Eckholm is passionate about positioning Muskegon Heights to thrive

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Legal News Photo by Cynthia Price

By Cynthia Price

 

There is something very satisfying in the life story (so far) of Jake Eckholm, Muskegon Heights City Manager.

It is both a story of personal success and an indicator of hope for the future of Muskegon Heights and the whole Muskegon area.


Born and raised in the Orchard View section of Muskegon, Eckholm (shown below) often heard negative comments about  the area from family and friends living outside the county.


“I had a really pleasant childhood, though sometimes a challenging one, so I always kind of pushed back on that a little bit,” he says.


As he went through school, Eckholm was on a path to becoming a lawyer, but as he graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in political science and international relations, and faced the expense of giong to law school, he took a step back.


He decided to discuss the problem with an advisor, a wise man who said to him, “Don’t tell me what job you want, tell me what you want to do.”


“I told him, I want to serve the Muskegon area and get people to have a more positive perception of it, and I want to work with people. He asked me if I’d ever considered getting a Masters in Public Admini
stration,” Eckholm says.

After exploring that option for a while, that is just what Eckholm did, continuing at Grand Valley, while also working at True North Community Services, an impressive organization that covers many West Michigan counties.


“Shortly into my tenure in grad school I realized Muskegon Heights is where I should be. Whether fair or not, this city is definitely part of that negative sigma,” he says.


His first stop after receiving his MPA was an interesting one: he was the manager for both the City of Stanton and the Village of Lakeview in Montcalm County (north of Kent). This dual arrangement is very unusual in the state and perfect for Eckholm to learn a lot of skills that have added to his effectiveness at the Heights.


When the position there came open — the city had gone without a manager for a while after Natasha Henderson left — Eckholm was ready, but he was not sure he would be hired. “Candidly, I didn’t expect to even make it as finalist, so I felt that was an achievement in and of itself,” he says, smiling. “But once I got into the in-person interviews, it was clear that there was a good match in terms of the board’s thoughts and mine.”


So Eckholm’s dream came true... but that is just the beginning of the story.


Naturally, he follows the policies set by the board, as any city manager does. But he says he is in “lockstep” with the vision of Mayor Kimberly Sims and the city council. “I came in with my own set of priorities and I’ve got a vision and opinions about how we can best get there, but we’re very aligned,” he says.


He has just led each of the city departments through a goal-setting process, and will continue to work on changing the city’s image so Heights residents and businesses can thrive. “People’s perceptions lead to additional commercial disinvestment, which leads to reduced housing values, which leads to less revenue base and the cycle goes on and on,” as he explains the age-old problem.


So, Eckholm says, the solution is to have a plan, and make progress on a variety of fronts at once.


Thus far, there have been many successes under Eckholm’s administration. From something as simple as starting the annual tree-lighting ceremony or hosting movies at Rowan Park in the summer, to the complexities of inventorying housing stock and deciding which houses are “irredeemable” and therefore must be demolished, there have been a lot of changes over the past year.


He notes that the city is working hard to change its reputation as not collaborative. One important collaboration for him has been the pastors in the city.


The city sponsored a breakfast to get the pastors’ input on an exciting new opportunity, which is having two Americorps positions to work on community safety, a grant received through the Muskegon County Land Bank.


“They will create a lasting impact by helping to establish neighborhood associations which will serve as lasting partners in the community committed to public safety and quality of life,” Eckholm said in a recent statement about the project.


The city has made successful attempts to encourage businesses for “infill” of vacant buildings and lots. As noted last week, Read Muskegon has opened in one of the downtown storefronts, and companies are expanding. A street millage passed to help fix up the existing roads.


There was also an in-depth cleanup and refurbishing of Mona Lake Park, and the Farmers’ Market has been restored.


“We’re already seeing some results,” Eckholm says. “Property crime’s been down and violent crime has been down. But it’s going to take time. We’re working on a 10-year implementation plan. My goal is by 2026 you’ll see a night and day difference.


“And I plan to stick around for that,” he adds..

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