GRAND RAPIDS — Blandford Nature Center has collaborated with local partners on a transformational land deal that could help reshape a neighborhood on the west side of Grand Rapids.
Along with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Blandford is acquiring the adjacent century-old Highlands Golf Course with plans to convert the 121-acre site into a natural area for recreation and education, MiBiz has learned.
“This came out of the blue for us,” said Jason Meyer, the president and CEO of Blandford. “It’s literally a once in forever opportunity for Blandford. Where else can we have 121 acres adjacent to us?”
The partners paid $3.5 million for the property in a deal financed through short-term bridge loans from The Conservation Fund, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that works to preserve natural resources.
While the deal closed last week, the partners say their plans for the property at 2715 W. Leonard St. west of Oakleigh Road likely will evolve over a period of years — if not generations.
“Any of the restoration pieces we do or that the Land Conservancy does, we won’t recognize that until my grandkids are out there,” Meyer said. “And that’s really a special piece of this. What people are investing today, they might not even see what it becomes. But they’re caring for a place for future generations.”
The deal materialized after a development plan for the property failed to gain traction with area neighbors. In July, MiBiz reported Third Coast Development LLC signed a purchase contract for the former country club turned public golf course, with plans to build a mix of condominiums and homes.
Last week, Third Coast exercised the option to purchase the property and immediately sold it to the partnership of Blandford and The Land Conservancy, according to sources close to the deal.
While neighbors expressed some interest in Third Coast Development’s plans for a variety of housing types around a “village square,” many pointed to Blandford as being the ideal user, said Brad Rosely, a principal at the development firm.
“The big thing is that it was an opportunity that would never come along again,” Rosely said. “Developments come and go, but this will be there forever. Once we talked with Blandford, it just seemed to be the best thing for the community.”
Steve Scheuermann, the former owner and general manager of the golf course, agreed with that sentiment.
“Given that it’s no longer a golf course, this is the next best thing to do,” Scheuermann said. “This is the best use of the property and it will be a great thing for the west side.”
Rather than develop the land, the new owners prefer to leave it as natural space and open it to the public. Beyond that, the partners plan to take a hands-off approach and let nature take its course in the short term, allowing the forest-like habitat to take over.
“The most immediate piece that the public will see out here is it won’t be a manicured golf course,” Meyer said. “What a golf course does is allows us the space where you really can’t hurt it. Anything we do from here on out is an improvement in terms of ecology and habitat.”
The important piece was to ensure the conservation of the land and decide how to incorporate it for educational and recreation uses in the future, he said.
“Our goal in the last 10 months has been to take this off the development plate and get it secured … and then start to examine exactly what this will look like,” said Joe Engel, executive director of the Land Conservancy.
At the end of a three-year mortgage repayment period, approximately 40 acres of land will transfer to the Land Conservancy.
The Grand Rapids Community Foundation committed a $400,000 grant to assist the partners in acquiring the golf course property. The Land Conservancy secured pledges from the Ken and Judy Betz family, the Wege Foundation and the Cook Foundation to support the project.
Community Foundation President Diana Sieger told MiBiz that it was the “shared goals” of the various groups that drew her organization to give such a sizable grant.
“Within the city, we’re really trying to have good public access to green space,” Sieger said. “It’s so rare. And this is providing access for a lot of students and families on the near west side. It’s committing to a better quality of life.”
Third Coast Development and Grand Rapids-based general contractor Pioneer Construction Co. also contributed an unspecified amount to help finance the acquisition, according to Meyer.
Additionally, the partners plan to engage the public over the next several months to determine how the site can best connect a neighborhood that remains somewhat disconnected in its current form.
“One of the things that’s really kind of neat about this: If you think about the golf course, there are neighbors on all four sides and they don’t communicate,” Engel said. “Eventually, this will be a bit of a crossroads, which will allow people to hopefully use the property and get from north to south and east to west.”
‘OPPORTUNITY TO EXPAND’
As Blandford Nature Center embarks on its ambitious expansion that will nearly double its size, the nonprofit organization continues to fundraise for an ongoing $10.3 million capital campaign, its first since splitting off from the Grand Rapids Public Museum in 2003.
The campaign includes raising $3.3 million for the 11,000-square-foot Mary Jane Dockeray Visitor Center, named for the founder of the nature center. The other $7 million will fund an endowment to help with the long-term financial sustainability of Blandford.
The nonprofit was named a finalist in the 2017 MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards, which were announced in January, in part because of the success of the capital campaign.
According to Meyer, Blandford is financing the land acquisition separately from the ongoing capital campaign.
“We were already well engaged in the capital campaign when (Rosely) walked in the door,” Meyer said. “Our programs are going through the roof right now, so this allows us the opportunity to expand that as well.”
Moreover, the expansion will help both organizations bolster their missions around education and preserving public natural areas, according to stakeholders.
“This presents both of us the opportunity to reforest this (land), work on restoring wetlands and engaging kids and college students in that whole process, as well as providing a very interactive place for the community to appreciate what this is and what it can be,” Engel said.