Booster downplays dredging conflicts: ‘People are allowed to make money’

The skyline of Grand Rapids, as seen from the banks of the Grand River.  A West Michigan developer says dredging a 22.5-mile stretch of the river toward Lake Michigan would give the region an economic boost. (Bridge photo by Steve Jessmore.)

Conflict of interest and personal profit questions are dogging West Michigan developer Dan Hibma’s proposal to open up the Grand River in West Michigan to powerboat traffic.

The high-profile Republican donor owns undeveloped riverfront in the town of Walker whose property values may rise under his plan to have the state of Michigan dredge a 22.5-mile stretch of the river.

Hibma is married to former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. Former Sen. Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, joined the project as an unpaid adviser after securing $3.5 million in funding for it while in the Legislature, including a $2 million grant in the final hours of last year’s lame duck session.

“It’s very clear to people looking at it that Hibma has wanted to develop property in this fashion, and the [dredging] project was born out of that,” said Allendale resident Jeff Seaver, who owns a marketing and design firm and joined Friends of the Lower Grand River, a citizens’ group that sprung up this year to oppose dredging.

Hibma said he has no plans to personally benefit and only wants to boost the region’s economy.

Supporters of Hibma’s “Grand River Waterway” plan say clearing the riverbed of obstacles would attract more boaters — and $5.7 million per year  in spending — to parts of Ottawa and Kent counties by making the river stretch safe to navigate all the way to Lake Michigan.

A state-funded feasibility study pegs the initial dredging cost at $2.2 million. The idea has sparked fierce pushback from some local governments and residents along the river. They fear carving the 50-foot-wide path would devastate fisheries, burden kayakers and potentially stick locals with ongoing maintenance costs.

West Michigan developer Dan Hibma is married to former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. The couple are major Republican political donors.

New Era Land LLC, owned by Hibma, owns riverfront along the stretch that would be dredged. Hibma’s dredging proposal envisions new marinas along the Grand River and rising property values. A project impact study says dredging could raise riverfront property values by nearly 17 percent.

Hibma has previously sought to develop the property in Walker, the site of the former Fenske Landfill, which his company purchased in 2001. The city has zoned it for industrial use, according to Walker’s most recent zoning map. A 2004 Grand Rapids Press article described a proposed “mixed-use development with 432 condominium units, 7,200-square-feet of neighborhood commercial space” that originally planned for a marina.

“The new plan would offer docks on the Grand River for pontoon boats, but would not have a marina,” the article read.  

Hibma told Bridge he later considered adding a campground to the site but plans didn’t work out.  In 2010, MLive reported the plan would have put the campground on about 200 acres, including a mile of riverfront. The article said Hibma had begun talking to local and state officials about dredging 17 miles of the river.

"One potential customer said he would buy two (lots) if he could get his boat up here," Hibma wrote to two Walker officials, according to the 2010 MLive article. "Of course, that got me thinking about access to Lake Michigan. A navigable Grand River waterway for recreation would be a huge deal for West Michigan. It would attract investment, visitors and other recreational activities."

The nonprofit Hibma has since created to advance the dredging project — Grand River Waterway —  shares an address Hibma’s property management business, Land & Co. His business partner, Roger Lucas, and corporate counsel, Ronald Vander Veen, are the nonprofit’s only other officers besides Hibma, according to state and federal filings.

Hibma, a supervisor of nearby Byron Township in the 1980s, said he’s only interested in doing what’s good for the region. If the project moves forward, Hibma said, he plans to diversify the board and possibly use the nonprofit to raise funding to maintain the deeper river channel.

“I have no plans to build a marina,” he said, adding “I don’t want to be a marina owner.”

Grandville Mayor Steve Maas, an unpaid adviser on the dredging project, said he believes Hibma is pushing the region’s best interests.

“I don’t believe that he’s interested because he wants to benefit from whatever property he may have bought along the river.”

Former Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, championed developer Dan Hibma’s vision for a “Grand River Waterway” allowing power boats to navigate from Grand Rapids to Lake Michigan.

Meekhoff, who now runs a consulting firm, said he joined Hibma’s project because he believes it could help West Michigan. Dredging would only move forward with proper permits and as long as regulators determine it wouldn’t stir up pollutants, he said.

“This is a great opportunity to expand recreational opportunities for the people of the State of Michigan” Meekhof added.

Hibma’s wife, Land, served as secretary of state from 2003 to 2011 and campaigned for U.S. Senate in 2014, losing to Democrat Gary Peters.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network ranked Hibma and Land 28th on its list of the state’s top family donors ahead of last year’s election. They donated $450,000 to political committees at the state and federal level in 2017 and 2018, according to the analysis from the nonprofit group.

Meekhof said he sees no problem if Hibma’s property values rise from the project, so long as the public benefits as well.

“If we use taxpayer dollars to expand a roadway and somebody benefits along the’s the same thing,” said Meekhof. “This is still America, and people are allowed to make money. Criticizing somebody for making money is really a non-starter.”

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Paul Jordan
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 8:50am

This is a good example of Republicans' belief in socialism for themselves and their buddies and free market capitalism for everyone else.
If it's such a great idea, they should use their own money and not ask the state (i.e., the rest of us who don't own property along the Grand River) to fund it!

john chastain
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:11am

“If we use taxpayer dollars to expand a roadway and somebody benefits along the’s the same thing,” said Meekhof. “This is still America, and people are allowed to make money. Criticizing somebody for making money is really a non-starter.” Its more than a starter when the person making money is a corrupt politician who in alliance with other corrupt politicians and businesses manipulate state government for personal profit. The roadway example is instructive for reasons Meekhof didn’t intend since roadways and public utilities are often financed on the taxpayers backs for private developers. The trope of “public benefit” is mostly a cover for “special interests”. The republicans are especially hypocritical about the use of government for some perceived common good which is acceptable when it puts money in their pockets and not when it helps someone “undeserving” ie: not them and theirs. Little Trumps can be found everywhere in Michigan, but the largest concentration is west Michigan. Sad

Rik Moilanen
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:19am

The Grand Rapids cabal strikes again for their own and their pals enrichment

James F Bish
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:44am

Of course he wants to down play the conflict of interests, which exposes some deep personal ethics issues in the name of benefiting his & related corporate bottom lines.

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 9:50am

Tax dollars to enrich the well to do.

Mrs A
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 1:27pm

After decades of stories about the industrial waste, PCBs, heavy metals and salts, PFAS chemicals, finishing effluents, and illegally dumped poisons found in the streambeds of almost every West Michigan waterway, I shudder to imagine what horrors the proposed dredging could unleash. So we should destroy all life in the Grand and the vegetation along both shores so rich people have a wider berth for their giant boats?

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 2:10pm

Me thinks Meekoff incapable of thought. A stupid, greedy man who thinks we can't smell rot when it comes to our doorstep. Let the Republicans fund it...I'm already being taxed with the tariffs and I'm not getting a bailout. Why should I give the greedy people who unleashed Trump any more? Do they think they can take it with them to their pyramids?

Laurence Rosen
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 3:48pm

It seems like Mr Hibma and Mr Meekhoff must be socialists since they obviously don’t believe in rugged free enterprise. Real free market entrepreneurs would be clamoring for the opportunity to invest their own money and their investors’ money in order to build a business and take the chance of making a profit. But Mssrs. Meekhoff and Hibma expect me and all other Michigan’s residents and taxpayers—i.e., “the people”—to pay for the dredging that will make Mr Hibma’s business feasible. But wait a minute. I’ll bet that Mr Hibma and Mr Meekhoff think of themselves as job creators. So then my question is, how many $millions do we need to spend to create a handful of seasonal service jobs that pay $10-$15 an hour?

Martin Camp
Tue, 05/28/2019 - 6:30pm

A "workshop" was held for this project at the Ottawa Board of Commissioners a couple of months ago. When this project was explored and discussed (with plenty of attendees and Public input too) , the Ottawa County Sheriff laid out his estimate for the department's YEARLY cost for patrols/boats, and other Law Enforcement.... Around $900,000.00 per year.
Also there was plenty of discussion about the UNKNOWN but VERY LIKELY effects of stirring up the "witches brew" existing in the river bed from over years of unchecked industrial waste dumping. No one was able to even estimate the problems that potentially occur to adversely affect the Drinking Water.
Comparing the River to our Roads is pretty lame, because almost everybody has a car, and almost nobody has a 50-foot boat.
'Just sayin'.

Jim V
Wed, 05/29/2019 - 10:32am

Everyone can note that neither Hibna or Meekhof bothered to comment about the negative impact this would have on the existing small boat fishing that takes place. They also won't speak to the potential impact that river dredging might have on drinking water and hidden contaminants from the river bed.
There have been several municipalities along the river, which have held public discussions, received input from numerous experts, and have decide that this project would have a negative effect on their communities and have voted to oppose it.

Martin Camp
Fri, 05/31/2019 - 10:07pm

"Booster downplays dredging conflicts"... so Taxpayers won't understand "Booster" just wants us to pay for his boondoggle scheme.

David Fischer
Sun, 06/02/2019 - 1:04pm

The Hibma should pay the state for the increase in the value of his land after the improvements as his contribution to funding a project which benefits him

Martin Camp
Thu, 06/06/2019 - 11:36am

"The nonprofit Hibma has since created to advance the dredging project ...".
How about instead:
"Wealthy entitled 'Conservative' creates non-profit - to make a profit from those who can ill afford the project, don't want it, and don't need it"?
There, that's better!