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PENNING: An overdue spark strikes the Village of Spring Lake

• Feb 8, 2018 at 2:00 PM

I, along with most residents of the area, have been taken aback by the sudden surge in commercial real estate transactions in the Village of Spring Lake. This paper as well as others in the region have reported on the acquisition of a number of properties adjacent to the township and village offices and others along M-104.

The number of properties, and the speed at which their purchases have been announced, is what contributed to the shock. The tentative plans for these properties — restaurants, shops and housing units — also caused a buzz.

Some of the scuttlebutt about the project has been positive, and some reaction has been negative. Such is always the case with big community news.

Those worried or anxious about the proposed project have what I would consider objections typical of those against change. They complain that all of this property is being purchased and new development proposed by an “out-of-towner.”

Well, the woman behind it, Kim VanKampen, lives in Florida and owns a seasonal home here. (I must disclose I know some family members of the developer, though I do not know her personally.) However, whether one lives here all year or part of the time is irrelevant. Even seasonal residents are stakeholders in the success, or failure, of the village. There is no law or reason that would indicate they can’t be involved in local development.

Some complain that this is another example of the “rich getting their way.” This begs the question: What exactly is the way of the poor when it comes to the buildings and their use in the village? Was the status quo preferred? The last time I ate something in what was the Phoenix Café, most of today’s Spring Lake High School students were eating baby food. Perhaps it’s time for a change.

Another complaint is that there is no public input on the use of the property. But, in fact, the “public” input has been in the form of representative government officials zoning the property for commercial use. And, since the commercial property is private, the owner has the option of seeking public input as to its use, but no requirement to do so.

In fact, there is much to like about what is proposed for the property acquired in the village. Old buildings will be restored. As that happens, the aesthetic of Spring Lake Village will improve. Dingy, gray buildings will have a more vibrant appeal. An old gas station will become a dining establishment. Long-vacant buildings will be used again, bringing a vibrant feel to a village whose sleepiness is not an asset. The village could become a destination instead of a drive-through.

So, while some see this developer as an “intruder,” I see a catalyst. Some may see arrogance, but I see generosity. Some may see disruption; I see a long-overdue stride forward.

This reminds me of 20 or more years ago when I was working in Grand Rapids. Having grown up in that city, I could recall the days of my childhood when my parents took my siblings and I downtown to the Santa parade by the old Herpolsheimer’s Department Store. It was busy, and safe, and seems in my memory like a Norman Rockwell painting. But, in years following, downtown Grand Rapids suffered. By the time I was in high school and college, folks didn’t want to be downtown after dark, and not at all other than that unless they worked there.

But, over time, a group of visionaries turned the tide. Yes, they were wealthy. Yes, they bought lots of real estate, and they may have profited off the ways they developed it. But so did the city residents at large, both of the time and the ones to come. The catalysts were a sports arena, a large hotel and a downtown college campus. This sparked more business development, then urban housing.

Fast forward to today and downtown Grand Rapids is thriving. My college students are eager to take classes at our downtown campus, and upperclassmen and alumni want to live there. Businesses are booming. Buildings have windows instead of plywood, and art instead of graffiti. Many major events are planned in the city each year, bringing new visitors and potential residents, and benefitting businesses large and small.

The Village of Spring Lake may never be Grand Rapids, nor probably should it be. But it can be more vibrant, attractive and healthy than it currently is. It can stop being on the way to somewhere else and be the place to go. I’ll be watching with hopeful anticipation.

The old adage is that it takes a village to raise a child. Sometimes it takes a stranger to raise a village.

A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.

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