Above: Protector of the planet, inspirer of people, friend to all dogs, Jim Lively.
When I joined the Michigan Land Use Institute in 2000, it was an upstart, brash group of journalists making waves with government officials and developers by wielding incisive writing and edgy positions. I was coming out of nearly a decade working in regional planning at Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, where I learned how the sausage was made in local government zoning and economic development—and I wasn’t very impressed. So I was thrilled to join a group of progressive idealists talking about bold ideas, and to add my knowledge of how the system could work better to improve life in our growing region.
It’s been quite a transformation. At the outset, the organization was a team of bold upstarts with plenty of moxie, vision and sharp instincts, but little experience. Today our team is a credible stalwart, having earned the respect of partners locally and statewide—and, most important—we’re still on the leading edge of positive change. I’m proud to have been a part of helping Groundwork arrive where it is today. As I prepare to leave Groundwork (we changed the name in 2016) April 1 and try my hand in the private sector with my family, it’s satisfying to reflect on the outsized influence that this relatively small nonprofit organization has had on our region, as well as the entire Great Lakes state.
Over the course of 22 years, I’ve been involved in a lot of issues at Groundwork, some contentious and high profile, and others very much behind the scenes. The common thread connecting all these issues is community resilience. I describe that as citizens coming together to identify what makes their home places special and function most effectively for the benefit of all residents of a region—human and non-human—and then working strategically against outside pressures, and sometimes hometown inertia, to protect those local assets, and lift up new ways of operating to retain the character and essence of the place that we love. We often refer to our work as ‘systems change, recognizing that community decisions about development and public investment are nested within larger systems—ecological, economic, hydrologic, political, and more—and that to get a desired outcome we may need to fight to change a part of an existing system that may be primarily benefiting outside interests and damaging our community.
It can be messy, complicated exhausting and emotionally taxing work, but it can also be immensely satisfying. Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of activists, community leaders, change-makers, politicians, business owners, and farmers, all willing to engage in protecting the what’s best for their community, their state and the Great Lakes. I’ve considered it a privilege and an honor to be paid to work alongside so many citizen volunteers engaged in improving our community, and I will always appreciate what Groundwork stands for.
As I get ready for a new challenge, I hope you’ll indulge me as I review a few of the highlights from the past two-plus decades of projects I’ve been a part of:
Hartman Hammond Bridge
MLUI had an early defining moment when we elected to take a stand in protection of the Boardman River Valley by standing up—and suing—the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to stop an unnecessary and ill-conceived Hartman-Hammond bridge proposal. Our Smart Roads alternative, which prioritized investing in improvements to existing roads and alternatives such as better bus, trails and sidewalk networks, was supported not only by the community but also in court. This contentious, high-profile victory demonstrated that citizens could take control over key infrastructure decisions in their community. However, we’ve also seen that these ideas keep coming back, and once again we’re hearing about an unnecessary bridge over the Boardman—with so many of our existing roads still needing investment.
The Grand Vision
MLUI wasn’t satisfied with just stopping a damaging bridge project. We followed that victory by engaging in the largest public input visioning session in Michigan, a process we titled The Grand Vision. I was proud to be part of helping the six-county region define a vision for future growth that has helped launch many positive projects, including a few that Groundwork itself spearheaded. The Grand Vision gave rise to a more effective regional bus system, continued support for walkable communities and trails, improved roadways like Division, Eighth Street and Woodmere that now function better for both pedestrians and vehicles, and of course a passenger rail system. The process also confirmed strong public support for renewable energy, and for directing housing and commercial development into existing cities, villages and developed areas rather than paving over farm fields.
BATA Bus System
As a regular bus commuter into Traverse City from rural Leelanau County, I was personally engaged in advocating for improvements to the BATA system to expand its coverage to include fixed-route scheduled rural service that allows people to count on buses to get to work. This is a game-changer for many people in our region who can’t afford expensive in-town housing, but also can’t afford transportation necessary to live in the countryside.
Passenger Rail from Ann Arbor to Traverse City/Petoskey
In 2010, the idea of restarting passenger rail service from Ann Arbor to Traverse City/Petoskey was only a dream for many regional residents. But MLUI seized that vision, labeled it A2TC and has doggedly pursued the necessary improvements to the railroad tracks so that it’s now possible for passengers to travel on those tracks again —possibly as early as this fall or spring 2023 with a pilot-test excursion trip! Without our persistent advocacy, the possibility of north-south passenger rail would have been lost.
Fighting Big Box Sprawl in Acme
We also stood up to sprawling development in Acme Township by supporting the Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, and specifically fought a massive big-box proposal led by Meijer. While Meijer eventually moved in, the development was significantly modified after Meijer was caught illegally funding political activity to influence their approval. A short piece titled Why I Won’t Shop Meijer that I drafted in 2007 in response to their bullying behavior was one of MLUI’s most read pieces, again demonstrating the value of advocacy with a backbone.
Local Food Movement