GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Seventeen placemaking projects throughout West Michigan have received funding from the Michigan Strategic Fund.
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation announced the $100 million Revitalization and Placemaking grant program in the spring, Tim Mroz, the senior vice president of community development for The Right Place, said. The program uses American Rescue Plan funding.
Economic organizations in the state could put together regional grants to help fund projects in their region. The Greater Muskegon Economic Development, Lakeshore Advantage and The Right Place partnered together to ask for proposals from 13 counties.
In total, they received 41 proposals for projects from 11 counties in West Michigan. The requests totaled more than $91 million. Using the MEDC’s point system, they narrowed the list down to 20 projects and requested $9.9 million in funding.
“We were looking for projects that were truly unique, something that would add new vibrancy, create that sense of place and space in a community that didn’t exist before. We were looking for projects that maybe were addressing those lost or underutilized spaces in a community,” Mroz explained.
The group also looked at the connectivity of the site to other aspects of the community, like a trail system or a downtown area.
Ultimately, they were awarded $6.1 million, allowing them to fund 17 of the projects in nine counties. Going into it, Mroz said they knew the program would be competitive. The MEDC told the group requests throughout the state totaled more than $430 million, he said.
All projects must be completed by Sept. 30, 2027.
“Collaboration with our regional partners has led to another successful advancement for our communities,” Marla Schneider, the president of Greater Muskegon Economic Development, said in a statement. “As West Michigan continues to grow, the new developments in our communities are yet another testament to our unwavering commitment to the prosperity of our current and future citizens and businesses.”
When asked if there are any projects he is particularly excited about, Mroz joked, “It’s like making you ask me to pick my favorite child.”
“There are a variety of projects that were exciting,” Mroz said. “We had everything from park improvements to trail initiatives. I think overall having a regional grant like this be able to fund smaller rural placemaking projects as well as very large urban placemaking projects and everything in between was just exciting for us.”
RESTORING HISTORIC, ‘BELOVED’ SULLIVAN FIELD
One project that received funding is the Sullivan Field in Grand Rapids. The field was granted $680,000 for its restoration project.
Mraz said it’s exciting to help breathe “new life into a historic baseball field that has a lot of history behind it.”
Sullivan Field, formally called Valley Field, opened in 1937. It’s in need of a lot of “TLC,” said Paul Soltysiak, the vice president and co-founder of Fans of Valley Field. He explained it was already set to be renovated after voters passed a tax millage seven or eight years ago to improve city parks.
“There’s about $1.1 million from the tax millage going to the park,” Soltysiak said. “But when we heard about that, we contacted the city and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to take it up a couple notches and add some things and do more things and have events there. And can we do that and can we help raise some money?'”
He said the city was very enthused about the partnership, saying private-public partnerships often go a lot better.
The field, located on Valley Avenue near 6th Street in the city’s West Side, is a “beloved” spot, Soltysiak said. He said there’s not many vintage ballparks like it left in the country.
“It’s just a great place for baseball and for community gathering,” he said. “That’s really what it’s all about. This placemaking grant fits in perfectly with the ballpark because it’s just a great community gathering space that people really love.”
Soltysiak said Fans of Valley Field is thankful to The Right Place for helping them get the grant.
Throughout the summer, Fans of Valley Field held 19 events, including a chili cook-off. Soltysiak said they’ll probably cut back on that next summer, as the nonprofit is staffed entirely by volunteers.
The team will be hosting a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday. They’ll announce how much money they’ve raised for the project, as well as more specifics about the plans.
The first phase will include restoring the grandstand, making it more accessible and putting in a new roof. In the spring, they’ll level the infield and put in a nicer surface.
But crews will be careful to keep that vintage ballpark feel.
“Nobody wants it modernized,” Soltysiak said. “It’s going to be restored, and we’re definitely going to keep the vintage look and feel, but maybe add a couple nice new things to it.”
Those additions will include a new museum, with sports memorabilia and stories. Soltysiak said they want to honor the history of the field and the players who came from it, like Bob Sullivan. He said they also want to honor the “untold story” of Black baseball players in Grand Rapids.
“We’re in the process of trying to gather as much as we can to honor the Black baseball that … was played there,” he said. “… Back when that was going on, a lot of things were segregated. But at Valley Field, it’s like, if you could play ball, you’re welcome there. Everybody just loved playing the best against the best and gathering as a community.”
He said it’s important that that story is “documented and preserved.”
Friends of Valley Field will be hosting a gala fundraiser on Nov. 2. Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster Dan Dickerson, WOOD TV8 sports director Jack Doles and Minnie Forbes, the last living owner of a Negro League Baseball team, will be at the gala, Soltysiak said.
ALLEGAN PARK RENOVATION PART OF ‘RENAISSANCE’
Another West Michigan project to receive funding is Mahan Park in Allegan, which received $160,000 for improvements.
The park, located along the Kalamazoo River on Brady Street in downtown Allegan, was first developed in the 1980s, city manager Joel Dye said. The park has an outdoor amphitheater with a wooden gazebo.
Since its development about 40 years ago, the park hasn’t seen any investment, Dye said.
“We were approached by several community members that wanted to make investments in the park,” Dye said. “… The gazebo is deteriorating, it’s not really ADA accessible and we have … lots of overgrowth along the edges of the park.”
The project, expected to cost around $400,000, will replace the gazebo with a steel structure, improve the landscaping and bring in new park lights, sound equipment and park benches.
Dye said it was “serendipitous” that community members approached them about reinvesting in the park around the same time as the grant program, adding community members are “overjoyed” they received the funding.
“We are very excited and fortunate that those three (economic organizations) chose us to be one of the communities to receive funding,” he said.
Concept drawings for the project are completed, and construction is set to start in the early spring of 2024. The goal is to have it done by the Fourth of July, Dye said, in time for the 2024 season of the Good Times at the Gazebo Concert Series.
The series, put on by the Kalamazoo Folk Life Allegan Chapter every Saturday night in July and August, brings folk concerts to downtown Allegan.
The project is part of a bigger makeover in the downtown area, Dye said. They’re just wrapping up an $8 million project putting in new streets, sidewalks, landscaping, benches and utilities in the downtown area.
“For the past several years, downtown Allegan is going through a renaissance and it’s very exciting,” Dye said, later adding Allegan is becoming a destination for people to visit.
Seventeen apartments have been redeveloped in multi-use downtown buildings and, over the past five years, 24 new businesses have opened up in the area, Dye said. He said Allegan also added a Friday night concert series and installed a splash pad.
Two new restaurants have opened and the city received three $25,000 Match on Main grants from the MEDC.
Dye said those involved in the project are excited to invest more in the park so people can enjoy it for generations.
PROJECT BRINGING FRESH FOOD MARKET TO WYOMING
In Wyoming, a new 36th Street Marketplace received a $450,000 grant. The 6,000-square foot marketplace on 36th Street near Buchanan Avenue will have room for 24 vendors and will have outdoor food truck parking.
It will be located on five acres on the north site of Site 36, the former location of a GM stamping plant that closed in 2009, according to Nicole Hofert, the director of community and economic development for the city of Wyoming.
“It’s really an opportunity for us to activate a currently vacant site to bring something forward to the community and provide opportunities for delivery of fresh food, vegetables, as well as artisan sales,” Hofert said.
She said there’s a great need for the project in the community, as there’s only one fresh food market in Wyoming and none on the north side of the city.
The building will be designed to be flexible for different types of programming. It will be usable year-round, as garage doors wrapping around the building can be open in the summer or closed with the heat on during the winter. A pavilion in the front will serve as a small music venue or a spot for other types of entertainment.
“We’ve really done our best to try to listen to the community and find something that’s adaptive for their uses in the future,” Hofert said.
She said the city’s Parks and Recreation Department will be in charge of programming in the space.
The community has been “tremendously supportive,” Hofert said, adding they worked closely with the Division Avenue Business Association and small businesses along the corridor during their planning process.
The project is anticipated to cost around $4 million. The city’s private partner, Franklin Partners, is contributing $1.5 million, and the city’s brownfield authority is using funds from the sale of Site 36.
Hofert said they’re thankful to The Right Place and the MEDC for the RAP grant.
“We really do believe that community development is economic development and they come hand in hand,” she said. “So to be able to receive this award and add it to the funds already available for this marketplace to really bring it into construction later this year, we’re very excited about that.”
The project is expected to be done in late 2024 or early 2025.
HOLLAND ICE RINK RECEIVES $800K
The West Michigan project receiving the most funding is the ice rink planned for downtown Holland, which received $800,000.
“The $10 million ice rink going down in the city of Holland is going to be exciting and we were glad to fund that … and participate in that success,” Mroz with The Right Place said.
That project has been decades in the making, as Holland first starting exploring locations and designs for the ice rink in 1997.
The ice rink will be on the edge of downtown, located on 6th Street and College Avenue at the Window on the Waterfront Park.
“I am excited to see this highly anticipated project moving forward,” Rep. Nancy DeBoer, R-Holland, said in a statement. “I have supported Frank Kraai’s generous vision and the development of Window on the Waterfront since I was on city council and throughout my time as mayor of Holland. The ribbon skating path dated back to Mayor Dykstra’s era. It’s great to have the state’s support in helping bring the project to fruition for the community.”
Frank Kraai, a retired local educator, donated $1.1 million for the project. The Jim Jurries family later matched the donation.
Renderings of the rink show a rink that loops around a greenspace, offering a path for skaters to follow.
The project also includes heated sidewalks and road.
VIBRANT COMMUNITES, ECONOMIC GROWTH
Also receiving funding is a downtown amphitheater planned for Fennville, which received $112,500. The Looking Glass River Plaza in Portland received $200,000.
A city of Hastings DDA Streetscape project received $474,500. Renderings show a fireplace, new LED pedestrian lights and trees.
In Kent County, the Dwight Lydell Park Restoration project in Plainfield Township received $175,000; improvements to Canal Park in Grand Rapids received $750,000; Garden Club Park Phase II in Rockford received $335,000; and Thornapple River Pedestrian Bridge in Ada Township received $425,000.
Cascade Library Outdoor Gardens in Cascade Township received $450,000. A rendering of the site shows new sidewalk, a pavilion, a new retention area meadow planting and more.
Two projects in Mecosta County received funding, with the Depot Trail Head Park in Big Rapids getting $450,000 and the Stone Hatchery Park getting $54,000. A rendering of the trail head park proposed plan shows a picnic area, a restroom building, and three trail connectors bringing easy access to the White Pine Trail from a parking lot.
The West Colby Promenade in Whitehall received $247,500. A site plan shows a plaza, an overlook, dune grass and greenspace.
Vida Weaver Park Pavilion in Hesperia received $45,000. Shelby Community Park in Shelby Township received $112,500, which will include a new softball co-ed field and pickleball or tennis courts.
The Revitalization and Placemaking Program also recently announced $6.1 million in grants that will support five housing projects in Grand Rapids.
“This funding speaks to the power of collaboration in strengthening places and spaces across the West Michigan region,” Jennifer Owens, president of Lakeshore Advantage, said in a statement. “Vibrant city spaces are a crucial component to attracting and retaining the people who live and work here, and who keep our economy strong.”
Mroz said community development projects like the 17 that received funding help with economic development.
“These investments, they add new vibrancy to a community, they add new public amenities to a community, they increase the quality of the overall quality of life. And what does that all do? That helps attract and retain talent In those regions and in those communities that employers need both today and for decades to come,” he said. “So at the end of the day, yes, these are fun placemaking initiatives and it’s fun to see investments in our community, but we also need to realize these investments are important to the long term economic health of our region as well.”