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Our economy, health too important for political payback

• Apr 4, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Just when we thought former state Sen. Arlan Meekof could no longer use his perch of power to advocate for the policies of special-interest groups that defined his career in Lansing, his name and face appeared in a guest column in this paper on March 18: “Grand River project would boost local economy.”

Meekhof used only 414 words to extoll the virtues of a planned dredging of the Grand River between the Fulton Street bridge in Grand Rapids and the Bass River Tributary in Ottawa County, ostensibly connecting the greater Grand Rapids area to Lake Michigan. In his glowing endorsement, he enumerated the many economic benefits that would come with such a connection.

What was missing were the reasons why residents of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ottawa County in general should be wary of the many unanswered questions of such a project. We should also be fully aware of the public investment already allocated, and the ongoing public costs associated with the maintenance of the proposed waterway.

Meekhof cites data from a study showing $57 million in economic activity in the first 10 years. The study referenced was commissioned by the Grand River Waterway Group, a 501(c)3 nonprofit group closely tied to developer, Republican donor and husband of former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, Dan Hibma. Mr. Hibma serves as president, secretary, treasurer and one of three directors for Grand River Waterway. He was recently penalized by the FEC for campaign finance violations and ordered to pay fines totaling $66,000 for illegal campaign contributions to his wife’s U.S. Senate campaign of 2014, and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates for state House and Senate over the years.

Mr. Hibma’s Land and Company developed the Grandville Castle, and he has stated his desire to develop a marina on the Grand River in 2011. Much of the economic benefit associated with the connection of Lake Michigan to Grandville is closely linked to the development of marinas and other businesses along the Grand. The significant problem associated with such estimates of economic growth is that they ignore from where such economic activity may come.

Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Holland and Muskegon are currently the main points of housing for much of the boat traffic of the lakeshore of West Michigan. The assumption of $57 million of new economic activity resulting from connecting Grand Rapids to Lake Michigan coming from new visitors to the area, and would have zero impact on the economy of the lakeshore, is at a minimum ignorant, and more likely intentional.

As a summer destination, the lakeshore is the beneficiary of many individuals from Grand Rapids and the surrounding area making the 30-minute journey west to our various communities. From restaurants to convenience stores to marinas, local business owners depend on this influx of summer traffic to sustain them during the bleak months of winter. Such is the life of merchants on the lakeshore of West Michigan.

If Meekhof’s numbers are correct, are we to assume that the new spending upstream will come de novo from tourists and boaters not already enjoying the lower Grand and the lakeshore? Where is the study that will tell us how much is to be lost by the lakeshore communities as residents of greater Grand Rapids?

In addition to the negative impact of this plan to the businesses of the lakeshore, the economic impact on the coffers of the state are unknown. What has already passed is $3.1 million in appropriations in the final days of Meekhof’s leadership in the lame-duck legislative session of 2018. The spending was approved by lakeshore state Rep. Jim Lilly, and former Ottawa County state representative and current state Sen. Roger Victory.

At the same time we are told that the state cannot invest in the education of our kids, the fixing of our roads, or the assurance of clean drinking water for all Michiganders, these “representatives” had no problem giving millions to one of their chief benefactors in Dan Hibma. Jim Lilly once told me that some votes are political when I was concerned that he would not protect local school districts’ ability to protect their students from gun violence. I am assuming that his new position in leadership in the state House proves that this vote was for similar reasons.

A final concern for residents of Grand Haven and Spring Lake is the potential impact of this project on the quality of the drinking water for all of us. The Grand Haven Tribune reported (Aug. 3, 2018) combined PFAS levels in the Grand Haven water supply of 8 parts per trillion. The supply for my family’s water has already been shown to be flirting with PFAS levels that an EPA report would suggest may in fact be harmful to my kids and yours. What can we expect when decades of sediment from a bygone industrial era along the river is disturbed when the channel is dredged? Can we totally depend on an unbiased core sampling of sediment from the same company, Edgewater Resources, who would likely be asked to build the marina for Mr. Hibma?

In the coming weeks to months, the government entities of the lakeshore communities will be able to weigh in on this proposed project. Surely, if there is enough concern, we and our local representatives on city and township councils and the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners can convince Rep. Lilly and Sen. Victory to advocate on our behalf to slow down this fast-moving train of development long enough to consider the impact this project would have on the residents of West Michigan. The economic well being and health of those of us who call the lakeshore home is far too important to allow the parting payback of a former state senator to his political benefactors to outweigh our needs.

— By Dr. Rob Davidson, Tribune community columnist

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