Muskegon chamber rolling with 125 years of change

The Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce was established in 1893 to see the area through a major trade shift from lumber to industry.

Charles Hackley foresaw the shift and worked to ensure Muskegon could take hold and maintain the economic boom it experienced during the 1800s lumber era.

The chamber has been there through Muskegon’s many ups and downs, always playing a role in what has made the area what it is today.

At 125 years old this year, the Muskegon chamber is seeing the area through a second trade shift, now from industry to technology.

That’s why much of the current focus — port development, housing, and talent and business attraction — is similar to the organization’s original focus, said Cindy Larsen, Muskegon chamber president for the past 18 years.

“The chamber does what most people think just happens,” Larsen said, referring to an adage that has been passed around the chamber offices for years.

As with any chamber, she said the Muskegon organization often works behind the scenes, leveraging other community leaders to promote growth and change.

Larsen said the chamber’s overall role has been to create an environment in which businesses can succeed.

“It’s difficult to have a strong community without a strong business community,” she said.

The role the chamber has in creating that environment varies, though, and as time moves on, the chamber continues to study the issues facing the community to determine where its efforts should be directed.

The chamber has led campaigns that created many of Muskegon’s household names: the Muskegon County Airport, L.C. Walker Arena, the I-96 freeway that connects Muskegon and Detroit, and more.

Most notable in recent times, the chamber’s advocacy contributed to more than $1 billion in Muskegon area growth last year, partly including the $162 million in completed and planned developments downtown and around Muskegon Lake.

During Larsen’s tenure, she saw the transition from the popular downtown containing a mall that hosted thousands of weekend visitors, to the revitalization of the demolished mall’s 20-acre lot.

“We didn’t need a survey to tell us that our downtown was in serious trouble,” Larsen said.

“I could look out my window of my office and see that 20 acres in the heart of our downtown were chained up.”

She said that was an example of when the chamber reached out to stakeholders, such as foundations, philanthropists and the government, to begin a plan for downtown revitalization.

In 2007, the chamber was the first business to construct a new building on a strip of W. Western Avenue in the heart of downtown Muskegon.

Development came to a “screeching halt,” however, during the last recession.

Larsen said the chamber fell apart and came back couple times in its history, typically during difficult economic times, but not during the last recession.

While many other chambers from around the U.S. closed during that time, Larsen said she studied the past near-deaths of the organization, as well as the businesses that were surviving the most recent economic downturn.

She said the chamber did not spend money on anything not absolutely necessary; staff members who left were not replaced.

“That’s what I saw the good businesses doing,” she said.

To get the development downtown moving again as the recession ended, the chamber made the “business decision” to relocate the farmers market to downtown, fighting through resistance from community members who did not want to see the 65-year-old market moved from its original location.

But, the move attracted 10,000 people to downtown Muskegon each weekend once again, and this is what Larsen said jumpstarted the growth.

That empty 20-acre space is filling quickly.

“What we thought was a nightmare turned into a blessing,” she said.

Now that other leaders have taken hold of the downtown project, Larsen said the chamber’s focus has been Muskegon’s image, helping launch the Watch Muskegon campaign a couple years ago.

With this emerging technology era, Larsen said the chamber is focusing on modern businesses and modernizing businesses while working to attract young professionals by presenting features they like to see.

“We’re more involved in community design than I ever thought we would be,” Larsen said.

Larsen said it will probably take another five years or so to help people understand Muskegon is a recreational waterfront community and a manufacturing community with a walkable downtown.

“People keep trying to put us in a box, and we’re not in a box,” she said.

Overseeing about 1,300 businesses in the county, Larsen noted members include companies ranging in size from large corporations to small coffee shops.

“A chamber is only a strong as its membership,” she said.

Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce timeline

1879 – Charles Hackley and other lumber industry leaders organize the Muskegon Board of Trade for urban revitalization and economic development

1893 – Muskegon Board of Trade forms new chamber of commerce to lead local efforts related to improving transportation, the harbor and attracting new industry

1908 – First meeting held to discuss development of a country club as a vehicle to attract investors

1913 – Chamber hosts first formal meeting to discuss U.S. 31 highway to bring Chicago travelers to Michigan

1918 – Chamber establishes the Community Chest, which later becomes the United Way of Muskegon County

1927 – Campaign launched by chamber to establish public airport in Muskegon County

1936 – Chamber organizes Greater Muskegon Junior Chamber of Commerce

1941 – Chamber advocates for and celebrates inaugural sailing of Milwaukee Clipper to provide daily ferry services from Muskegon to Milwaukee

1950 – Chamber raises funds to construct new sports arena, later named L.C. Walker Arena

1951 – Women’s Division of the Muskegon Chamber forms

1963 – After years of advocacy, I-96 connecting Detroit to Muskegon is completed with the opening of Seaway Drive

1964 – Chamber reorganizes into Muskegon Area Development Council, with a focus on social progress and improving race relations in economic issues; MADC disbands in 1975, and Muskegon chamber is reorganized

1979 – Chamber forms county Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote tourism and development

1982 – Chamber establishes first “Buy Muskegon County” campaign

1989 – Chamber merges into Muskegon Economic Growth Alliance; MEGA dissolves in 1999

1999 – Chamber forms a strategic partnership with Muskegon Area First in 1999

2002 – Chamber partners with Community Foundation of Muskegon County, Paul C. Johnson Foundation and city of Muskegon to create Downtown Muskegon Development Corporation to acquire and develop downtown sites

2007 – Chamber becomes the first business to break ground for new downtown building construction

2011 – Political and fundraising campaign is led by the chamber and partners to relocate farmers market to downtown Muskegon

2016 – Chamber reaches out to Great Lakes cruise industry, attracting first cruise ship to the Muskegon port

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