Friday, August 15, 2008

Access Key to Tri-Cities Greatness

From the August 14, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune

August is a great time to be in the Tri-Cities. It is a delightfully lazy month between the frenzy of Coast Guard Festival and the return to the routines of another school year. It’s a great time for local residents to enjoy what the Tri-Cities has to offer

But sometimes I worry if common local residents are in danger of losing access to the things that make the area so great. The idea came to me when I recently read a review of a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, “This Land is Their Land: Notes From a Divided Nation.” Ehrenreich is known for her earlier book, “Nickel and Dimed,” about the struggle to make a living on minimum wage. The book was adapted as a play and performed at Grand Valley State University this past spring. Her new book makes the case that the wealthy in our society have slowly been robbing common folks of access to the truly beautiful places in our country. “If a place is truly beautiful,” she opines, “ you can’t afford to be there.”

Ehrenreich speaks from her own experiences traveling in places like Jackson Hole and Key West. Mansions, she complains, have taken up most of the scenic spots. These may be select and extreme cases, but I wonder if the potential for such a scenario is possible in Grand Haven and Spring Lake. We don’t have mansions on the order she is talking about. But there certainly has been an increase in the number of large homes and condos, including those that are merely second-homes for the wealthy who only are here a few weeks of the year. We are not adding public space at the same rate.

Take water, for example, which is perhaps the greatest asset of our community. We all live in proximity to a great lake, as well as Spring Lake and the Grand River. And we all have access to each waterway. But when you think about it, there is only one small public beach on Spring Lake, and a pay launch facility and park in Ferrysburg with no swimming. There are about a half dozen area DNR ramps and parks on the Grand River. As for Lake Michigan, most of us are limited to state, county, or township parks. All of that is great, but boat ramps don’t provide access to people without boats. And as the area—not just the Tri-Cities, but the communities nearby whose residents make day trips to the beach--becomes more populated, there’s a danger that access will be denied to people who arrive at full parks.

We recently had friends in town from Virginia. We advised them to drive down Lake Shore Drive on their way from our home to visit family in Hudsonville. But we had to explain that the road offers few actual views of Lake Michigan, because most of the property there is privately owned. Waterfront homes include large wooded acreage between the lake and the public road. The view is blocked; access denied. Owners have that right, and have paid a pretty penny for the privacy, of course. But a part of me is saddened to think of hard-working locals of modest means who can’t steal a glance of God’s given glory because some wealthy family from Chicago had to sequester the “cottage” they visit a few weeks a year behind majestic oaks.

In Hawaii they have a policy that requires any new private hotel or condo development on the water to include a public access easement. They are an island state, with plentiful waterfront. But the policy is a good one, and one that could be considered here.

Ehrenreich points to other effects of mansions mania in hot spots around the country. Huge homes have led to inflated home prices throughout the local market where they are built, as well as higher rents. I would add that higher tax assessments could be an eventual consequence of the proliferation of new condos and homes in our community. I shudder to think that these increases might force long-time residents of more modest accommodations to relocate.

The impact doesn’t stop with just the housing market. The influx of seasonal and permanent residents with deep pockets often leads to an increase in boutique shops, fine dining and other amenities. While that sounds nice and will no doubt be a shot in the arm to the local economy, it will be troubling if the local market gets out of balance and caters too much to the cashmere class. There needs to be a middle ground between escargot and cheeseburgers, between Wal-Mart and Armani.

We do have a wonderful place to live. Each evening, I feel grateful as I look west toward the setting sun and enjoy the pastel hues of a summer sky. But with more condos rising into that sun set scene, I worry a little too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

One Night Camping in Two Tents Proves Too Tense

From the July 10, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune

Last month in this column I wrote about ‘stay-cations.’ I shared that my wife and I had little travel planned this summer other than a weekend in Ludington to camp and run the annual half-marathon that goes through the state park. What with gas prices and the hassles of packing, unpacking and so on I opined that staying home right here in the glorious Tri-Cities vacation destination made a lot of sense. Well, as Paul Harvey says, now you’ll hear the rest of the story.

The day my column appeared, we headed north for Ludington. I should have re-read my own column and just stayed home.

True to form, even though we were only going away for a weekend, it took us til late afternoon to be ready to leave. We got up to Ludington, set up our tent and the gazebo tent over the picnic table, and went for a little walk along Hamlin Lake. A family was fishing from the boardwalk next to the lake and the woman said, “Hey, don’t you live in Spring Lake?” It turned out they were our neighbors from just down the block. We talked to them for a while and laughed about the coincidence of running into them in the campground.

Maybe it was no coincidence. I think it was a sign that we should have all stayed in our neighborhood. You’ll see why in a few paragraphs.

Later that night, after having dinner in the great outdoors, we were discussing what to do for the remainder of the evening when a few drops of rain started to fall. We decided to head into the tent and read for a while before getting a good night of sleep.

Then it started to rain harder.

An avid backpacker, I tried to tell my wife that when it rains this hard it doesn’t rain long. “It will probably be a great downpour and then stop; we may even see the stars tonight,” I tried to assure her.

Soon, I was the one in need of assurance. The rain kept coming, and it kept coming hard. “It’s really coming down!” one of us said, as if we expected it to come up. It was like a fire hose trained on our tent. Even right next to each other, we had to yell to communicate. The rain was accompanied by thunder and lightning. Loud thunder. The kind that makes your chest pound with each roll and peel. The lightning was bright and nearly constant. It was as if airborne paparazzi were taking photos of our campsite.

We know that our tent can withstand rain pretty well. But this Mason County Monsoon was no ordinary rain. Because of the force, drops started coming in where the zippers come together in the tent doorway. Because of the volume of rain, pools started accumulating by each of the tent’s two doors. Just before midnight, the rain ceased momentarily. I took an absorbent towel and used it as a shammy to mop up and ring out the water in the tent. No sooner had I finished this task than it started raining again. Hard. It lasted til after 3 a.m.

We made the best of it. We tried to read for a while. I was reading about Hemingway on some adventure in Africa. He was in a tent too. He had guides to take him on his hunt. He had wild game cooked over an open fire and exotic beverages to enjoy as he surveyed the landscape. I know Ernie is from Michigan and I enjoy his writing, but I would respect him more if he had endured a night in a tent during this kind of thunderstorm. I made a note to myself: write a novel called “Middle Aged Man and the Michigan Monsoon.”

I had other thoughts during the night too, as I alternated between dozing, feeling around to see if water had spread on the floor of the tent, and being shaken awake by thunder and lightning. I re-examined my position on water boarding as a means of getting prisoners of war to give up vital information. I tried to remember the last time I reviewed my life insurance policies. I thought about my bed at home in Spring Lake, in the house that just had a new roof applied.

In the morning we learned that 11 inches of rain had fallen. There were reports of tornados touching down just north of us. We learned the campground did not have a tornado warning siren. When we had set up camp, we envied those with lots right along the shore of Hamlin Lake. Not in the morning—those lots were now part of Hamlin Lake. Water had risen to the level of picnic table benches. Campers were wading knee-deep on their lots. Canoes that had been set next to campers were now “beached” on the campground road. Several dozen boats from the public beach in the campground had been carried up by the rising waters and floated through the dam and out toward Lake Michigan. Water was soon at the top of the dam, and several boats were wedged into it. Water started coming up more in the campground, across the road and to the middle row of campgrounds. Ultimately, the sheriff drove around and announced a mandatory evacuation of the state park. Because of this, the half marathon run was also cancelled.

We complied willingly. We collected our race shirts and headed home. Our one weekend of camping had turned into a one-night ordeal. Relaxation in two tents had proven to be too tense. Our vacation turned into an evacuation. I should have taken my own advice and stuck with a summer long stay-cation.

'Stay-cation' Not a Bad Idea for Tri-Cities Residents

From the June 12, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune

By the time you read this, I will be on vacation.

Why am I not more excited?

We’re going away for a long weekend of camping up north. Sounds nice, and yes, it will be fun. But in some ways I would just as soon stay home.

For one thing, there’s the gas price situation. It is hard to believe that 10 years ago when we moved into our current house a gallon of gas could be had for less than a dollar. At four bucks a gallon, even in our four-cylinder car with good mileage, that starts to make you think twice about driving more than necessary.

I also am nervously looking at the skies. All the rain we’ve been having is great for our lawns and the lake levels. But when you’re on vacation in the “nylon condo” (that means tent for you rich, fifth wheel-haulin’, home-on-wheels “campers”), rain in the sort of frequency and quantity we’ve had lately is not exactly conducive to relaxation.

The there’s the whole hassle of it all. I know the point of vacation is to “vacate” your normal circumstances, surroundings and routines. It’s good to get away, completely away in new surroundings and not be tempted to do any work or projects around the house. But all the planning, packing, seems like just a different kind of work and not a break.

Lots of people are talking about the idea of a ‘stay-cation’—taking off work but just staying home—because of the gas prices. But the more I think about the concept, the more it seems like a good idea. That’s especially true for those of us who live in the Tri-Cities.

It always amuses my wife and me when we return home from a vacation up north. As we return to the Tri-Cities from our vacation destination, with car packed to the gills with camping gear and kayaks and bikes strapped to the roof and trunk, people no doubt assume we’re arriving in Grand Haven to begin a vacation, not returning home from one. After we unpack, we ask each other what we want to do now that we’re home from a summer trip. Often we go to the beach—which is the same thing we had been doing on vacation.

Just this past weekend we went for a walk on the beach and noticed a large number of out-of-state license plates. People were here from Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, New York, Georgia and elsewhere. It kind of makes us feel good to realize that we live here. It kind of makes us feel ashamed that we don’t appreciate it, savor it, enjoy it more often.

There are times that we look at the waterfront homes and the downtown condos sprouting all over and shake our heads. Many of these are second homes for families from other cities. These residences have twice the square footage and several times the asking price than our permanent home. If you let it, a feeling of jealousy can well up within. But then I think that these poor (poor being a relative term) saps have to go back to Chicago, or Detroit, or wherever they spend the majority of their year. They “vacate” their vacation home. We get to stay in this vacation destination.

Which brings up an interesting point about vacations. The word stems from Old English or Latin or French and means essentially to “be unoccupied.” That implies leaving your home, but not necessarily. A vacation can also mean that a person, not their home, is unoccupied. In other words, take a break from work, don’t occupy your hands or head with stressful actions or thoughts. You can achieve that state of being unoccupied even as you occupy your home. It may take some discipline to not answer the phone, check email, or wander into the home office.

Another meaning of vacation, according to some dictionaries, is to spend time with family and friends. You don’t need to leave home for this either. In fact, given my brutal schedule during much of the year, it is nice to be at home and actually spend quality time with my wife. Being delightfully unoccupied, we can linger over meals on the deck or enjoy a drink on the moonlit patio without the constant weight of work cutting short such moments. Yes, a stay-cation means I can stand still, and even force time to do the same for a while.

So, I’m looking forward to an extended stay-cation after returning home from the planned weekend vacation. I’ll leave my “second home” rolled up in the garage, and take my bike down to the state park. I’ll read good books to keep my mind unoccupied with work-related thoughts. I’ll have long walks and casual, uninterrupted conversations with my wife. I’ll be free of planning and packing. I’ll use little if any gas. I won’t have gone anywhere, but I will have arrived in a good place.