When Andrew Price, now the president of the McKenzie-Price Insurance Agency, returned to Muskegon after college, he was “coming back to the giant sandpit that was the downtown.”
The Muskegon Mall had been torn down, leaving in its wake abandoned buildings and a nonexistent street system where the vast indoor shopping complex once covered eight downtown blocks. You could, quite literally, see tumbleweeds making their way down Western Avenue.
“When I came back in 2003 to start work here, it was still a diamond in the rough,” Price says. “If you told me cruise ships would be coming to Muskegon in 15 years, I’d say you’re crazy.”
Of course, we now all know: the cruise ships are coming. And that’s certainly not the only change. The tumbleweeds have been replaced by a thriving hub of restaurants, shops and apartments. Muskegon Lake’s waterfront is humming with festivals and concerts; the city’s museums are drawing crowds from across the country; more than $1 billion is being invested in development projects throughout the county.
“As Muskegon continues to grow, and there’s more positive people than naysayers, it gets more and more exciting,” says Price, who has also served as the chairman of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. “For the residents who’ve lived here for a long time and know how beautiful it is, it’s exciting. There’s so much progress.”
For Price, a large part of that progress stems from the grassroots “Watch Muskegon” campaign, a community-funded initiative area leaders launched in 2015 to reshape Muskegon County’s public perception. An overwhelming majority of Muskegon County residents are now well-versed in the campaign, at least in terms of its “Watch Muskegon” slogan—but the project has roots that go far beyond colorful letters on a billboard.
From educating more than 1,000 people in its Muskegon STAR! program—which offers classes for new (and longtime) residents about the county’s history, upcoming events, new developments, and more—to working on community beautification projects, the initiative has, for years, both told and created the story of an evolving Muskegon County. And, now, the initiative is expanding its reach in its second three-year campaign.
“Initially, when the Watch Muskegon campaign started, it seemed to me we needed a rallying cry—all these people who were proud of where they lived and wanted to see progress didn’t have a uniform way to get that message out,” Price says. “Watch Muskegon became that rallying cry. It’s a central theme that everyone has adopted and is proud and happy to use.”
“The positive changes have been amazing—not just the emotional connection to the ‘watch us go’ theme, but the way it’s gotten more and more people to volunteer for things or start their own projects,” Price continues. “And it’s gotten a lot of the municipalities together in Muskegon County.”
Originally, Watch Muskegon set out to be a three-year project, but its positive reception recently propelled it into another three-year campaign that runs entirely on donations. Since its inception, the campaign has landed about $400,000 in donations from individuals and businesses throughout the county. And community members continue to rally around it—including the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex, which will hold a Watch Muskegon fundraiser on Jan. 29.
“We did some research with our stakeholders, and people wanted to continue it because it was so successful,” says Carla Flanders, director of the Watch Muskegon campaign and the vice president of marketing at the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.
Brad Hilleary, the owner of Webb Chemical in Muskegon Heights and Trace Analytical Laboratories in Muskegon, echoes this sentiment.
“I think they took the leadership position in change,” Hilleary says of Watch Muskegon. “People are seeing the campaign and they’re coming over to Muskegon and saying, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know you had two brew pubs downtown, a distillery downtown; I didn’t know you renovated the hockey arena. I didn’t know you have an Irish Festival, a rock festival, a jazz festival at Heritage Landing. I think it’s opening people’s eyes who haven’t been paying attention for a while.”
With a recent study documenting that 95 percent of Muskegon residents recognize the “Watch Muskegon” brand, Flanders says they’re now focusing marketing efforts outside of the county; the campaign’s education and beautification efforts—such as the Muskegon STAR! program, partnerships with local school districts, and community cleanups—will remain in Muskegon. And months into their second three-year campaign, Watch Muskegon leaders too are focusing on spreading the message that the initiative is meant to encourage interest and growth throughout the county.
“We’re working with municipalities to let them know this isn’t just a city of Muskegon thing; this is for everyone in the county,” Flanders explains. “Anyone can be the change: Muskegon Heights is a part of it; Norton Shores is a part of it. Everyone can be a part of it, as long as it’s a part of positive change.”
From blight to beauty: How Care A Lot is growing the community
In addition to marketing and education, beautification has been one of the three main components of the Watch Muskegon campaign—and these efforts are translating to further grassroots momentum throughout the region.
As Price and other members of the Watch Muskegon campaign began cleanup efforts in the community, they quickly realized that they wanted a more centralized program to specifically focus on beautification in the region. And so, one of the major outgrowths of Watch Muskegon was born this past spring: the nonprofit Care A Lot.
Formed by local residents and now headed by Price, Care A Lot notes on its website that it aims to “create healthy, sustainable neighborhoods through environmental cleanup and beautification.”
To do this, the donor-funded group acquires distressed properties, improves and maintains them, and then returns them to community members—who then take the lots to the next steps of development. So far, Care A Lot has purchased eight lots in Muskegon Heights, and they aim to continue to purchase and beautify lots throughout the greater Muskegon region. Currently, the focus has centered on Sherman Boulevard because Watch Muskegon has made the area a priority for its cleanup and beautification efforts. Advocacy from Muskegon Heights officials, Watch Muskegon and the Muskegon Chamber of Commerce, among others, too resulted in $3 million in state funding for improvements to Sherman Boulevard.
“I think aesthetically it’s made a very big impact,” Price says. “All of these things together—Watch Us Go, the cleanups—make a big difference. People drive by or ride bikes by the lots and ask what’s going on. They’re excited. It gives people pride and ownership.”
As the word spreads about Care A Lot, Price hopes the organization will become the go-to group for land improvement efforts.
“We want to help people understand if there are blighted properties that are vacant lots, we want to be the people that do the grunt work in the beginning and make it look nice,” he says. “We want to make it development ready, or we want to knock on the door of a neighbor and ask, ‘If we sold this to you for a hundred bucks, would you be interested?’”
This kind of investment in Muskegon Heights is part of a larger conversation being held in the city, Hilleary explains.
“A number of people in Muskegon Heights are saying, ‘Muskegon is changing their streets, let’s change ours,” Hilleary says. “Let’s renovate some older buildings downtown and get some small entrepreneurs, small businesses in these buildings.”
All of these efforts, Flanders, Hilleary and Price say, are driving an overarching narrative that Muskegon residents are sharing—with the world and with themselves: that Muskegon is filled with people who love their community, who aren’t afraid of a little grunt work to make sure their neighbors are doing well, who believe in a hometown that’s seen its fair share of ups and downs—but has always risen.
“There’s only one way to get an avalanche, and that’s to get a small ball rolling down the hill,” Hilleary says. “That’s what’s happening in Muskegon. There have always been individuals and businesses who have invested in Muskegon, and it’s even stronger today. People are seeing you can invest in the community in a powerful way.”
In other words: Watch us go.