MUSKEGON — Community leaders and environmental advocates say a recent cleanup milestone will continue to spur development projects around Muskegon Lake and help the city’s ability to attract new residents.
The final remediation work to eventually delist the Muskegon Lake as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Area of Concern” was completed in the fall of 2021. This included sediment remediation and habitat restoration projects that were funded by $44 million in federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding and $11 million in GLRI-driven funding provided by non-federal partners.
Kathy Evans, former program manager for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (WMSRDC), has been advocating for cleaning up Muskegon Lake under EPA Area of Concern guidelines since the early 1990s. The 4,149-acre lake was designated as an Area of Concern in 1987 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
Evans retired from WMSRDC on Jan. 1, but she was a founding member of the Muskegon Lake Public Advisory Council, which has since been renamed the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership.
“A lot of what we did was to make sure we had people on the council that reflected the different stakeholders in the community,” Evans told MiBiz. “It’s been a good process and it’s done a lot for the Great Lakes, the AOC program and the Muskegon area. I’m hoping by September next year we’ll be celebrating the AOC delisting.”
The Muskegon Lake Area of Concern includes all of Muskegon Lake, Ruddiman Creek, Ryerson Creek, Four Mile Creek, Bear Creek, Bear Lake and branches of the Muskegon River.
Industrial users throughout the city’s history exploited the lake during the logging era and as an industrial scrapyard and dumping ground, said Muskegon Mayor Ken Johnson. At least $100 million has been invested in recent years to complete remediation and restoration work at Muskegon Lake, he added.
“The celebration and recognition that we are on the precipice of delisting will create a greater energy. We already had this energy building for what’s happening here in Muskegon, but we’ll see increasing excitement and momentum for what’s happening centering on this body of water here,” Johnson said. “That will be a focal point going forward, and one we will continue to protect instead of going backward.”
‘Real change’ in attitude
To be delisted as an Area of Concern, researchers will study Muskegon Lake to ensure that it continues to meet all of its restoration goals, said Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon.
The official delisting likely will be completed in six to 10 months, Steinman said.
“From a socio-economic perspective, there has been a real change in the attitude of Muskegonites since I’ve been here for 22 years,” Steinman said. “People have been down on the town and lake for generations, but now there is a perspective that the lake is part of our future, and that economic revitalization is dependent on the lake.”
The expected delisting “certainly” aids in attracting developers and more projects in the area as well as improving the city’s reputation as a destination, said Cathy Brubaker-Clarke, community development specialist at Greater Muskegon Economic Development (GMED).
“The attitude of people (not from) this area of Muskegon has changed drastically to most people now thinking of Muskegon as a great place to come visit and potentially live and work,” Brubaker-Clarke said. “The delisting will be one more piece to that, especially for people outside of the area who think of Muskegon as the old industrial foundry town that it once was but is not anymore.”
The yearslong remediation work around Muskegon Lake has helped spur new development projects, including in downtown Muskegon and in instances where developers can acquire brownfield tax incentives to advance projects, Brubaker-Clarke said.
Evans noted downtown redevelopment projects and the proposed redevelopment of 30 acres of Muskegon Lake waterfront property under the Adelaide Pointe project, which calls for a full-service marina with 270 slips, a restaurant, retail and 400 condos.
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Some of the remediation work occurred on the property that is part of the Adelaide Pointe plan, and the property came with a permanent conservation easement, Evans explained.
“It doesn’t prohibit development if you’re the kind of developer that wants to be green,” Evans said. “The footprint that is (part of the easement) is being integrated into the plans and they’re making it a nice, green development that will allow public access on the peninsulas to allow fishing from the shoreline. I think the way of the future is to accommodate the public’s access to natural resources.”
Adelaide Pointe development plans are “embracing” the remediation work that was done in the area, Evans added.
At an event last month marking the cleanup milestone, EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore said the area is already seeing growth in recreational activity.
“Recreational use of the rivers and Muskegon Lake has increased, tourism is up and property values are growing,” Shore said. “It’s not just in Muskegon, though: The Great Lakes are an economic engine and an irreplaceable environmental wonder supplying drinking water for more than 40 million people and supporting more than 1.3 million jobs and sustaining life for thousands of species.”
Shore added that “unprecedented progress” will be made in restoring the Great Lakes under the federal infrastructure law signed by President Biden last year.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Habitat Conservation Director Carrie Robinson said Muskegon’s recent economic success has a direct link to the environmental remediation work at Muskegon Lake.
“Through our partners, including Grand Valley State University, we’ve studied the impact restoration has had on this community, demonstrating a six-to-one return to the local community observed through an increase in local tourism, recreation and property values,” Richardson said.
The partners’ 2020 study also documented an estimated 485,000 additional visits to the lake, representing an 11-percent annual increase, said Erika Jensen, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission.
As well, shoreline restoration work has created an estimated $7.9 million increase in home values, according to the study. Additional recreational activities following remediation work at Muskegon Lake could have a $29 million annual economic impact on the area, representing a 4-percent increase in Muskegon County, according to the study.
“This is a clear indication that the successful restoration efforts are being felt through the local community and once again demonstrates the strong return on investment through restoration projects in the Great Lakes,” Jenson said.