that were once found in abundance. In the 1980s, as well as a couple decades later during the Great Recession, Muskegon struggled with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
But things are changing.
Where there was the smokestack, and the paper mill, there are plans for a massive mixed-use development project on 120 acres of land along Muskegon Lake. Pure Muskegon, an organization formed by area business leaders that now owns the Sappi property, is seeking a developer, or developers, to transform the 120-acre Sappi site, now being called “Windward Pointe,” into a residential, commercial, and community space that could include elder living, live-work venues, hotels, restaurants, marinas, charter fishing, water taxis, and more. [Editor's note: Pure Muskegon is one of the supporters of this series, but the organization does not receive special consideration for an article's sourcing, nor are they permitted to view the story prior to publication.]
“The shoreline of Muskegon Lake is really being turned from an industrial property to something that benefits the whole community,” says Wes Eklund, one of the members of Pure Muskegon. “This is an exciting time.”
It’s not just those associated with Pure Muskegon who are excited. Ask almost any civic, government, or business leader in the area, and they’ll tell you the Sappi redevelopment is one of the biggest projects on Muskegon’s horizon, and one that is slated to completely reshape this Muskegon waterfront that, historically, has been overwhelmingly inaccessible to city residents. And the Windward Pointe project is representative of a larger trend happening in the city, Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson explains.
“The biggest change over the last decade-plus has been the reclaiming of the waterfront from industrial purposes to open space recreational, some residential, and some mixed-use commercial,” says Peterson, a native of Flint who moved from Battle Creek to Muskegon four years ago. “That’s been the big focus: grabbing that lakeshore back and repurposing it for the next 100-plus years.”
What does this repurposing of the waterfront mean for residents? A lot. Water and shorelines are becoming cleaner and safer for humans, wildlife, and vegetation alike. Major waterfront development is happening. There’s increased investment in the city. Recreational opportunities abound. Companies are moving here; businesses are opening. KL Outdoors/GSC Technologies, the largest manufacturer of kayaks in the world, is moving its headquarters to downtown Muskegon. Entrepreneurs are leaving more expensives cities in Michigan, and elsewhere, and heading to the lakeshore. Jobs are being created.
Of course, everything’s not all roses, but, as the waterfront draws development, jobs and money to the city, Muskegon has a very real chance to address deeply rooted problems, including high unemployment in communities of color, racial segregation, poverty, food insecurity, access to safe and affordable housing, landing funding for brownfield redevelopment, and the impact of climate change on the shoreline and waterfront communities. And the city has a chance to address these problems before growth happens at such a rate that it becomes increasingly difficult to tackle such issues, as has happened in cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids.
As for the next 100 years in Muskegon? Scientists, researchers, business owners, civic leaders, government officials, and others we spoke to all agree: the future, like the past, will be intimately tied to Muskegon’s water.
Dennis Kirksey. Photo by Jenna Swartz
“Historically, industry had its back to the water, but with all the cleanup that’s been done, we realized the water is the front,” says Dennis Kirksey, chairman of the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership and vice president of Kirksey and Associates on Western Avenue along the Muskegon Lake shoreline. “That’s been a real mind twist: as a community, as corporations, as individuals, we had to realize we faced backwards for years. Once we turned our face to the water, our whole mentality changed and people started to see it for the resource that it is.”
Today, in Muskegon, the city is filled with people who understand the water is an asset other cities can only dream of. So, while we may not know how the coming century will play out, we do know there are countless people invested in this city’s future–former factory employees now working on future lakefront developments, stay-at-home moms turned environmentalists, scientists researching the economic impact of the water on our city, business owners who want to better connect children in downtown neighborhoods to the water. Ideas for addressing Muskegon’s specific needs inevitably vary, but the driving force behind the ideas is overwhelmingly the same: a love for the city, its people, and its environment. And a belief that the water, from Lake Michigan to Muskegon County’s 27 inland lakes and more than 400 miles of river, will inspire the kind of economic drive and stability that provides for everyone from the factory retirees to newcomers taking their first steps in the city.
Muskegon Lake: A history of industry, a future of change and promise
Kathy Evans, the environmental program manager for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission who has played a monumental role in championing the environment in Muskegon, distinctly remembers the city’s shoreline when she was growing up in the 1960s and 70s.
“It was very heavy industry,” Evans says of Muskegon Lake, a 4,149-acre inland coastal lake that runs along the east shoreline of Lake Michigan and is nestled amidst the largest assemblage of freshwater dunes in the world. “When we would go shopping in downtown Muskegon–this was pre-mall, so there were department stores and movies here–we were several blocks from the shoreline. It was a heavily industrialized waterfront; you really wouldn’t go down there. It seemed smoky. When you came around from the north side in your car, as you got around the east end of the lake and the wind was blowing towards you, there was always a fog. It was dark and dusty and foggy, but, really, we had no idea what was there, what was going on on the waterfront: the filling, the dumping, the quality of the water.”
Kathy Evans. Photo by Adam Bird
Muskegon Lake, and Muskegon in general, has a long history of industry, and one with which the city has a complicated relationship. The lumber industry, factories, and foundries that set up shop on Muskegon Lake created thousands upon thousands of good-paying jobs, with Muskegon residents building products that were distributed around the country, and globe, from plane engines and pianos to Raggedy Ann dolls, furniture and rowing boats (and much more). The city played a crucial role in the country’s industrial engine and was known as the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II, with the city’s factories and foundries making things like treads for tanks and crankshafts for submarines. Still, while the jobs often left workers with solid paychecks, they frequently were physically taxing and could be dangerous.
“A lot of people gave a good part of their life to the jobs here,” says Ken Callow, who worked at Sappi from 1982 to the time the factory closed in 2009. He’s now a project engineer for Melching Inc., the company that prepared the Sappi smokestacks for demolition. “It was a demanding job in terms of hours; it was a 24/7 operation. Many folks got stuck with mandatory overtimes to keep things operating. As a result of that demand and pressure put on people, it brought people together. It’s a close group of workers. They still get together.”
A log drive crew on the Muskegon River in 1880. Photo courtesy of the Hackley Library
The lumber industry, factories, and foundries too ravaged the environment, leaving behind air heavy with pollution and chemical-laced land and water. Muskegon Lake, for example, was listed as a federal “area of concern” in 1985 because of extensive pollution that rendered people unable to swim, fish or, really, do much of anything in the water. Toxic areas in the city, and throughout the industrialized regions of the Great Lakes, were left to fester for years, ruining habitat.
“There was a lot of chemical production in the area; it has its own dark history,” says Kirksey. “It created a lot of jobs, but it created a lot of pollution.
“When I was young, [the pollution] seemed normal; nobody knew any different,” Kirksey continues. “In later years, as a nation, as a state, as a city, people figured out this wasn’t the way we needed to be.”
Beginning in the 1970s, things began to change. The federal Clean Water Act was passed, leading to dramatic improvements in water quality, explains Dr. Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, which is headquartered by Heritage Landing in downtown Muskegon and is committed to the study of freshwater resources, with a special emphasis on Michigan and the Great Lakes basin. In the early 1980s, the county implemented a new wastewater treatment facility, leading to further improved water quality, Kirksey says.
For years, Evans and other area advocates worked to raise awareness surrounding environmental contamination issues, including with Muskegon Lake. Through extensive work done by local, state, and federal leaders, including Evans, and millions of dollars in government funding (as well as initiatives like the Great Lakes Legacy Act), Muskegon Lake has gone from being the dumping ground for petrochemical companies and paper mills to being on the verge of being delisted as an area of concern, which Evans and other local environmental advocates expect to happen by 2020.
It’s now safe to fish in Muskegon Lake; natural habitat is returning, as is wildlife. Along a shoreline that, once upon a time, was home to 47 sawmills and for more than 100 years had essentially been off limits to members of the public, there are now picnickers, bicyclists, boaters, children playing, and crowds watching the cruise ships that have been coming into Muskegon for the past couple of years. Thousands of people now flock to downtown’s Heritage Landing, a former scrap yard that has become a waterfront community space at Shoreline Drive and 7th Street, for events that draw individuals from throughout the region and country, such as the Michigan Irish Music Festival, Shoreline Jazz Festival, and Bike Time.
People spend time at Heritage Landing during the Michigan Irish Music Festival in September. Photo by Anna Gustafson
“Even in 2001, when I got [to the Annis Water Resources Institute], the water quality had improved dramatically from what it was historically, largely because of the federal Clean Water Act, which forced Muskegon to stop dumping all of its waste into the lake,” Steinman says last week while sitting in his office, a space flooded with autumnal sunlight and surrounded by expansive views of Muskegon Lake’s downtown shoreline. “There have been a couple of really large changes, one in terms of habitat restoration, thanks to the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership and the work of Kathy Evans, who we partner with—we do the science; she does the planning and implementation. It’s huge. A lot of the lakeshore, which had been hardened has been replaced by a softened shoreline, which is much more environmentally-friendly and creates better habitat.
“In addition, what we’ve seen in the 16 years I’ve been here, partially due to these large-scale restoration projects [and] partially because we’ve started a long-term monitoring program in Muskegon Lake, is that there’s a greater sense of ownership by the community around the lake and a greater sense of its appreciation for being more than just a dumping ground, which historically was the case in not just Muskegon but in all the Great Lakes, where the water was treated as a sewer instead of as an asset. Now, the community here, with so much money invested and so much activity going on, recognizes, ‘Wait a second, there’s a whole other aspect of Muskegon Lake.’ So the civic pride has grown. To me, that’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen.”
Dr. Alan Steinman. Photo by Jenna Swartz
There’s good reason for the community to be proud: Muskegon Lake is quickly becoming a jewel of Michigan. It creates accessible public green space where anyone can go. On any given day, you can find everyone from bicyclists traversing the 14-mile Muskegon Lakeshore bike trail running along Heritage Landing to those celebrating at birthday parties and attending local book club meetings.
It’s a place where people want to be.
“It melds perfectly into the blue economy; instead of turning our back to the water, we’re turning towards the water,” Steinman says, referring to an economy that’s tied to the water—right now, one in five jobs in Michigan is connected to water industries and that’s expected to grow. “Just look at the Holiday Inn here. When it was built, no one wanted to look at the lake. None of those rooms face the lake. Can you imagine building a hotel now and not having water-facing rooms?”
The hopes of a community: A dramatically changing Muskegon Lake
Like many of those interviewed for this article, Jim Rudicil, the harbormaster at the Harbour Towne Marina, a 243-slip marina located on Muskegon Lake, and the executive director at the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex in Muskegon State Park, says Windward Pointe, the name for the redeveloped Sappi paper mill site, “will probably be the most substantial reinvention of our lakeshore.”
“That’s the largest piece of land that’s really open for redevelopment along our shoreline,” says Rudicil, who grew up in Muskegon and now owns a home along the Muskegon Lake waterfront. “The potential there is huge. The hopes of the community are huge for it. As that comes along, I think we’ll start seeing a domino effect along the shoreline. It will go from a shoreline that wasn’t very accessible, and still isn’t, to one where there’s a lot more connection to the waterfront for the community, visitors, homeowners, and businesses.”
The Chase Hackley Piano Factory on the Sappi paper mill site and the smokestack behind it. The smokestack was torn down last Sunday, and the factory is in the process of being demolished. Photo by Anna Gustafson
The Sappi redevelopment is, indeed, huge, literally and metaphorically. A vast 120-acre property situated on more than one mile of Muskegon Lake shoreline, the property is expected to play a starring role in a changing Muskegon that's no longer known for its smokestacks.
“I think what always pained me over the years was there would be those from outside of our community who perceived Muskegon in a certain light, who would say negative things about Muskegon,” says Rudicil, who notes that perception is quickly changing.
“Over the next 10 years, we’ll not only be the leader in tourism in Western Michigan, but we’ll also be the leader in lakefront and waterfront recreation and living.”
Muskegon will be “a destination,” says Bob Lukens, the community development director for Muskegon County.
“It’s really interesting, really exciting being here at this point in the city,” says Lukens, who moved his family from Chicago to Muskegon to become the community development director in 2011. “Muskegon’s a changing destination.”
“I’m excited about the Sappi development,” Lukens says while sitting at a picnic tabled perched next to the Victory Cruise ship that docked in Muskegon on Sunday, Sept. 24, the first time Victory has come to the city. “It’ll bring a lot of really positive change to Muskegon. It will be a new age in Muskegon. People from all over the Great Lakes will be looking at what Muskegon is doing.”
The Torresen Marine on Muskegon Lake. Photo by Jenna Swartz
Currently, members of Pure Muskegon are crafting a master plan for the site and are looking for developers interested in Windward Pointe.
“We were hoping a developer would do the whole site, or half of it, but it hasn’t materialized yet,” Eklund says. “Instead of waiting for that to happen, we’re going to do a master plan for the whole site, which will lay out the development that needs to happen.”
The plan is expected to take approximately three months to produce, Eklund says, and is expected to include contributions from the general public. Specific dates for the public input meetings have yet to be announced. The project aims to be a “link to connect Muskegon, North Muskegon, and the entire Muskegon Lake Basin, including Lake Michigan,” Windward Pointe’s website notes. “Integration of the Lakeshore Trail, nearby neighborhoods, and water and land transportation options create gateways to downtown Muskegon and a broader town center region.”
Among the different options for the Sappi site include single family homes, condos, a marina, hotels, restaurants, offices, urban gardens, and more.
“It’s going to significantly help not just the city of Muskegon but the Lakeside community,” Eklund says. “They’re going to see the property values increase by 20 to 25 percent within two years. You will see a lot of the smaller homes there be worth more money, and you’ll see those properties get gobbled up sooner than they are now.”
Plans for the B.C. Cobb plant
The redevelopment of the B.C. Cobb power plant, which permanently shuttered in April 2016 after operating on the edge of Muskegon Lake for 67 years, is another massive project on the horizon. Consumers Energy will pay $1 million to the North Carolina-based Forsite Development, to take control of the property, 115 acres of land that includes the power plant and the 650-foot-tall smokestack. The Michigan Public Service Commission approved the transaction on Sept. 15 and closing is expected to occur Oct. 18, according to Tom McKittrick, president and founder of Forsite.
Forsite expects the decommissioning of the coal-fired power plant to take two years, after which its plans for the site include a deep-water marine terminal to be operated by the local Verplank Dock Company for cross-Lake Michigan shipping. Additionally, there are potential plans for an outdoor sports complex and a solar farm on the site.
“Many agricultural products are produced in Michigan and shipped out of state to be processed. Based on our analysis, we’re convinced there’s real interest from Michigan-based agri-business in seeing an alternate logistics route that bypasses the congestion in Chicago,” McKittrick says regarding the deep-water marine terminal. “We believe this new logistics option, along with Muskegon’s water-treating capacity, will make Muskegon highly attractive for food processing projects. The Cobb site itself is not large, so we are starting to look for industrial sites where we can create an industrial park that is specifically suited to attract food processing projects.”
The Kirksey property: a focus on affordability
Kirksey Investment Corporation owns about 30 acres of property, with approximately 3,000 lineal feet of shoreline, on the edge of Muskegon Lake at Western Avenue. Currently in the process of packaging a master plan for the site, which is being called Center Point Bay, the company is looking at a possible mixed-use development for the property, Dennis Kirksey says. Possible uses for the site include marina development, boat storage and service, a high-density residential development, a handicapped-accessible fishing pier that would be open to the public, and tiny house rentals, according to Kirksey.
“I really want there to be affordable living for people,” Kirksey says of Center Point Bay. “We want to connect people to the water. We want to make it accessible.”
That—the idea of affordability and accessibility—is one that Peterson, the city manager, says is a crucial part of ensuring Muskegon grows sustainably.
“There needs to be a bigger push for integrated living,” Peterson says, referring to housing that can support people of different economic backgrounds. “There’s not enough incentive [for developers to create] mixed-income. There’s incentive to make housing low-income; we have housing for people who are 40, 50 ,and 80 percent of [the area median income, or AMI], and then everything goes to market rate. There’s nothing for the people who are 120 percent of AMI. Those are the people who are struggling too, the people who are making just above minimum wage.”
Area residents get to take out boats for free on Muskegon Lake as part of the newly launched Watch Us Go Boating program. Photo courtesy of Watch Us Go Boating
For a city that has always had strong ties to its water but has often been barred from accessing it, the changes that are happening are being strongly embraced. And, as these changes progress, residents are urging developers, government officials, business owners, and others to be intentional about continuing to grow that access and maintaining public space along the lakeshore.
“Windward Pointe, the Cobb Plant, all of these areas that are starting to emerge for development, we need to figure out a way to have public access, green infrastructure,” Steinman says.
While much of the city has been disconnected from the water throughout the decades, communities of color and those who are low-income have often faced extreme barriers, including long commute times to a clean shoreline, separating individuals from the waterfront—and that continues today. As the region changes, it will be particularly important to understand the history of race and class in Muskegon and how the city and county can partner with people who have been, and are, disenfranchised.
“Segregation and racism, we need to deal with those issues,” Steinman says.
“You’ll see fishers in Heritage Landing, and it can difficult for them to get there,” Steinman continues. “I firmly believe the disconnect from the lakefront to the city needs to be addressed. We need a land bridge from the Morris Street lot over Shoreline. It could be 50, 100 meters wide, taking us to the Shoreline area so people can get to the bike path, so they can run, they can jog. People can come over on the land bridge. Businesses could form around that. You need that connectivity for business.”
Watch Us Go Boating participants on Muskegon Lake. Photo courtesy of Watch Us Go Boating
Chris Byrnes, a former president of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce who moved from Holland to Muskegon two years ago and has been working on a variety of economic development and outdoors projects in Muskegon, also expresses concern about fishers in the area.
“I’m a runner, and I rush the shoreline and beaches a lot. I see the same fishermen over and over again,” Byrnes says. “They’re out there subsistence fishing for their families. If you go along our shoreline and take the bike path, I defy you to find one place where there’s a fishing bench or trash can for the fishers.
“If you’ve got a $40,000 bass boat in Detroit or Chicago, you’re our target market; come to our Great Lake and fish. But we discourage our own residents from taking their own fishing poles down to the water,” Byrnes continues. “Why do we do that? These fisher guys are sitting in dirt or in the grass. We don’t accommodate them. Why are we keeping people away from the lake? What effect does that have?”
Byrnes’ passion for connecting people to the water has inspired him to embark on a number of different initiatives in the city, including launching a free boating program, called Watch Us Go Boating, focusing on youth from Muskegon’s Nelson and Nims neighborhoods. He’s also applying for a grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge that could result in millions of dollars to fund various shoreline improvement efforts, from making the waterfront more walkable to providing water adventure sports.
Chris Byrnes launched the Watch Us Go Boating program this summer. Photo courtesy of Watch Us Go Boating
The Watch Us Go Boating program, which started this summer, provides free boat rentals and classes to Nims and Nelson neighborhood residents (as well as anyone else who’s interested), with the goal of better connecting city youth with the waterfront. As part of the initiative, KL Outdoor / SunDolphin donated 10 kayaks, civic leader Lora Swenson donated a sailboat, and Nelson and Nims neighbors gave their labor to transport, construct and paint boat racks. More than 20 volunteers have worked with the program, five instructors provided the free lessons, and 83 students participated, most of whom had never been on a boat prior to this summer.
“Historically, the shoreline was so industrial and dirty and dangerous; it hasn’t been friendly or appealing or attractive at all,” Byrnes says. “People have stayed away from the shoreline. There are 7,000 souls living in these [Nelson and Nims] neighborhoods, and they haven’t gotten the opportunity to reconnect with their greatest natural asset, the lake. That has to change."
This story is part of Rapid Growth's "On the Ground-Muskegon Lakeshore" series, which aims to amplify the voices of the community members who make up Muskegon's waterfront neighborhoods. Over the next three months, our journalists will be embedded in the city's lakefront communities in order to dive deeper into topics important to residents, business owners and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Anna Gustafson, please email her at AKGustaf@gmail.com, or connect with her on Facebook.
Support for this series is provided by Downtown Muskegon Now, the Muskegon Business Improvement District, the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Pure Muskegon, Watch Muskegon, and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.
Photography by Jenna Swartz. Connect with Jenna on her website and Facebook page.
Additional photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio and Anna Gustafson.