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Benzie Citizens Moving Grand VisionPrint

Thriving Communities | August 2, 2010 | By Shauna Fite

Some Benzie citizens are building local participation in the Grand Vision. From the left, in back: Ed Hoogterp, Ed Petrick, Matt Case, Kelly Thayer, Jon Maue, Ingemar Johannson. Front: Mary Pitcher, Sharron May, Anne Damm, Marty Dillon, Jim MacInnes, Shauna Fite, Mary Carroll.

More than 20 Benzie residents, community leaders, and local officials are now working together to further the goals of the regional, citizen-based Grand Vision planning process in Benzie County.

The group is planning a countywide event this fall-not only to update the community on the local and regional progress the Grand Vision is making, but also to involve more people in developing plans for the county that reflect the Grand Vision’s findings.

Those findings are based on comments gathered over two years from close to 15,000 people in the six-county Grand Traverse region. They show that the region’s residents, by more than a two-to-one margin, favor concentrating growth in existing cities and villages, improving roads, and building a public transportation system that better connects communities across the entire region.

There are already “working groups”-with residents from across the region-concentrating on what Grand Vision participants said need the most attention: transportation, housing, natural resources, energy, village and city investment, and food and farming.

Some Benzie residents-citizens, business people, and government leaders-are already participating in the regional working groups.

For example, public transit agencies, including the Benzie Bus, are collaborating to better connect the region’s different transit systems to both widen and improve service.

In fact, transit is one area where Benzie County offers a shining example of matching Grand Vision values to our community’s. Benzie Bus is winning high marks as a quality public transit system. Led by Executive Director Susan Miller, who is part of the Benzie group, this three-year-young transit agency has provided 38 new jobs and services 6,000 passenger rides per month.

The agency continues to grow: Its new facility is rising on US-31, the county’s main traffic trunk, and includes a garage, maintenance facility, and offices.

“We are positioned right now with our building project, our location, our momentum to be a key player in the Benzie Grand Vision,” says Mrs. Miller.

Since state and federal funds are paying for the entire project, there will be no mortgage when the project is completed next summer. So the new facility will provide a major, unencumbered lift to an already popular transit system.

Benzie is also proving to be a leader in a top Grand Vision issue that affects our health and local economy: food and farming.

If your children are enrolled in a Benzie County school, rest easy knowing Renee DeWindt is in charge of feeding them. Ms. DeWindt, food service director for the Benzie Central and Frankfort-Elberta school systems, manages menus for seven schools-and is loading cafeteria trays with a wide variety of locally produced, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, honey, beef, and squash. Last year, Benzie Central’s program paid for itself and is reinvesting dollars into this fall’s activity.

Ms. DeWindt says that, given the county’s high poverty rate, more than 50 percent of Benzie County students are eligible to receive free and reduced lunches. That qualifies both school districts for USDA grants, which funds, among other things, a relatively new, countywide summer food program, Benzie Kids Eat.

That means that this summer Ms. DeWindt is serving free breakfasts and lunches at six sites in Benzie. The program, which has no income or other eligibility requirements, serves close to 500 meals every day, including lunches for 4-H Summer Club and SEEDS Youth Corps programs.

“It’s about feeding kids, taking care of your community, and teaching them a better way to take care of themselves,” she says.

Ms. DeWindt also snagged a $60,000 USDA grant that will help our neighbors to the south who operate the Manistee Economic Alliance. The grant allows them to replicate her program in Onekama schools starting this September. Her first-year goals: serve 100 percent local, farm-fresh eggs and establish salad bars in all Benzie County and Onekama schools.

Benzie’s local food leadership is attracting attention downstate, too. Ms. DeWindt spoke at this year’s National Farm to School conference, Taking Root, in Detroit.

The Benzie Grand Vision group also highlights some of the things individuals can do to make the bigger picture for the region come to life.

One example is clean energy. In April, Ted and Marcia Curran-longtime Frankfort residents who regularly participate in Grand Vision functions-installed 12 photovoltaic solar panels on their roof.

They told the Benzie vision group that, in their first two months, the panels prevented the release of nearly 800 lbs. of climate-changing CO2 from the coal plant that supplies their electricity. The Currans’ first monthly electric bill that included the panels’ power output was only $18-half of that was for the power; half was for fees and taxes. They couple also said that, over the last 50 days, many of them hazy or cloudy, they used less than two kWh per day from the grid. The panels supplied the rest.

They monitor their electricity use with a digital meter installed by Consumers Energy and are using a 30 percent federal income tax write-off to help finance their project. The two reminded the group that there are even more incentives for businesses that invest in their own clean-energy production.

“More people should consider installing PV solar,” said Mrs. Curran. “It is the right thing to do for transitioning to the new energy economy, for protecting the environment, and combating global warming. It is only a beginning, but is definitely a step in the right direction.”

These three examples-the Benzie Bus expansion, farm-to-school programs in both county school systems, and private investments in clean energy-confirm that Benzie is already achieving Grand Vision goals. The Benzie Grand Vision group is here to support these and other efforts-whether official or private.

As our group works on its fall Grand Vision event, members will publish more articles highlighting other projects and initiatives that reflect the Grand Vision in Benzie County. We invite you to share yours. Please contact me so I can let the group know about your project or help you get involved with the Benzie Grand Vision group. Reach me at shauna@mlui.org or 231-941-6584, ext. 25.

Shauna Fite, a longtime Benzie resident, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s policy specialist for Benzie County. This article first appeared in the July 28 edition of the Benzie Record-Patriot.