‘The biggest honor of my professional life’: After stepping down as Muskegon Heights city manager, Jake Eckholm reflects on tenure

Jake Eckholm. Photo via the City of Muskegon Heights.

After serving as the city manager of Muskegon Heights for close to two and a half years, Jake Eckholm left the position on Friday, Feb. 22.

“It was the biggest honor of my professional life to serve the people of Muskegon Heights,” Eckholm said in an interview with the Muskegon Times.

A desire to find a job that allows him more time with his growing family prompted Eckholm’s decision, he said. Eckholm and his wife have one young daughter and another daughter on the way.

“I want to be very present as a father,” he said.

The Muskegon Heights City Council is now moving forward with plans to find a new city manager. Council members last week appointed Muskegon Heights Finance Director Lori Doody as interim city manager.

“Mr. Eckholm did some amazing work that we’re very proud of,” Muskegon Heights Mayor Kimberley Sims said. “Because of the good work that’s done, we understand it’s crucial we don’t prolong the process of finding his successor. We’re going to be quite aggressive in that, in going out for a search.”

Prior to Eckholm, the city of Muskegon Heights was without a city manager for a year and a half; Sims emphasized city leadership is intent on ensuring this search is a shorter one.

“The person for the job has to have more than just the job at heart,” Sims said. “They have to have the community, the people at heart.”

That, Sims said, is what Eckholm had.

“He was loved by the community,” the mayor said.

“Going forth as a city, we’re going to be looking for an individual who can do just as Mr. Eckholm did: get on board with the vision that the leadership has for this community,” the mayor continued.

Hired in October 2016 at the age of 26, the former city manager’s tenure included working to support and expand Muskegon Heights’ business landscape, secure significant funding for the city, and combat misconceptions about the area.

“I’m really happy with the expansion and traction of new businesses in Muskegon Heights,” said Eckholm, a Muskegon native who was the city manager of Stanton and the village manager of Lakeview before becoming Muskegon Heights’ city manager.

Muskegon Heights is “a great community filled with wonderful people” that has long been marginalized, Eckholm noted. It has had to deal with an uneven playing field caused by, for example, “institutional racist policies in banking, finance and real estate over the course of decades” to “being the red-headed stepchild of all the local cities around here,” Eckholm said.

Despite all of this, the city and its people have persevered, doing everything from supporting entrepreneurs—such as Kuntry Cookin’, which just landed a major business award from the 5×5 Night competitionto fighting for funding, such as the $3 million in state dollars that’s been allocated for improvements to Sherman Boulevard.

Throughout his time at the city of Muskegon Heights, Eckholm has landed praise from area business leaders.

For example, the owners of Aldea Coffee this past Sunday emphasized that they’ve loved working with Eckholm to bring their business to Muskegon Heights. Aldea, which runs a cafe in Grand Haven and will soon be opening a coffee shop in downtown Muskegon, debuted its production space in Muskegon Heights about a year and a half ago. The business hopes to open a cafe in Muskegon Heights in the future.

Aldea Coffee co-owner Jeremy Miller said during Sunday’s tour of the incoming shop in Muskegon that Eckholm reached out to them a couple years ago with the hopes of them opening a cafe in Muskegon Heights.

“We’ve had a great relationship with him,” Miller said. “We sat down with him and found a way to get our roasting operation there.”

Eckholm said he’s looking forward to watching Muskegon Heights continue to grow—and for the world around it to break down its misconceptions of a city filled with innovation and creativity.

“There’s a strong, tight-knit community here that needs to be showcased,” he said.

“The city will continue on a trend of success,” Eckholm added.

As for Eckholm’s future plans, he said he’s “hoping to stay in public service.”

“I really like public service; I’m open to opportunities in that area,” he said, adding that “Muskegon Heights was my career goal.”

“It’s weird to be 26 and achieve your career goal; I’m 29 now,” Eckholm said.

Whatever happens with his future career, the former city manager said Muskegon Heights will always have a place in his heart.

“I really enjoyed my work there,” he said. “It meant a lot to me and always will.”

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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