Above: Protector of the planet, inspirer of people, friend to all dogs, Jim Lively.
When I joined the Michigan Land Use Institute in 2000, it was an upstart, brash group of journalists making waves with government officials and developers by wielding incisive writing and edgy positions. I was coming out of nearly a decade working in regional planning at Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, where I learned how the sausage was made in local government zoning and economic development—and I wasn’t very impressed. So I was thrilled to join a group of progressive idealists talking about bold ideas, and to add my knowledge of how the system could work better to improve life in our growing region.
It’s been quite a transformation. At the outset, the organization was a team of bold upstarts with plenty of moxie, vision and sharp instincts, but little experience. Today our team is a credible stalwart, having earned the respect of partners locally and statewide—and, most important—we’re still on the leading edge of positive change. I’m proud to have been a part of helping Groundwork arrive where it is today. As I prepare to leave Groundwork (we changed the name in 2016) April 1 and try my hand in the private sector with my family, it’s satisfying to reflect on the outsized influence that this relatively small nonprofit organization has had on our region, as well as the entire Great Lakes state.
Over the course of 22 years, I’ve been involved in a lot of issues at Groundwork, some contentious and high profile, and others very much behind the scenes. The common thread connecting all these issues is community resilience. I describe that as citizens coming together to identify what makes their home places special and function most effectively for the benefit of all residents of a region—human and non-human—and then working strategically against outside pressures, and sometimes hometown inertia, to protect those local assets, and lift up new ways of operating to retain the character and essence of the place that we love. We often refer to our work as ‘systems change, recognizing that community decisions about development and public investment are nested within larger systems—ecological, economic, hydrologic, political, and more—and that to get a desired outcome we may need to fight to change a part of an existing system that may be primarily benefiting outside interests and damaging our community.
It can be messy, complicated exhausting and emotionally taxing work, but it can also be immensely satisfying. Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of activists, community leaders, change-makers, politicians, business owners, and farmers, all willing to engage in protecting the what’s best for their community, their state and the Great Lakes. I’ve considered it a privilege and an honor to be paid to work alongside so many citizen volunteers engaged in improving our community, and I will always appreciate what Groundwork stands for.
As I get ready for a new challenge, I hope you’ll indulge me as I review a few of the highlights from the past two-plus decades of projects I’ve been a part of:
Hartman Hammond Bridge
MLUI had an early defining moment when we elected to take a stand in protection of the Boardman River Valley by standing up—and suing—the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to stop an unnecessary and ill-conceived Hartman-Hammond bridge proposal. Our Smart Roads alternative, which prioritized investing in improvements to existing roads and alternatives such as better bus, trails and sidewalk networks, was supported not only by the community but also in court. This contentious, high-profile victory demonstrated that citizens could take control over key infrastructure decisions in their community. However, we’ve also seen that these ideas keep coming back, and once again we’re hearing about an unnecessary bridge over the Boardman—with so many of our existing roads still needing investment.
The Grand Vision
MLUI wasn’t satisfied with just stopping a damaging bridge project. We followed that victory by engaging in the largest public input visioning session in Michigan, a process we titled The Grand Vision. I was proud to be part of helping the six-county region define a vision for future growth that has helped launch many positive projects, including a few that Groundwork itself spearheaded. The Grand Vision gave rise to a more effective regional bus system, continued support for walkable communities and trails, improved roadways like Division, Eighth Street and Woodmere that now function better for both pedestrians and vehicles, and of course a passenger rail system. The process also confirmed strong public support for renewable energy, and for directing housing and commercial development into existing cities, villages and developed areas rather than paving over farm fields.
BATA Bus System
As a regular bus commuter into Traverse City from rural Leelanau County, I was personally engaged in advocating for improvements to the BATA system to expand its coverage to include fixed-route scheduled rural service that allows people to count on buses to get to work. This is a game-changer for many people in our region who can’t afford expensive in-town housing, but also can’t afford transportation necessary to live in the countryside.
Passenger Rail from Ann Arbor to Traverse City/Petoskey
In 2010, the idea of restarting passenger rail service from Ann Arbor to Traverse City/Petoskey was only a dream for many regional residents. But MLUI seized that vision, labeled it A2TC and has doggedly pursued the necessary improvements to the railroad tracks so that it’s now possible for passengers to travel on those tracks again —possibly as early as this fall or spring 2023 with a pilot-test excursion trip! Without our persistent advocacy, the possibility of north-south passenger rail would have been lost.
Fighting Big Box Sprawl in Acme
We also stood up to sprawling development in Acme Township by supporting the Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, and specifically fought a massive big-box proposal led by Meijer. While Meijer eventually moved in, the development was significantly modified after Meijer was caught illegally funding political activity to influence their approval. A short piece titled Why I Won’t Shop Meijer that I drafted in 2007 in response to their bullying behavior was one of MLUI’s most read pieces, again demonstrating the value of advocacy with a backbone.
Local Food Movement
I’ve also really enjoyed playing a supporting role in boosting our region’s thriving food and farming system. For years we piloted and supported a local farm guide called “Taste the Local Difference”, which we ultimately determined would thrive better as a for-profit endeavor—which is exactly what’s happening. My colleagues built strong support for a Farm to School program that is getting healthy, local food in school cafeterias, and also spawned an amazing state investment program called 10 Cents a Meal that is ensuring all school kids have access to local food—and all farmers have access to that important market for their business. Groundwork’s recent Covid-inspired Local Food Relief Fund continues to spin off success within our food pantries, improving access to healthy, fresh food for food insecure families.
Climate Change and Line 5 Pipeline
In 2008 MLUI invited noted activist and writer Bill McKibben to speak in Traverse City, and ignited the passions of many concerned citizens about the threat of climate change. Like so many others, I was inspired to take action and helped organize busloads of northern Michigan residents to rallies and marches in Washington, D.C., and New York City. As a result of this passion, a small group of Traverse City climate activists learned of the risky Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac from the work of our partner Beth Wallace at National Wildlife Federation, and endeavored to raise attention in hopes of spurring action to shut it down. As a result, MLUI organized the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign that includes nearly all of Michigan’s leading environmental groups. As that campaign gained traction within the media and some public officials, MLUI saw the opportunity to organize business leaders to be visible public advocates and partnered with National Wildlife Federation to launch the Great Lakes Business Network. Today we are proud to see nearly 200 business leaders engaged in active advocacy on important issues like advancing clean energy, stopping harmful algal blooms, and shutting down Line 5.
At nearly the same time, we also recognized that the many thousands of Michigan climate activists needed a galvanizing network to help focus their plea for action—and helped launch the Michigan Climate Action Network. Groundwork has helped organize several Michigan Climate and Clean Energy Summits to build power and shape an agenda for climate action, and we continue to support both local action in communities, schools and businesses, as well as state policy.
It’s satisfying to look back at these significant issues that I’ve been involved in, but even more pleased to look forward at the commitment this community has made to improving our food, energy, transportation, housing and other systems to be a more resilient. I’ll always recognize my good fortune to be paid to do this work—and to be supported by the fabulous team at Groundwork, including our board, advisory council and thousands of donors. I’m also humbled by the amazing work and dedication of so many community activists that stand up against injustice and inequitable systems as volunteers. And as I prepare to leave Groundwork, I’m proud to have been a part of creating an effective systems-change organization that supports and leads so much of that important community resilience work.
One thing I’m especially proud of is how many people are supporting this work by investing in systems change —not just by sending us a check, but by engaging in their communities at local government meetings, changing their spending habits, and speaking out and holding politicians and corporations accountable to protect our human habitat. Sure, it is easy to get discouraged with the polarized political situation in our nation, the effects of global climate change that we’re already witnessing, and war unfolding in Ukraine. My encouragement comes from local and statewide action of people continuing to work together to address injustices, short-sighted policies and greedy behaviors that put profit above people and our environment.
As I leave this job I’ve loved, I’m excited to take on a new challenge in the private sector, working with my family—and closer to my new grandchildren—on businesses that include a small regenerative farm (The Lively Farm) and a campground and event venue (Backyard Burdickville), just east of Empire and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I expect I’ll stay involved in community work and with Groundwork—as a supporter. Because I know that the dedicated team at Groundwork will continue the work of advancing community resilience.
In March 2022 Jim Lively resigned his position as Groundwork’s Director of Program Strategy to join his family businesses.