Muskegon County officials are hoping the possible purchase of 377 acres of private land will increase the quality of life and help with talent attraction.
The land along Lake Michigan in Norton Shores has been on the market for about two years. The county is deciding whether to purchase the property, formerly a Nugent Sand Co. Inc. sand mining operation until 2016, to expand recreational opportunities in the county.
“For Muskegon County, it would be a big deal for residents in that it would be land that is accessible and we could see our local families engaging with natural resources, but it’s also a big deal for visitors coming to the area because it offers additional recreational opportunities for them,” Caitlin Ward, marketing and operations manager at the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau, told MiBiz.
If the county purchased the land, it would allow for further placemaking opportunities, an approach to the planning and design of public spaces that intends to promote people’s health and happiness. In many cases, placemaking is put into practice through recreation opportunities.
The purpose of placemaking is to “create a sense of place,” which includes recreational assets. The Lansing-based Michigan Municipal League assists communities with placemaking efforts, from developing plans for recreation or other community gathering spaces. The organization will provide models and best practices to think about how those assets can be improved, said Shanna Draheim, policy development director at the League.
From Draheim’s perspective, recreation has played a large role in placemaking, and economic development more broadly, in the last 10 years or so.
“In the work we’re doing, recreation tends to play a big role because we know there’s demonstrated proof that there are economic growth in property values near recreation opportunities,” Draheim said.
Placemaking with recreation could be a tool to help address ongoing talent issues from a quality of life perspective as well, said Cindy Brown, vice president of talent initiative at The Right Place Inc., a Grand Rapids-based regional economic development organization.
“Quality of life is usually a key component in the location decision for talent,” Brown said. “It may not be specific to outdoor recreation, but the quality of life is important to a lot of the employers. They’re choosing to bring people to open or start their organization or retaining talent in the area or attracting others to the area.”
There is a case to be made for outdoor recreation’s role in economic development. Green infrastructure like parks, trails and outdoor recreation spaces improves property values for adjacent residents. For example, more than 30 studies have confirmed that homeowners will pay a premium to be near a park.
This is what the League emphasizes when municipal staffers need assistance convincing elected officials to invest in public recreation spaces. It is clear residents place recreational opportunities high in their priorities, Draheim said, although budget challenges sometimes keep local municipalities from investing in their recreation spaces.
“Compared to a lot of states, as the economy has rebounded from the recession, a lot of our communities haven’t fully rebounded,” Draheim said. “Sometimes parks and recreation becomes a ‘nice to have’ if it’s parks versus police, for example. You see a lack of investment in those resources even though there’s a high return on investment.”
The League is also involved in a grant program with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Michigan-based crowdfunding platform Patronicity that helps to fund public space and recreation projects.
Other state and federal grants also remain available for communities looking to invest in recreational spaces and infrastructure.
Along with Nugent Sands in Muskegon County, other large-scale recreation projects are happening around West Michigan. Ottawa County purchased the Ottawa Sands property in 2019 for $3.82 million at 18153 North Shore Drive in Ferrysburg. The 353-acre property could offer scuba diving, kayaking, fishing and a campground.
In Grand Rapids, the restoration of the rapids in the Grand River promises enhanced and new outdoor recreational opportunities. Officials at Grand Rapids Whitewater, which is working along with multiple other organizations on the project, expect this to greatly expand the recreational opportunities in the river and lead to adjacent developments, providing economic development opportunities for the city.
“I’m of the view that placemaking really means creating places that are interesting to people, and where they want to engage not only with the outdoors, but with each other,” said Steve Heacock, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Whitewater. “This project is not only catalytic, but once-in-a-lifetime in its ability to draw people together to enjoy the outdoors and to enjoy each other in a central place, a downtown area.”
Grand Rapids Whitewater has received funding from the private sector, but also the city of Grand Rapids, Kent County and the state.
“Because they recognize the importance, not just for recreation, but also for the environment and the ecology, people seem to grab the vision of this pretty easily once they see it and think about it,” Heacock said.
Meanwhile, Muskegon County is hoping for the same consensus around a vision for the Nugent Sands property. Over the next few months, the county is holding public input sessions on what could happen at the site. The property could support broader outdoor recreation, which in turn could expand tourism, economic development and marketing opportunities, Ward said.
“With more parks and greenspaces, we sometimes see a better quality of life,” Ward said. “We would look forward to that to be a marketing point to encourage people to move here and raise a family here as well.”