A man of vision: Fred Meijer's passion for West Michigan trails

If you've ever wondered how one person can make a difference, you'll want to learn the story of how the vast network of trails West Michigan residents enjoy today was sparked by a single purchase made by Fred Meijer in 1994. Lauren Fay Carlson shares the local history behind some of our valuable natural spaces.
In West Michigan, a few names stand out as individuals dedicated to bettering their communities through business and philanthropy. Among these are Richard DeVos, Jay Van Andel and, of course, Fred Meijer. A grocery store mogul who continued working into his nineties, Meijer was passionate about projects that served his community through outdoor spaces.
A major proponent of fitness and family, Meijer spent the last fifteen years of his life dedicated to building a trail system in West Michigan that allowed bicyclists, runners and other trail users to move seamlessly between the cities, towns and villages that fueled these projects. Four years after his death, the Meijer Foundation continues to make its mission the completion of the Fred Meijer Mid West Michigan Trail Network, a project that expresses its founder's passion for the unique landscape of Michigan and the people who enjoy its many winding paths.
"He was a man of vision despite his ever advancing age," says Michael R. Julien of the Meijer Family Office. By working with Meijer on many aspects of his trail projects, including raising local project dollars and working with engineers and friends groups, Julien witnessed Meijer's dedication to trails after they piqued his interest in his late seventies.
Meijer's involvement with West Michigan's trails began in 1994, when the Rails to Trails Conservancy approached Meijer to request assistance in purchasing an old rail line in Montcalm County. Acquired by the federal government, the law required the land to be owned by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in order to develop the space. A Greenville native, Meijer had a particular fondness for a rail line that he had frequented as a child.
"Between Miller and Ferris Roads there is a ruin of a building that (so the story goes) was where he delivered [potatoes] to the train," says Karen Stearn, treasurer for the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail Friends Group. "That inspired him to be part of the process to purchase that section of former railroad for the Trail."
Soon after learning of the conservancy's need for financial assistance, Meijer quickly snatched up the land. "There was a very short window of time for the purchase and Fred just said, 'Buy it,'” says Stearn.
With this initial $265,000 purchase of the 28-mile railroad corridor, Meijer allowed the conservancy to obtain the land for the future development of what would become the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail. "He wanted to preserve [the land] just in case it would become a trail," says Julien.
By eventually donating approximately $3 million dollars to the development of the trail over fifteen years, Meijer demonstrated his desire to make the most of the space. He also continued to support the friends group as they worked to finish the project. "[Fred and Lena Meijer] took the time to let our friends group know that we were doing the kind of job with the trail that they had envisioned," says Stearn. This initial project in Meijer's hometown became the catalyst for a variety of trail projects over the state.
Despite this continued involvement in West Michigan's trails, Meijer was unaware of the impact his support would soon have throughout the region. "He didn't have a vision to build a network of trails," says Julien. However, he soon found that his passion for his hometown of Greenville, in addition to his love of family, paired well with these new projects for safe, outdoor spaces. Most of all, he believed that "families need a safe place for bicycle riding away from traffic," says Julien. "Fred was a passionate believer in family," he continues, noting his love for the families and children that visited his many grocery stores.
John Morrison, the executive director for the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition (WMTGC), confirms Meijer's particular passion. "He was a true champion for trails, believing individuals and families should have a safe place to commute and recreate, a place without cars to be able walk or ride bicycles," he says. As he became more involved in his various trail projects, Meijer also grew to understand the importance of trail maintenance. By creating a specific maintenance fund through the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, he sought to prolong each trail's life for families.
Just before Meijer passed away in November of 2011, the Heartland Trail was finally completed. "The last project was the first project," says Julien, noting the full circle nature of Meijer's work. Trail users can now easily access the Heartland Trail via the Fred Meijer Flat River Trailhere.

After working to fund and maintain dozens of trail projects over fifteen years, Meijer was able to witness the completion of the hometown trail that fueled his passion for the trail network. In addition to this particular trail, Meijer lent his assistance to the White Pine Trail State Park, the Clinton Ionia Shiawassee Trail, the Flat River Trail, the Flat River Valley Trail, the Grand River Valley Trail, the Ionia River Trail and the Lowell Area Trailway.
"He died very pleased with all of the progress that had been made on the paved recreational trails," says Julien. Meijer even received the National Doppelt Family Rail Trails Champions Award, along with Carolyn Kane, former secretary of the Friends of the Meijer Heartland Trail and member of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, just before he passed in 2011.
"The extensive trail network we have in West Michigan wouldn't be what it is today without Fred's commitment and devotion," says Morrison. "We all had something to work toward because Fred and his family made it possible." By partnering with local government, nonprofits and friends groups, Meijer made possible the conversion of many railroad corridors into paved recreational trails. And by serving individuals and families, these trails continue to leave a lasting legacy for a man dedicated to family and his community.

Lauren Fay Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.
This article is part of an ongoing series, Moments on the Trails, and was made possible by the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition. For more information about the WMTGC, visit wmtrails.org.

Photography by Adam Bird
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