A gem tucked between two causeway spans at the eastern edge of Muskegon Lake, Veterans Memorial Park was once known as “Michigan’s Most Beautiful Mile.” The 50-acre park was designed by noted landscape architect Willard Gebhart and constructed by the Works Progress Administration in the early 1930s and features a large fountain, numerous memorials and plaques, curving pathways along the shores of two large ponds, and a variety of recreation spaces. Originally designed as a memorial to Muskegon area veterans who lost their lives in World War I, it was later expanded to honor the memory of all United States veterans. Unfortunately, a 1970s water control project unintentionally cut off access to its south pond and led to years of neglect that left the park environmentally degraded and ill-maintained. Many of its beautiful memorial plaques and markers were left to fade from public view, and the isolated south pond was choked with invasive reeds.
Despite its neglected state, the community remained proud of the iconic park and pushed for its revival as it was more than just a place of remembrance—it had once been a destination for fishing, walking, hiking, picnicking, and community life. Moreover, the park’s waterways were an important ecological resource that presented the opportunity to undo broader environmental damage stemming from the region’s logging, agricultural, and industrial past. In the mid-2010s, the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (WMSRDC) teamed up with an array of partners to restore the park to its former glory. Beginning with a collaboration with the Michigan Department of Transportation to improve the park’s crumbling pathways, the project grew to become a total restoration and improvement of every neglected asset on the property. The 2017 award of a $2.7 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant—which was available because the Muskegon Lake was at that time listed as an EPA “Area of Concern” due to environmental damage from the region’s industrial history—kicked the environmental restoration process into high gear. Throughout the restoration process, planners with WMSRDC collaborated closely with a range of community and governmental partners including the city of Muskegon, Muskegon County Veteran Affairs, and local environmental groups and served as the project manager overseeing engineering, construction, and grant management.
Ecological restoration began with modifications to the water control structure to reopen the south pond and installation of a clear span bridge to allow fish passage during all but high-water periods, when the structure can be closed to prevent the kind of flooding that had damaged many of the park’s original trees. More than 30,000 tons of contaminated sediment was removed, 6,000 linear feet of shoreline was softened, and numerous underwater fish habitat structures were installed. Along with more than 50,000 plantings of 65 different native species, 14 acres of wetlands were restored to support overall ecosystem health. Project staff are now in the process of working with the City of Muskegon on the replacement of trees damaged by high-water levels and have worked with Muskegon County Veterans Affairs to organize and continually train a local volunteer group committed to the ongoing maintenance and upkeep of the park. WMSRDC again worked with the Veterans Affairs organization to identify and digitize the location of the memorial tree markers and thousands of bronze plaques lining the park’s scenic pathways. Each marker was added to a publicly available GIS map, allowing families to locate their loved ones’ memorials and discover the stories of the many men and women honored at the park once again. QR codes linking to the map were placed on signs located throughout the park.
This project meets two key goals outlined in WMSRDC’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). These include supporting the area’s natural resources (“Practice stewardship of the region’s natural resources while leveraging assets for economic gain”) and improving quality of life (“Provide desirable places to live and recreate…and amenities to attract visitors and tourists”). It is also an example of a “nature based solution” that can be applied to “protect, sustainably manage, or restore” ecosystems to address economic and social challenges facing communities and regions.
One reason that the restoration has been so transformative has been its ability to blend environmental restoration, civic improvement, and community programming to create a project that meets multiple regional needs at once. “It was pretty exciting to be involved,” says Erin Kuhn, Executive Director at WMSRDC. “There has been an ongoing community effort, with people rediscovering family history and coming wanting to add additional memorial markers.” With restoration nearly complete, the park has once again become a community destination for recreation and remembrance. Ecological restoration efforts have been so successful that they’ve contributed to the EPA’s recent removal of the Area of Concern designation for Muskegon Lake. With plans for ongoing maintenance and volunteer training in place, the park is secured against once again falling by the wayside and failing to live up to its potential as a key regional asset.
Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.
Joe has thirty-one years of experience having served in city, county, regional, national association, and government management since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a candidate for a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.
McKinney has provided congressional testimony on numerous occasions regarding the importance of regional development organizations in helping shape the nation’s economic growth. He is nationally recognized for promoting innovative solutions in areas such as planning and economic development, workforce development, transportation and transit, and aging services.