Project Announcement: The Highlands
Highlands Golf Club Given New Life as a Future Natural Area
The Land Conservancy of West Michigan and Blandford Nature Center have collaborated on the purchase of the 121-acre Highlands Golf Club in Grand Rapids to transform the property into a natural area for community recreation and education.
The Highlands Golf Club was recently put on the market after a 100-plus-year history as a private golf course. The property was initially proposed as a housing development. Now, thanks to an exciting partnership between the Land Conservancy and Blandford, a forward-looking developer, and local philanthropy, the land will be conserved and protected for the people of Grand Rapids forever.
The Highlands was acquired by Blandford Nature Center, in partnership with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, with a loan from The Conservation Fund. The Conservation Fund is a national nonprofit organization that helps local communities achieve their conservation goals. In this case, Blandford Nature Center has obtained a $3 million short-term loan to purchase the property.
Together, the Land Conservancy and Blandford will work with the community to secure the necessary funding to repay the loan, create the plan and make improvements on the property. Once the mortgage is paid off, the Land Conservancy will take ownership of a portion of the property.
Father Mark Przybysz, Pastor at St. Anthony’s of Padua which borders the property’s northeast corner, noted how important a piece of land like this is for the whole community. “Access to nature and the out-of-doors is so important to our youth, our families, and to our health,” remarked Father Pryzbysz. “Peter Wege, a former parishioner and good friend, dedicated his life to environmental and conservation causes, and would be grinning from ear to ear to know that the Wege Foundation could be a part of bringing science to life in a way that allows kids to really get excited about what they are learning.”
The first phase of the Highlands project includes land acquisition, biodiversity studies, and preparation for initial public access. The second phase, after gathering input from the community, will be the launch of habitat restoration projects, trail development, and public programs.
“We are off to a great start, with generous pledges from the Ken and Judy Betz Family, the Wege Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Cook Foundation,” explained Joe Engel, Executive Director for the Land Conservancy, noting that “this is truly a community project. We look forward to continued support from the entire community to help bring this project to fruition as it transforms from golf course to natural area.” The Land Conservancy will be taking the lead role in raising funds for this project.
Third Coast Development and Pioneer Construction are also financially supporting the project. “Once we started talking to Blandford about the future of the property, we realized that sometimes development needs to take a back seat to an idea that benefits our entire community,” stated Brad Rosely of Third Coast, which initially obtained an option to purchase the golf club to build condominiums and homes on the site.
“Imagine what it will be like to be able to take a walk out there and listen to the birds, enjoy the wildflowers, or just to sit and have a picnic with your friends and family,” remarked Jason Meyer, President and CEO of Blandford Nature Center. “The Highlands offers an extraordinary opportunity to foster a stronger connection to the natural world through habitat restoration, environmental education, volunteerism, and recreation—all things that will make sure that our city is a great place to learn, live, play and work for generations.”
With more than 50,000 visitors annually, Blandford serves as a place for children and adults to learn about nature in a manner that provides joy and year-round free programming. Blandford is currently finishing construction on a new 11,000-square-foot visitor center—named after its foremost champion, Mary Jane Dockeray—that includes an auditorium, science lab and a wildlife education center.
“This is our last and only chance to expand Blandford Nature Center and create additional educational and recreational opportunities not available anywhere else in the city and West Michigan,” said Dockeray, founder of Blandford Nature Center and former board member of the Land Conservancy. “The community of Grand Rapids has been waiting patiently for something like this to come along—we will be able to serve more students, families, and friends as a result.”
“Grand Rapids Public Schools has a very close and longstanding relationship with Blandford Nature Center so you can only imagine the excitement we have in learning about this remarkable new development,” said Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal. “While our students at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy and Blandford School count Blandford as part of their classroom, each and every student in 1st and 3rd grade at GRPS enjoy Blandford, thanks to support from the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation. Now, thanks to the Land Conservancy, the leadership of Jason Meyer and his staff and board at Blandford, and the generous support of donors from across the community, our students, teachers, and the general public will have this new and expanded opportunity to enjoy.”
“This project provides a big boost to our community’s efforts to ensure quality of life for all of our residents,” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said. “It also offers a rare opportunity to create significant green space and focused tree canopy in the city – priorities for our community as we work to make sure this is a great place for everyone for generations to come.”