A few years ago, Jennifer Owens floated a “crazy idea” to the Ottawa County Parks Department.
Her concept was to offer three-month passes to the county-run parks on Lake Michigan for employers to hand out to summer interns so they could enjoy the beach. The intent was to provide college interns in Ottawa County with a free sample of what the area offers in terms of quality of life.
The thinking went that perhaps those interns would in turn give serious consideration to returning to the area after graduation to start their careers and end up staying.
“I really do hope it helps them say, ‘Yeah, I really would like to live and work here one day,’” said Owens, president of the Zeeland-based economic development group Lakeshore Advantage Corp., which hands out up to 100 Ottawa County park passes annually for employers to give to their summer interns.
The idea illustrates how the parks system that Ottawa County has cultivated over more than three decades — combined with Lake Michigan access and the abundant outdoor recreation opportunities in the area — fits into local economic development strategies.
Owens calls the county parks and Lake Michigan “a very, very strong sales element” for Lakeshore Advantage’s attraction and retention work. The area’s natural amenities are embedded throughout the economic development organization’s promotional materials, including images of Lake Michigan beaches on the front page of its website.
Combined with two state parks in Holland and Grand Haven that are among the busiest in Michigan, the Ottawa County parks system offers local economic developers a valuable tool in waging the proverbial war for attracting business investments and talent, in particular the younger generations that highly value quality of life.
“Attracting talent into our region is the only way we’ll continue to be strong as a community,” Owens said. “If you look at Millennials as a whole, what really drives Millennials is not the job but the ‘sense of place’ in terms of where they would start or grow their career.”
Likewise, The Chamber of Commerce of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg features outdoor amenities in its promotional materials of the communities.
Ottawa County’s park system, Lake Michigan and the area’s other natural amenities bolster the quality of life that companies are increasingly seeking when deciding where to locate, said Chamber President Joy Gaasch.
“With the talent shortage that we have, it’s a really important part of that attraction for our workforce,” Gaasch said. “When we talk to folks, it’s all about those extraneous attributes of a community that make a difference.”
Ottawa County is one of the fastest-growing counties in Michigan, with a 2018 estimated population of more than 290,000, up 9 percent from the 2010 Census. The county began a push to significantly upgrade and expand its parks system in 1987. County commissioners that year created a parks commission and separate parks department, then hired a director, John Scholtz.
Parks previously were managed by the Ottawa County Road Commission. At the time, Ottawa County had nine parks totaling 400 acres, including three Lake Michigan beaches: North Beach in Ferrysburg, Kirk Park south of Grand Haven, and Tunnel Park north of Holland.
Under Scholtz’s leadership, the county went on to methodically upgrade and expand existing parks and develop several new ones with the support of millions of dollars in grants received from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund that was matched with local funding.
Today, Ottawa County’s parks system consists of 40 parks, natural areas and open spaces that cover more than 7,000 acres and includes six public beaches on Lake Michigan and 150 miles of hiking and biking trails.
After forming the parks department more than 30 years ago, the county first identified and inventoried pristine dunelands, property fronting Lake Michigan, and the Grand River, Pigeon Creek and Macatawa River corridors to target for future acquisition. Guided by a long-term strategic plan, the county over the years acquired thousands of acres for new parks, natural areas and open spaces.
That effort took off in earnest in 1996 when voters first approved a 0.33-mill tax levy for parks, including programming and land acquisition. Voters have since renewed the parks levy twice for 10 years each, and by wide margins, most recently in 2016.
“Our parks in a lot of cases are people’s backyards,” said Jason Shamblin, Ottawa County’s parks director since last summer who succeeded Scholtz following his retirement after more than 30 years. “We know that they see the value of the parks.”
The parks millage generates about $3.5 million annually for operations and capital projects, Shamblin said.
The new Ottawa County parks developed over the years include the 142-acre Connor Bayou Park on the Grand River, Hemlock Crossing with 239 acres of woods and wetlands along the Pigeon River in West Olive, and Rosy Mound Natural Area, a duneland previously owned by a mining company that sports a 0.7-mile trail through the woods to Lake Michigan.
In Jenison, the 187-acre Grand Ravines features a half-mile trail along the Grand River with a 275-foot suspension bridge. The county first acquired 68 acres of former farmland in 1999, then added an adjacent 100-acre parcel that overlooks the river and another 19-acre riverfront parcel for a natural area. Improvements began in 2015.
The latest addition to the parks system is Ottawa Sands, a 345-acre former sand-mining operation in Ferrysburg situated on a bend of the Grand River, across from Grand Haven, that includes an 80-acre inland lake.
The park opened last October and planning will begin soon on crafting a master plan for Ottawa Sands, Shamblin said.
“Our goal is to really look at the natural resources of the site and look at a plan that preserves the amazing natural resources, and then open it up for public access,” he said.
The county also continues development of the Grand River Greenway, a trail network following the river’s length that will connect to a trail system in Kent County. The $41 million project will take until 2024 to complete.
A capital campaign to raise $7.2 million to support the Grand River Greenway’s development has so far netted $6.1 million in commitments, Shamblin said.
Amenities such as the Grand River Greenway, and the work to create trail systems along other waterways, adds to the appeal when pitching Ottawa County, Owens said.
When contacted by a company that’s recruiting talent and seeking relocation information about the area for prospective employees, Lakeshore Advantage always includes details about the Ottawa County parks system “to help them make the case that it’s not only a great place to work in, but a great place to live,” Owens said.
“It’s a key part of the sales pitch, and not all companies are really aware of the importance of speaking to the amenities and the recreation that we have as a way to close the deal,” she said.