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Healing Muskegon

I’d like to help Muskegon, Michigan experience a season of urban renewal by repurposing the old paper mill into an extraordinary destination similar to the Eden Project in Great Britain.

Imagine Change

Imagine people from around the world visiting Muskegon to attend conferences on urban food production, aquaculture, fungiculture, and sustainable manufacturing.  In the summer, Muskegon Lake would be filled with tourist boats that have come to admire the magnificent vertical farm before they dock for a day of fun in the city.  In the middle of winter, fresh shrimp, mushrooms, and vegetables would be so plentiful in Muskegon that hundreds of people have jobs growing, packaging and shipping the goods.   Let’s call this project The Ambrosia Institute after the mythical food of the Greek gods that made them live forever.

West Michigan

Muskegon is part of my local community. I consider my local community the million plus people in West Michigan that live in the Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland Combined Statistical Area (CSA). It is the second largest CSA in the state of Michigan behind Metro Detroit. This is my new home and that means I need to pitch in where I can to reduce suffering and promote wellbeing. I’d like to try my hand at creating new forms of economic and social health in Muskegon.

Holland has a thriving downtown community and last year was named one of the happiest places to live in the United States.  Grand Rapids is exploding with positive energy as seen by the recent lip dub video and events like ArtPrize, LaughFest, and TEDxGrandRapids which I helped organize.  That’s not to say there aren’t good things going on in Muskegon too, but it does seem to have the most challenges in the region.

Of the four major counties in the West Michigan CSA, which are Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, and Muskegon counties, it is Muskegon that trails far behind in community health as reported by The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute’s county health rating project.

Healthy Michigan

Ottawa county, where I live, is ranked the #1 healthiest in the state of Michigan based on health outcomes which include length and quality of life. Kent county is ranked #16 and Allegan county #21.  Muskegon ranks a low #64.  Health outcomes as measured in the study are driven by health factors like tobacco use, diet and exercise, employment, education, alcohol use, and unsafe sex.  Muskegon ranked a very low #74 in health factors compared to Ottawa county which ranked #4.  The Muskegon Chronicle reported “Muskegon County does poorly in rankings based upon a local population that smokes too much, is overweight, doesn’t get proper exercise and participates in binge drinking.”

I wondered how the healthiest and the least healthy counties could be right next to each other and decided to do some research. After more than a year of talking to people and studying the history and social/economic systems of Muskegon, I’ve concluded something obvious.  Muskegon simply doesn’t have a culture of healthy living.  A century of mill and factory work didn’t help citizens develop healthy habits.  I’m not too interested in learning more about why this is the case, but I’m very interested in how I can help improve the situation.

Food Deserts

On a hunch, I used the USDA’s new online tool to see if there were any “food deserts” in Muskegon.  As I expected, there are.  The website defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store:

  • To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median family income;
  • To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

A good chunk of the southeast side of Lake Muskegon is a food desert.   That’s a problem.  It highlights that poverty and food availability are key issues in Muskegon county.  3.6% of the people in Muskegon have no car and must travel over a mile to reach the closest grocery store.  That means convenience and fast food joints become places for dinner. The next time you stop to buy gas, go into the convenience store and imagine eating dinner there every night.  As you might expect, Muskegon county has high rates of obesity of diabetes.

Muskegon Goodness

Even though Muskegon has some serious challenges, it has a lot of good things going for it.  The Culinary Institute of Michigan is downtown just a short walk from the beautifully restored Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts.  It also hosts several great festivals including the Irish Music Festival that my friend Laura helps organize.   And of course there is the natural beauty of the shoreline, rivers and Lake Muskegon.  It was while kayaking on the lake with a friend that I first viewed the old paper mill.

The Muskegon Paper Mill

The S. D. Warren paper mill sits on 119 acres of lake shore property.  It’s been there for over a hundred years.  In the late 1800’s it was the largest paper mill in the world.  A South African company, Sappi Limited, purchased the business in 1995 for $300 million dollars, but a downturn the global economy forced them to shut the mill down in 2009 and let go the remaining 190 salaried employees.  Last year Sappi auctioned off the contents of the mill and put the property up for sale.   It’s not clear what will happen to the property.  I think it is the perfect location for The Ambrosia Institute.

Here’s a view of the property from Google Maps. Notice the nearby country club golf course in the lower left of the frame.

The Ambrosia Institute

Muskegon needs to transform the way it thinks about health and food.  It also needs to reinvent itself economically.  The Ambrosia Institute could have a positive impact on all of that by creating jobs based on ideals of health and sustainability and by bringing new projects and professionals to the area.

The Ambrosia Institute would be a world-class sustainability research facility and urban farm, along with a conference center, amphitheater, and gardens. Too farfetched?  Absolutely! Big ideas like this always seem outlandish when first discussed.  I’m sure that was the initial response to the Eden Project or Thanet Earth and for all the companies like Valcent that developed vertical growth crop systems…..or to the idea of creating the world’s largest recreational park in a swamp.

Vertical Farming

The center piece of The Ambrosia Institute is a magnificent vertical farm.  A vertical farm is glass building where crops are grown on each floor, either in soil or with hydroponics.  The leading thinker on vertical farming is Dr. Dickson Despommier who wrote the book The Vertical Farm.  Like the biodomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, the vertical farm building of The Ambrosia Institute is imagined as the architectural highlight of the facility that makes the property a tourist destination.

Imagine a gorgeous twenty story glass structure surrounded by rolling gardens.  Guests stroll the gardens in the summer and visit restaurants known for their talented chefs, Michigan wines, and fresh food.   The vertical farm, gardens, amphitheater, conference center and restaurants would be positioned on the north east corner of the property facing the lake.

Shrimp Farm

Due West would be the aquaculture center.  There are four water holding tanks on the mill property that together can hold close to five million gallons.  Here’s a close up of the tanks.

The tanks are the four round structures.  They sit beside a lagoon and a square pump house that pulls water out of the lake and filters it. I wonder if Russ Allen has thought about farming shrimp in these four massive tanks?

The Mill Buildings

The mill itself consists of about 300,000 square feet of warehouse and production space.  I have no idea if any of that space can be repurposed.  80,000 square feet of that is new warehouse space and the rest is open factory floor where the mill equipment once lived.  Multiple truck docks and a train car dock are part of the existing facility.

Maybe it is best to tear down the old factory and rebuild from scratch? Although, repurposing is a more sustainable idea.  I think the nice guys at Ecovative Design could use the existing facility to produce their Styrofoam replacement that is made of compost and mushroom mycelium.  Sam Harrington the Marketing Director at Ecovative Design was a speaker at TEDxGrandRapids on May 12th, 2011.  You can learn more about their fascinating process watching Sam’s TEDxGrandRapids talk (posted soon) or Eben Bayer’s TEDtalk.  It’s worth talking to them about bringing operations to Muskegon.

Muskegon Mushrooms

While we are on the topic of mushrooms, let’s consider adding fungiculture to the project.   Mushrooms are a wonderful food product and can be grown indoors year round on substrates of sawdust and woodchips or corncobs, both of which are abundant in Michigan. Large scale mushroom production isn’t happening in Michigan yet, but it could.  The mushrooms I buy at the local Meijer come from Canada, why not Muskegon?

Renewable Energy

A project of this size will take a lot of energy and the energy must be clean and sustainable.  Luckily there is plenty of land to put up some wind turbines on the west side of the property.

Now I know the idea of seeing wind turbines on the lakeshore is troublesome to some people, although I don’t’ really understand why.  I’ll take turbines creating clean energy over smoky coal plants any day.  Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center is based in Muskegon and help manage the olar and wind energy solutions needed for this project. Maybe the old mill power plant could be repurposed for alternative energy research too.

$100 Million

I’m guessing a project of this magnitude would require close to $100MM in funding and I expect there are brownfield issues to consider.  But neither funding nor brownfield need be deal killers. As a side note, Paul Statements has some ideas about how mushrooms can be used for bioremediation of brownfield sites.

A Good Idea?

The Ambrosia Institute is just an idea.  I’m not sure it is a a good idea, or feasible idea, but at least it is one idea to rejuvenate the long term prognosis for economic and personal health in Muskegon county.  Do you have a better idea?  I hope you do.  Let’s keep sharing ideas until something makes sense and we can move forward in positioning Muskegon county for a healthy future.

I’m spending my 17,216th day of life thinking about summer and urban renewal in West Michigan.

  • Rick

    I love it!

    The world needs bold, audacious ideas and strong people to back them up. We humans have entered an unprecedented era of transition and pressure. Destroyed soil structures, depleted natural resources, and steady population growth demand will present us with difficult problems. We must come together and contribute to positive solutions. This is a great start, and with buy-in from corporations and community the financing can be realized.

    Bravo.

  • Denise Hawk

    I agree with Rick. Bold, audacious and intelligent ideas are needed to solve some very real world issues. I love these ideas and I love the way you think. Very inspirational.

  • Carrie Syers

    I think this would be a beautiful addition to our lakeshore. We could use a few small, healthy food stores also. Check out the Health Hut there in Muskegon, I hear they’ve actually been expanding the business the last couple years… I miss home but I do love the selection of fresh, healthy food I get here! If I ever do move back to Muskegon, I would love to have something like this in the area. I think, however, if you want to talk community improvement we need to focus on FRESH and AFFORDABLE food. The problem is that it is a low income area and organics and, honestly, often anything nutritious at all, can get expensive. For people who live off food stamps, healthy food will continue to be not on the menu unless we can not only put it nearby but also make it cheap. Small stores out in the neighborhoods? Ambrosia Satellites? Or something I’ve thought about for the health food store I work at here: Meal in a box. Pick a recipe, simple directions, fresh ingredients, we put it all in a box, $5. Maybe pre-made salads for $1. Convience and cheap is what makes the fast food dollars flow, if you can make that stuff healthy, tasty and food stampable, it will probably do well.