Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northern Living

March 31, 2013

Quiet leader

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 more than 60 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.”

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