By Loraine Anderson
Traverse City Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — Joe VanderMeulen started a nonprofit in Traverse City during the early 1990s as an experiment to see if better access to information leads to stronger citizen engagement and local decisions on community issues.
Twenty years later, Land Information Access Association, or LIAA for short, has 15 full- and part-time employees and an annual budget of $800,000 to $900,000.
VanderMeulen works 60 hours a week locally and around the state as executive director of the unique community service nonprofit that focuses on good land use, environmental stewardship, community building and preservation of sense of place through effective management of community natural, agricultural, economic, art and cultural resources.Through both fee-for-service contracts and grant-funded projects, LIAA has worked with hundreds of communities and local governments statewide on everything from land use data, place-making, creating public information systems, asset mapping and intergovernmental collaborations.
LIAA’s funding sources over the years have included the W.K. Kellogg, Frey and C.S. Mott foundations, Northwestern Michigan Council of Governments, Rotary Charities, the Michigan Council of Local Governments, the Nature Conservancy and Americana.
If LIAA has a mantra, it’s “citizen engagement,” whether the project is about planning, local government, fresh food, agriculture, community access television, recreational trails, arts and culture.“It’s the key to everything we do,” VanderMeulen said.
People who have worked closely with VanderMeulen on local and statewide projects call him a quiet leader — a thoughtful, effective, innovative and brilliant man with unbounded energy and enthusiasm who challenges people to think differently, tries not to duplicate services and keeps LIAA on the cutting edge of technology.
“That quiet leadership can be very effective,” said Laura Oblinger, chief operating officer for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. “He doesn’t have to be at the head of table or in every conversation.”
VanderMeulen was a University of Michigan doctoral student studying natural resources and the environment when he and computer programmer David Frey founded LIAA in 1993. Personal computers and the Internet were in their infancy then and the dot-com boom still two years away. Sprawl, land use and environmental protection debates blazed.
“Our first concern was with the diminishing amount of civic engagement and a growing distrust of local government,” he said. “New processes and mechanisms were needed to support effective public involvement, including more inclusive community discussions — not just hearings and great access to base zoning information and maps.”
At the time, VanderMeulen also was director of the Science and Technology Division of the the Legislative Service Bureau, a post he held from 1984 to 1996. The bureau is a research arm for the state Legislature.His research and dissertation focused on the use of GIS (geographic information system) and other technology to improve public access to information and encourage citizen engagement in land use planning and zoning. GIS maps offer a visual display of data via color-coded geographical maps.“He was known as the ‘kiosk guy’ back then,” said Mark Wyckoff, referring to the first touch-screen multimedia computer system built for use by Acme Township and Elk Rapids residents interested in land use planning and zoning. Associate director of MSU’s Land Policy Institute and director of its Planning & Zoning Center, Wyckoff did a lot of consulting work here in the 1990s.
Today, VanderMeulen is recognized statewide for his ability to persuade people to think differently and his efforts to bring about collaboration with local governments willing to work across township and city boundaries on community issues, said Marsha Smith, Rotary Charities executive director.Larry Merrill, executive director of the Michigan Townships Association called him a community proselytizer.“He’s a scientist who creates a sense of confidence that he can deliver what he promises and then absolutely does it,” Merrill said.Though his work is all about collaboration between local governments, VanderMeulen doesn’t like the word regionalism. Instead, he prefers “community.”
“Humans don’t pay much attention to local boundaries,” he said. “When you ask ‘What is Traverse City,’ people don’t define it by boundaries. Your community is where you live, shop, go to school, where your friends live. It is inter-jurisdictional and inter-governmental.”
His personal community, for example, spreads from Leelanau County to Traverse City and Elk Rapids.“It’s a community of place,” he said.“Place” is an important word in his work. In the context of planning, he defines it “as a combination of physical geography and intangible values of human connections, including historical experience, community narratives and interpersonal relationships.”
People who call a place home often develop an “informed attachment” to the place they live that makes them want to contribute, or engage voluntarily to community life, culture and local government.“Communities within a community need to cross boundaries,” he said. “That’s where friendships are made and ideas hatched.”
LIAA probably is best known locally for its management of UpNorthTV, northern Michigan's only community-access cablecast television, which films and broadcast government meetings for the city, East Bay, Elmwood, Garfield townships and Traverse Area District Library. The governments contracted with LIAA in 2008 to take over its management and improvement.
"LIAA had the infrastructure and skill sets to take it on," said Laura Oblinger, chief operating officer for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.
UpNorthTV also airs locally produced shows on an array of topics ranging from community resilience, local history, current events and issues to local ministries, Cherryland Humane Society pet of the week and local documentaries and film shorts.
Other recent and ongoing Land Information Access Association project in this region include:
-Partnerships for Change, an ongoing program to assist communities in developing sustainable and resilient communities by providing professional services and technical assistance to municipalities willing to work across government boundaries. A local example is the joint Village of Suttons Bay and Suttons Bay Township Planning Commission formed in 2009 to develop a joint zoning ordinance and master plan.
- Community resilience and sustainability planning and master plan development in Monroe. It also includes climate/variability/economic turbulence component.
- Northern Trails Initiative to build a website and interconnections with about 20 trail groups across northern Michigan.
- Website building and hosting for 12 townships, 10 counties and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
- Fiduciary manager of the Fresh Food Partnership, a coalition of nonprofit organizations formed in 2003 under LIAA's umbrella. The partnership purchases locally grown fresh food from farmers at fair market prices and distributes it to 30 area pantries, shelters and community meals programs within the five-county Grand Traverse region. It has distributed nearly 70,000 pounds of fresh food to people in need while reinvesting almost $53,000 into the local farming economy since its founding.
-The 10th Annual Empty Bowls Event on April 14 at the Hagerty Center. Proceeds help support the work of the Fresh Food Partnership. All food is donated by local restaurants and bowls are handmade by local artists and students.
- Executive management service for the joint City of Traverse City and Garfield Township Recreational Authority, formed by the two municipalities in 2003 to acquire, manage and improve the voter-approved public properties, Grand Traverse Commons Barns, Hickory Meadows and West Bay Waterfront.