Holland, Michigan

Michigan | 1997 Great American Main Street Award® Winner

The village of Holland was settled and named by Dutch immigrants seeking religious freedom in the 1840s. Much of the town is of Dutch descent and prides itself on being America's hub of Dutch culture. Today, Holland retains the flavor of a Dutch town, complete with an early 18th century operating windmill imported from the Netherlands, a spectacular springtime bloom of millions of tulips - the Tulip Time Festival in May that rekindles Holland's Dutch heritage, and a traditional scrubbing of the streets by Hollanders. Nestled between the shores of Lake Michigan, the mouth of the Black River, and Lake Macatawa, Holland is a uniquely American oasis of European heritage and cultural pride.

Holland's comeback began in the 1970s, when downtowners fought to secure public and private support for a fading urban core.  Backers were bent on stressing historic preservation within a context of economic development. And they kept an eye out for innovative, creative approaches to bring new life back to Holland - tackling worn facades, unfriendly parking, disorderly traffic, and burgeoning competition from the growing sprawl of western Michigan.

In 1978 Holland established the Downtown Development Authority to promote economic growth. But it wasn't until 1984, when Holland adopted the Main Street approach to downtown revitalization that the community was galvanized for change.

Holland's downtowners made plans for a beautification project and encouraged property owners, merchants, tenants, and government leaders to partner a proposed streetscape effort as a mutual investment essential to the community's future.

In 1988, just as the competitive nightmare of two regional shopping malls opened on Holland's outskirts, the streetscape project began, refurbishing what had been a crumbling infrastructure and replacing and redesigning streets and sidewalks. At the same time, the municipal utility was seeking new cooling capacity for its power-generating plant. In a burst of imaginative ingenuity, city planners merged the city's utility cooling needs with the streetscape replacement of streets and sidewalks.  The result was Snowmelt - the largest municipal cooling and heating system in the country - laid as 60 miles of one-inch piping under a five block area of streets, sidewalks, and two parking facilities. 

The 220,000 square feet of radiant warmth from Snowmelt keeps Holland's Main Street district ice- and snow-free year-round.  "It has made all the difference," says Patricia Seiter, Holland's downtown development director.

Holland's center has become a 24-hour, living downtown - a mecca for retirees. It is flanked by four high-rise retirement condominium complexes. Numerous housing opportunities have been developed above the thriving storefronts and retailing flourishes because shoppers who might be inclined to seek the indoor protection of a mall in foul weather can easily navigate Holland's streets and sidewalks anytime.

Since 1984 nearly $15 million dollars in public money has been invested downtown, including $2 million for Holland's streetscape improvements and more than $1 million for Snowmelt. But another $89 million in private investment has been sown as well.

Main Street supporters credit the city government as a significant partner, initiating financial incentives for building improvements, an overall design plan, and no-cost design assistance to downtown building owners and tenants. 

The city helps recruit businesses and chips in to the operating budget for the merged MainStreet/Downtown Development Authority.  "City hall believes downtown is the heart of the city and an integral part of the city's health," says Seiter. The private sector contributes with low-interest loans for building improvements that work in tandem with public design incentives.  Businesses and individuals have given financially, physically, and politically to make the Streetscape and Snowmelt projects a reality.

And Holland's MainStreet/Downtown Development Authority manages an innovative parking system, which offers no-cost parking to customers and employees. A parking assessment on property owners covers the free-parking costs.

Holland's downtown success is contagious. A mix of restaurants, eateries, galleries, and vest-pocket parks makes Holland an attractive destination, as well as a place to while away time. The retail vacancy rate is less than one percent and upper stories downtown are more than 95 percent filled by offices and apartments that cater to young professionals, young families with children, empty nesters, and students from neighboring Hope College.

"Although there was considerable skepticism in the community eight or nine years ago when the comprehensive effort to revitalize the downtown was initiated, today our downtown is considered a major source of community pride and a foundation that this community will build on for many years," states City Manager Soren Wolff.

In the heart of Michigan's fastest-growing county, Holland's population, more than 30,000, has also jumped 30 percent since 1980, and 70 building improvement projects have been completed. Holland's progress is a showcase for how hard work and dedication blended with the Main Street approach can renew a downtown and energize a community.

"We always say, 'Downtowns don't go down overnight, they don't come back overnight.'  But  in 10 years, with the amount of things we've accomplished, that's surprising to me," says Seiter.