City of Muskegon hires new economic development leaders: former Muskegon Heights City Manager Jake Eckholm and Peter Wills, previous chief of staff to ex-state Sen. Goeff Hansen

The Windward Pointe development, pictured here before the Chase Hackley Piano Factory on the Sappi paper mill site was torn down. Windward Pointe will be one of the priorities for the city’s new director of strategic initiatives. Photo by Anna Gustafson

As developers and business owners continue to pour money into Muskegon, city officials announced on Tuesday they are ramping up efforts to further grow and support the area’s economy.

Officials said they are restructuring the city of Muskegon’s economic development efforts, including hiring former Muskegon Heights City Manager Jake Eckholm as the economic development director, a newly created position. The city too hired Peter Wills as its new director of strategic initiatives. For the past eight years, Wills served as the chief of staff to former state Sen. Goeff Hansen (R-Hart).

Eckholm and Wills are slated to be part of an economic development staff led by LeighAnn Mikesell, who’s leaving her current position as the city’s director of municipal services to focus her efforts on economic development, planning and community development. The staff too will include Mike Franzak, Muskegon’s longtime planning director.

“Investing in economic development is an important step in the city’s long-term vision of sustainable growth and job creation,” Muskegon Mayor Stephen Gawron said in a press release announcing the staff changes and hires.

Eckholm—whose new job will focus on job creation through industrial retention, expansion and attraction—said he left his position as Muskegon Heights’ city manager on Friday, Feb. 22 in order to find a job that would provide him more time with his growing family.  Hired in October 2016 as Muskegon Heights’ city manager, Eckholm’s tenure included working to support and expand Muskegon Heights’ business landscape, secure significant funding for the city, and combat misconceptions about the area.

Wills’ new position will center around moving the city’s economic development projects to completion, including the acquisition and redevelopment of the former West Shoreline Correctional Facility, the cleanup and redevelopment of the former Sappi site, and more than $100 million in proposed downtown development projects.

The city is purchasing the former West Shoreline Correctional Facility, which stopped operating as a prison in March 2018, in order to expand the current 380-acre Port City Industrial Park by about 60 acres. This expansion paves the way for the city to add about three or four businesses to the industrial park, according to Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson.

“As we’ve eliminated industrial sites off the waterfront, we’ve had trouble finding new industrial sites away from the waterfront,” Peterson said in a January interview. “This will create jobs and economic impact.”

A vast 120-acre property situated on more than a mile of Muskegon Lake shoreline, the Sappi redevelopment site, otherwise known as Windward Pointe, is slated to be a $250 million to $400 million mixed-use development that’s expected to be one of the biggest projects to shape the region.

The city’s new economic leadership team is welcome in a quickly changing region, President of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce Cindy Larsen said in the press release.

“A professional, competent, and confident team will be greatly appreciated by commercial and industrial developers and business owners looking to relocate to, or expand in, Muskegon,” Larsen said.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with Anna by emailing or on FacebookTwitterand Instagram.

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