Nearly a decade ago, Geri and John Wingo, who were living in the tight confines of the City of East Grand Rapids, decided they wanted to move closer to the open countryside. So they built a spacious house in rural Ada Township, about 15 minutes east of downtown Grand Rapids, packed up the kids, and moved there in the late-90's. The family set up their new home in a swanky development near farm fields and rolling meadows yet with ready access to the region's primary economic and cultural center.
"What I like is that there is still a lot of land and yet we are five minutes from anywhere,” says Geri Wingo, a former PR exec turned independent clothing consultant. "It is not so built up so there is still that small town feel but you have the advantage of city life. Everything we need is really close by."
The case of the Wingo family in many ways illustrates both the opportunity and challenge now confronting pastoral Ada. On one hand, the idyllic area is far removed from the trappings of city life. Public WiFi hotspots are nearly nonexistent. Ada remains an unincorporated community, meaning it's not part of any specifically organized municipality and governed instead as a township. And the place is flush with parks, wooded lots, farm fields, nature trails, rivers, and wide open spaces. Put simply, there's plenty of room to grow.
On the other hand, pressure is mounting to maintain the basic elements that attract new residents and businesses and fuel the growth in the first place. Ada features a quaint village-like downtown with art galleries, excellent cuisine, and some basic services. It's regularly rated one of the safer communities in the metro area and offers one of the state's top performing school systems. And the community is home to the region's richest families, commuter couples, and young families alike, all of whom want the best of both worlds: rural living and urban amenities.
“There are people who like one or the other and Ada offers each option,” said Township Planner Jim Ferro.
The challenge – and the opportunity – lies in preserving the unique, dual way of life.
Planning for–and Managing–Change
Clearly, Ada is booming, particularly in the past 10 years. Nearly 10,000 people were living in the township according to the 2000 U.S. Census findings. But an October 2006 study commissioned by local officials revealed that more than 15,700 people now live in the 49301 zip code. The analysis also projected the area would add approximately 1,500 households – a healthy 10 percent rate of growth – and exceed 17,200 people by 2011.
The average annual household income in Ada hovers around a robust $125,000. So planners like Ferro are bracing for rapidly rising demand for everything from new businesses and services to recreational opportunities to new homes and subdivisions.
In fact, the October 2006 study called for adding as much as 93,000 square feet of new commercial and retail space in the next five years. That would more than double the existing commercial retail space of 76,000 square feet in an unusually short period of time.
That presents plenty of opportunity for investors and the community. The area could use a good breakfast place, and an ice-cream parlor, according to resident Geri Wingo. The recent study backs her up, calling for additional restaurants, a modern food market, expanded art galleries, and more offices.
The mounting question for existing resident is 'where will it all go?' A November 2004 study commissioned by the township found that managing new development and growth, maintaining the rural atmosphere and small town feel, and preserving open space were top concerns. A majority of residents supported stricter wetland protections, modern regulations to protect waterways, wood lots, and agricultural land, as well as expanding and improving public parks.
“The public has actually been asking for more natural paths,” Jim Ferro says. "Ever since we first became involved in building non-motorized trails, we have public requests for more of them. We believe it's an amenity that contributes a lot to the quality of life in the community.”
The township is responding. Two projects totaling approximately $3.5 million will add 16 miles of trails to the township in the next two years. Local leaders also recently released a plan to attract new businesses and commerce to the area while maintaining the village charm. Highlights include targeting new development in specific areas, redesigning a busy roadway, improving safety for pedestrians and bikers, as well as dressing up the business district with landscaping and decorative lighting.
“We want the village to keep its identity but it is important to attract business,” Ferro says.
Good Eats and Plenty of Pottery
The community certainly has a strong foundation to build on. For a bite to eat, Geri Wingo recommends the Schnitz East Deli, recently re-named The Ada Grill. The deli offers a full bar, the occasional art exhibit, and an outdoor deck allowing patrons to overlook the village below. And, like its sister Schnitz shop in downtown GR, the Grill offers up one of the best sandwiches in GR.
“They are huge, probably enough for three meals,” Wingo says.
The food scene also includes the Thornapple Daily Grill, part of The Gilmore Collection, which provides outdoor seating in the summer and a backyard perfect for a small reception or rehearsal dinner. To catch the game and a good pie, locals like Vitale's Sports Pub and Pizzeria. And Zeytin, which features authentic Turkish cuisine, is the latest culinary addition in the central business district.
The district also features a diverse mix of local businesses. There's something of a niche arts district forming with the emergence of a hub of unique pottery shops, including Betsy Ratzsch Pottery and Heather Lane Pottery. For a more interactive pottery experience, try The Mud Room where you can paint your own mugs, plates, or vases.
The Ada Bike Shop caters to the outdoors crowd with top of the line road bikes, canoes and kayaks, and other adventure equipment. There's also a collection of upscale hair salons, an old town hardware, a consignment clothing shop, and a unique yarn shop, located in an historic yellow house, called the Clever Ewe.
The historic covered bridge spanning the Thornapple River is a popular destination for walkers and wedding parties alike. Built in 1867, the bridge has undergone its share of trials but it remains a popular attraction for history buffs, pedestrians, and photo shoots.
Roselle Park, located on the site of the former Ada Beef Company, is undergoing renovations this summer thanks to a grant from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The 250-acre park, which includes one mile of waterfront on the Grand River, soon will include, among other things, observation decks for bird watching.
Ada Township Park and the E.E. Locke Arboretum, a collection of over 200 trees, also regularly attract visitors to the area. The 57 acre park features a woodland garden and a fishing pond for those under 12, senior citizens, and the physically disabled.
Ada also is located at the confluence of the Grand and Thornapple rivers, which provide plenty of opportunity for paddling, fishing, and other water-based recreation.
Best of Both Worlds
That's just the sort of rustic quality of life that continues to attract residents like the Wingo family. Geri Wingo says the area's exceptional schools played a major role in their relocation decision. Her daughter Taylor attended the Goodwillie Environmental School, which uses the natural world to teach kids learning, teamwork, and physical fitness skills. The school, part of the highly acclaimed Forest Hills District, caters specifically to 5th and 6th graders.
But the bottom line is that the Ada area is just convenient for their all-around family needs. Like a striking 35 percent of Ada residents, both Geri and John, a self-employed interior painter, work out of their home, and Ada's location provides easy access into the central city as well as neighboring communities such as Lowell, Caledonia, and Rockford for meetings and jobs.
And with a daughter honing her equestrian skills, the Wingos appreciate the ability to easily tap into the rural life, too. Riding lessons are less than five minutes away.
"It's the next best thing to actually owning a horse," Geri says. "It is the best of both worlds being minutes away from where she rides and home. This way she gets to spend more time with the horses than if we lived farther away."
"It is nice being out here because, while it is not right in the city, everything we need is really close by," she adds.
Directions to Ada
From the North:
Take US-131 S toward GD RAPIDS. Merge onto I-96 E via EXIT 89A toward LANSING. Take the M-21 exit- EXIT 39- toward LOWELL / FLINT. Merge onto E FULTON ST / MI-21 E. Turn RIGHT onto BRONSON ST SE. Turn RIGHT to stay on BRONSON ST SE. Turn LEFT onto ADA DR SE. Arrive in Downtown Ada.
From the East:
Take I-96 W toward GRAND RAPIDS. Take the M-50 exit- EXIT 52- toward LOWELL. Turn RIGHT onto ALDEN NASH AVE SE. Turn LEFT onto CASCADE RD SE. Turn RIGHT onto BUTTRICK AVE SE. Stay STRAIGHT to go onto THORNAPPLE RIVER DR SE. Cross the river and arrive in Downtown Ada.
From the South:
Take US-131 N toward GD RAPIDS. Take the M-6 E exit- EXIT 77- toward LANSING. Merge onto MI-6 E / PAUL B HENRY FWY. Keep LEFT to take I-96 W toward MUSKEGON. Take the CASCADE RD EAST exit- EXIT 40B. Turn RIGHT onto CASCADE RD SE. Turn LEFT onto FOREST HILL AVE SE. Turn RIGHT onto ADA DR SE. Cross BRONSON and arrive in Downtown Ada.
From the West:
Take I-196 E toward GRAND RAPIDS. I-196 E becomes I-96 E. Take the M-21 exit- EXIT 39- toward LOWELL / FLINT. Merge onto E FULTON ST / MI-21 E. Turn RIGHT onto BRONSON ST SE. Turn RIGHT to stay on BRONSON ST SE. Turn LEFT onto ADA DR SE. Arrive in Downtown Ada.
Liz Klimas is a freelance writer and a Grand Rapids native. She's currently working on a guide to downtown Muskegon for Rapid Growth Media
Horses on a farm in Ada
Bicyclists cross the Ada Covered Bridge
Bikes outside the Ada Bike Shop
The Ada Township Assembly Hall resides in an old church that was established in 1870
The Grand Salon
Historic marker at the Ada Covered Bridge
A floral shop now occupies a historic school house
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved