When I was a kid, every few months my parents would make the special trip from Detroit to Holland to see my grandparents. Back then (in the ’70s) Holland seemed to me a very sleepy small city amidst a larger rural area. Downtown seemed to be suffering from benign neglect (ie nothing terribly exciting was happening). As I got older, I noticed that new buildings were being constructed just outside my grandparents neighborhood (not far from The Wooden Shoe Factory).  And perhaps this is why:

Holland’s comeback began in the 1970s, when downtowners fought to secure public and private support for a fading urban core.  Backers were bent on stressing historic preservation within a context of economic development. And they kept an eye out for innovative, creative approaches to bring new life back to Holland – tackling worn facades, unfriendly parking, disorderly traffic, and burgeoning competition from the growing sprawl of western Michigan.

In 1978 Holland established the Downtown Development Authority to promote economic growth. But it wasn’t until 1984, when Holland adopted the Main Street approach to downtown revitalization that the community was galvanized for change.

All well and good. But nothing prepared me from what I was to witness when I returned to Holland. Last month, I asked writer Greg Smith if I could meet with him at his downtown Holland office. After arriving downtown, I searched in vain for a parking place. Eventually I decided to walk about the downtown mile to his office. And as I did so, I noticed people having lunch on the sidewalks – block after block. Downtown was simply…unrecognizable. Walking back just outside Hope College, I was astounded at how many new campus buildings were constructed. Even leaving Holland itself  was far different than I remember – the city limits appeared to be extended with sprawl. Indeed, I accidentally found myself in Zeeland in short order. Obviously I wasn’t the only one noticing the contiguity (“Holland, Zeeland Chambers combine”).

When you come across an urban area that is doing economically well, its seems somehow obvious. Perhaps its the new/renovated buildings, or crowded streets that are the tip off. Crowded sidewalks are always a good sign. Holland certainly had that. Or perhaps its what I didn’t see: dilapidated buildings, brownfields, drifters, and weedy parking lots. Whatever the case, I had a sudden urge to start thinking many hypothetical “What Ifs” with regard to my current residence.

So Holland was impressive. What I remember as a nice but sleepy small city is surging. And its with regret that I didn’t select Hope College to attend when I had the chance (sorry CMU).  But I do hope to see more of  Holland – if its viable for GRAPE to begin holding some evening socials there. And first off is holding an event at  The Warehaus at Baker Lofts next week (Wed Oct 23) – a beautifully renovated factory building (which goes to my point earlier).  Being much smaller than Grand Rapids, attracting attendees will be a much harder task. But the city’s business community seems to have the right spirit (I’m hearing great things about the West Coast Chamber of Commerce).  So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll get a crowd to see some interactive workshops and have fun. If interested, register here.

Post by John M Potter