Among those taking in the scenery was Larry Deetjen, who was Grand Haven’s city manager when the boardwalk was officially dedicated in September 1984.
Deetjen, now manager of the Village of Oak Lawn, Ill., said he and his wife, Lynn, visit Grand Haven about seven or eight times a year. And one of their favorite activities is to ride their bikes on the boardwalk.
“When I was city manager in Grand Haven, I didn’t have as much time to enjoy the boardwalk,” Deetjen, now 63, told me in a telephone interview. “I’m enjoying it much more now.”
Deetjen was hired as Grand Haven’s city manager in 1979. He had been assistant city manager in Arlington, Mass.
Developing the city’s waterfront became one of his major goals.
“Grand Haven’s waterfront had an industrial look when I first got here,” he recalled. “We wanted to soften the look.”
City leaders, Deetjen said, were also enthusiastic about giving people the opportunity to see the beauty of Grand Haven’s waterfront.
The idea of building a boardwalk had been kicked around since the 1960s. In fact, the city’s Planning Commission in 1967 developed a plan to connect the downtown with the Grand Haven State Park and lighthouse. But finding funding for such a massive project became problematic.
Deetjen, though, was determined to see the project through. He enlisted the support of four prominent Grand Haven residents — Bill Creason, Paul Johnson, Vin Erickson and Al Jacobson — to get the ball rolling:
“I called them my ‘Four Horsemen,’” Deetjen said, alluding to “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” “They had the vision.”
In 1982, the city’s Parks and Recreation Board was asked to launch a fundraising drive for the Lighthouse Connector Park, the official name given to the proposed pedestrian walkway that would take people from the downtown to the lighthouse and state park.
Deetjen said that it was the work of a Mary A. White Elementary School teacher that was instrumental in raising more than $200,000 for the project. Ken Formsma would spearhead a number of fundraisers, including selling planks, to help the city reach its goal.
“Deetjen pushes and pushes, and won’t take no for an answer,” Formsma was quoted in a 1983 Tribune article. “That really helps the project.”
Coupled with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineering $3.6 million project to rebuild the seawall along the Grand River channel and the city’s fundraising efforts, the dream of a boardwalk became a reality.
Deetjen said the many volunteers and financial contributors deserve the most credit for getting the project completed. He still remembers the names of the many people who played important roles in the development of the boardwalk.
Along with the boardwalk project, the city undertook a number of other downtown improvements, including converting the former Story & Clark piano factory into Harbourfront Place, which offered retail and office spaces.
Deetjen said he and Lynn love returning to Grand Haven and marvel at how the city has transformed into a “wonderful tourist destination” through the years.
“It’s a great place,” he said. “We have a lot of wonderful memories about Grand Haven.”
But in 1990, Deetjen appeared to have worn out his welcome in Grand Haven and was let go as city manager. He then became president of Harding Energy Systems, a Norton Shores company that manufactured and marketed nickel metal hybrid rechargeable batteries. Deetjen left the company in 1994 after it was sold.
In 1994, he was named city manager of Deerfield Beach, Fla., another waterfront city.
Deetjen’s tenure at Deerfield Beach was also marred with controversy. Not all of Deerfield Beach’s residents were enamored with his management style and he was suspended twice: once for an incident involving a confrontation with a vice mayor and for an incident involving alleged racial remarks he made to an employee at a Florida airport. Deetjen denies he made racial comments.
Deetjen resigned in 2006 after being told his contract wasn’t going to be renewed. He was hired as Oak Lawn’s manager in 2007, a job he still holds and is enjoying.
“I have had my share of political issues,” Deetjen admitted. “Politics can be a blood sport. It gets personal.”
Deetjen said he has no regrets about his management style. He said it is a manager’s job to serve the public and not the special interests of board members.
“It is always hard to please boards,” Deetjen said.
Despite the controversies, he feels he made significant contributions to the development of Grand Haven and Deerfield Beach before his departures.
“I’ve had no regrets about my career,” he said. “I never look back. I’m always going to step forward.”
The Deetjens still have friends in Grand Haven and Deerfield Beach. But they said it is their visits to Grand Haven that are special.
“I’ve always had a warm spot for the Coast Guard and Grand Haven," Deetjen said.