MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — While many Michiganders were enjoying their spring break, Ryan Leestma was committing to years of work to transform a former industrial property on Muskegon Lake into an unprecedented development.
Leestma now owns nearly 30 acres on West Western Avenue near Franklin Street in Muskegon. The site was previously home to West Michigan Steel and currently houses a boat storage operation and packaging manufacturer WestPack.
However, much of the property remains unused, including a large blue warehouse where Leestma says scatter bombs were manufactured during the Vietnam War.
“Part of the challenge is we have to fix decades of deferred maintenance. The roofs weren’t taken care of, things broke, a lot of things were destroyed and were never taken off site. A lot of things are buried in the ground. Lights don’t work anymore, heaters don’t work anymore. I mean, it’s a complete disaster,” Leestma said.
Leestma is no stranger to Muskegon. When he was a child, his father traveled to West Michigan in search of a home on an inland lake connected to Lake Michigan.
“We went to St. Joseph, Benton Harbor, Saugatuck, Holland, Grand Haven and somebody said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go to Muskegon.’ And so that was the next thing that we did. And we came here and we were blown away by the value and the natural resources. And basically the same day, my dad put an offer on a cottage and we’ve been here for about 30 years,” Leestma said.
Leestma didn’t know about the former West Michigan Steel property until March 2020. He said a former neighbor who is also an attorney for the company that owns West Michigan Steel told him “it is the most beautiful piece of lakefront property you’ll ever see.”
“I didn’t even know it was here because the buildings were covered by trees. So you would drive by here and you would have no idea. A lot of people don’t know that this place exists ironically,” Leestma said.
His wife and managing partner of the project Emily Leestma said she still remembers the first time they saw the site.
“We sat there in the car and just thought this place is beautiful, one of the most incredible pieces of property, but what in the world do you do with that? And we started dreaming it about it then,” Emily Leestma said.
ENVISONING ADELAIDE POINTE
Months of planning led them to Adelaide Pointe: A development with 270 boat slips, boat storage, 400 condominiums and a mixed-use building with a restaurant and retail space situated near the existing walking trail.
“We want to try and make this the most sustainable marine community in the country, which I absolutely think that we can do. I know it’s going to be the most sustainable marine community in the state of Michigan. There’s no doubt,” Ryan Leestma said.
He plans to tap his experience as the owner of Adelaide Energy by adding solar arrays on every building and wind turbines near the shore. The Leestmas say Adelaide Pointe will also be the first in the state and possibly the country to use mass timber in building its condominums and restaurant.
Mass timber is constructed of layers of wood glued together. Each piece is designed on computer to fit together precisely, then bolted together on site.
Adelaide Pointe’s developers say using mass timber will make this a carbon negative build. Ryan Leestma said mass timber also takes a third of the time to build and is currently less costly than building a traditional home, since lumber prices have hit a record high.
“We calculated that in North American forests, all the wood that we’re going to be purchasing and installing is grown in five minutes. It’s a sustainable product. It naturally captures carbon. It ties into the history of this site, which is the lumber industry… so it’s historically relevant, it’s physically relevant, it’s a higher quality system,” Ryan Leestma said.
“It’s aggressive, exciting,” said Dennis Kirksey, former vice president of operations for Kirksey Investment Corporations, which previously owned the property. “A mixed-use development has always been part of the vision for this site and this is fun to actually see it all actually coming to be. It’s here, it’s now, it’s time.”
Kirksey said Ryan Leestma isn’t the first developer to show interest in the site.
“There’s been some other people that have been: They’ve had money to do it but they haven’t captured the vision to do it. …He’s the first that’s had hope,” he added.
‘WE’RE NOT TAKING ANYTHING AWAY FROM THE PUBLIC’
Kirksey, who chairs the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership, is also hopeful about Adelaide Pointe’s plan to rebuild two peninsulas on the property and a nearby city-owned peninsula closed to the public because of high water damage.
If Muskegon city officials agree, Adelaide Pointe’s developers plan to add trails that will connect to the downtown trail system, fishing areas, fish cleaning stations, outdoor grills and a gazebo at the end of one peninsula for events.
“We want to make sure that… as we’re developing it, that we’re not taking anything away from the public. They’re here for a reason, they saw something in Muskegon before anybody else really did. I think a lot of people are starting to get the fact that we’ve got the best of everything here in Muskegon and they shouldn’t be penalized for being early adopters of this community,” Ryan Leestma said.
“That’s something that makes Muskegon stand out, is the accessibility of the lake to anyone,” Emily Leestma added. “Public access is really, really important here. And that’s something that in this development specifically, we want to maintain as much as possible.”
A team of about eight workers have already started site work, clearing brush and scrap. The first phase of Adelaide Pointe starts this summer with renovations and security upgrades to the two existing buildings for expanded boat storage on site.
Condo construction was supposed to start in 2025 but the Leestmas are considering moving that up to next spring based on demand.
“We’ve had 13 people request reservations for purchasing condos here and we haven’t even finalized the floor plans,” Ryan Leestma said.
Ryan Leestma said they plan to price the condominiums lower than the current market rate to give more people a chance of living on Muskegon Lake.
“You know, we want to do a great job, because if we do a knock it out of the park job here, then we’re going to be able to bring lots and lots of families into Muskegon. And they’re all going to see the same thing that we do. The same thing that we did when I was a kid,” Ryan Leestma said.
“It’s the reason why I jumped on board from neuroscience, because we’re really passionate about the area and about bringing people here,” said Emily Leestma, who is shifting her focus to real estate tied to the development. “I mean, we love Muskegon. We live here, you know, we want it, we want to make things even better here and we want to leave a mark here that is lasting. So that’s something that I feel really passionate about is being able to help bring other people into, enjoy the area that we get to enjoy every day.”