Tom Potter has all kinds of stories to tell about the riders he has encountered in his more than three decades of driving Harbor Transit buses.
There’s the guy who brings his bicycle along, does his errands in town on the bicycle and then uses Harbor Transit to get back to his home in Grand Haven Township.
There’s the disabled woman with the motorized wheelchair who wants to go shopping with her friend or socialize or attend activities at The Momentum Center.
And there’s the older couple who moved back to Lloyd’s Bayou from the east side of the state just so they could have the door-to-door service provided by Grand Haven’s buses.
Maybe they are also there for the friendly smile and familiar face of their trusted driver.
“Drivers first of all have to have a love for what they do – they have to like people,” said Harbor Transit’s interim director, Steve Patrick. “Tom was that way. We loved having him around here.”
The beloved driver retired Jan. 15 after 33 years on the job. It would have been 34 years in March.
“I love my job,” said Potter, 56. “I hadn’t planned on retiring until I was 65.”
Potter said he finally broke down and met with a financial planner and realized he would be just fine if he retired early. And the fact that he wouldn’t have to drive through another hard winter just sweetened that pot.
Potter grew up on a small farm in Hudsonville and graduated from Allendale High School. His mother was born in Grand Haven and his grandfather worked at Grand Haven Brass. His Grandfather Potter worked on the railroad in Grand Rapids.
Both grandparents bought farms back from the bank. His parents grew up on those farms, across the road from each other, in West Olive. Potter said it was always fun and easy to visit the grandparents right across the road from each other.
It was the love of Grand Haven that brought Potter and his sister back to the area where they opened a day care center and he eventually started working part time for Harbor Transit.
“My start date was May 27, 1986. I was 23,” he said.
Potter eventually became a full-time dispatcher for four years.
“It takes a special person to do that,” he said. “You have to remain calm and I wasn’t good at that.”
So Potter went into bus driving full time.
“My dad was a truck driver in Grand Rapids,” he said. “I enjoyed going for rides with him. I enjoyed driving. I still do.”
Potter said that when he first started as a driver, Harbor Transit did a large figure 8 around Grand Haven, returning to each stop every 15-30 minutes. That eventually changed to the on-demand service it has today, presently covering a 55-square-mile service area.
“People just don’t realize how convenient and how necessary this is for people who don’t have a car,” Potter said. “It is a great service. Not a lot of communities have the curb-to-curb service that we have.”
Potter said the people were his favorite part of the job.
“Most of the people are courteous and friendly,” he said.
Some of them even got on the bus a couple of hours early just to ride around and talk, he added.
Every day was a little different. Sometimes he would be transporting schoolchildren. Sometimes he would have the Sunday church route.
Potter said he usually bought a pack of ride tickets to have on hand in case someone was a little short on cash or it was their birthday.
The last couple of years, he decided to give out stocking caps to kids for Christmas.
“They were excited to pick out the colors they liked,” he said.
Retirement feels like a stay-at-home vacation right now, Potter said. But he doesn’t believe he will remain idle for long.
“You want to have a purpose in life,” he said. “You want to feel like you have a purpose in the world.”
Potter said that he plans to stay in Grand Haven, although he might visit a niece in California to help her with her floral business for a short time.
He also hopes to travel to the Netherlands again and do more family research. He went there in 2011 and found his great-great-grandparents’ home.
“Now I want to dig deeper,” he said, explaining that he would like to connect with relatives this time.
Grand Haven City Council and city staff will be looking for input throughout the spring and summer for the future of Chinook Pier.
Buildings A and B have been approved for demolition, and the decision Monday night was followed by a unanimous vote to begin a community engagement process to determine what should be done at the site.
“I think we can come up with something fantastic,” City Manager Pat McGinnis said of the engagement process. “There are going to be a lot of great ideas, I’m sure, so let’s let the community come out and give us these ideas.”
Chinook Pier’s buildings A and B – which have been home to shops such as the Wet Mitten, Peace Frogs, Wanda’s Slice Barn Pizzeria and more – will be demolished as the result of mold being discovered from the high water levels flooding the crawl spaces last year.
The smaller building C – which has been the home of Dairy Creme and Nautical Knots – was approved for remediation, as it does not have the same mold issues.
Many displaced tenants are working on leases to move downtown, including relocating to the city-owned Grand Trunk Depot.
With buildings A and B being torn down, McGinnis said there are many short- and long-term opportunities for the waterfront site.
“In the short term, I think pop-up shops are a good opportunity,” Councilman Ryan Cummins said. “We really have a unique opportunity here. I hope we can all approach this with an open mind and be open to all the various ideas that come up. I really look forward to what the community has to say, what kind of ideas they have and starting that discussion right away.”
“We might as well make lemonade out of this and take best advantage of the real estate down there,” McGinnis added.