ELK RAPIDS — When consultant and author Doug Griffiths first drove into this picturesque harbor village, he said he couldn’t help but wonder why he’d been hired.
“I don’t get to go to a lot of places that are that stunningly beautiful,” Griffiths said. “There’s not a physical representation of the struggles that Elk Rapids is having. There’s so much beauty there.”
Then he and his team from Alberta, Canada made two in-person visits and began holding small group meetings and one-on-one interviews. They read four years of media reports, listened to recordings of municipal meetings and walked down River Street and toured the harbor, parks, businesses and the library.
Soon the reason his 13 Ways consulting agency — named for his book, “13 Ways to Kill Your Community” — was offered a $70,000 contract to identify problems and suggest solutions became clear.
“I haven’t come across a community quite with that level of animosity,” Griffiths said.
First among the team’s observations: controversy over a plan to expand the Elk Rapids District Library, the negative attention the issue has attracted and how animosity between supporters and those opposed to the plan has spread.
Library Board President Tom Stephenson said he met with Griffiths and was optimistic about what can be accomplished if officials adhere to the consultant’s final recommendations.
“He did his homework,” Stephenson said Wednesday. “We’ve got to get the trust of the community back. The board does. And the best way to do that is to be open and honest.”
Library Director Nannette Miller agreed.
“I had a good meeting with them, I think they understand the problems and will have some insightful ideas for moving forward,” said Miller.
Under Stephenson’s leadership the library board suspended the capital campaign, which was fundraising to expand Island House, the historic building the library leases, after a long-forgotten deed was uncovered during a title search, calling ownership of the building into question.
The approximately 450 donors to the campaign were given the option of having their money refunded and so far about 30 have said they’d like about $50,000 in pledges returned, Stephenson said.
The board had already returned $505,000 of the $1.5 million capital campaign fund to a foundation and an individual, as previously reported.
This action jibes with Griffiths’ preliminary recommendation of putting the expansion project on hold until the underlying issues can be resolved.
The 13 Ways project isn’t yet complete, with a third visit planned for November. Early recommendations for responding to other challenges the community faces include a review of policies on disclosure of public information, improving the relationship between the Village of Elk Rapids and surrounding communities and looking for ways to make the village attractive to year-round residents.
Griffiths’ book, “13 Ways to Kill Your Community,” encapsulates lessons the author/consultant learned after teaching teenagers about how small decisions build on one another for good or ill.
Griffiths said teens responded more enthusiastically, and learned the cautionary lessons he was trying to impart, when brainstorming ways to ruin their lives rather that being lectured on adhering to rules and laws.
That same tack can work with organizations and whole communities, he said.
Village Council President Jim Janisse said so far, the community welcomed Griffiths and members have been more than willing to speak frankly about what they see as problems.
“We needed this,” said Janisse, who was an early supporter of hiring Griffiths, and acknowledged he pledged $1,000 of his own money toward the effort.
“For the people who may have been against it, to now welcome it with open arms is good,” Janisse said. “What we do with the information is going to be where the money spent is worthwhile.”
Janisse agreed public discourse between residents and elected officials needs improvement and said he is looking forward to a third visit by the team in early November.
Trisha Perlman, who served on the village council from 2016 to 2020, regularly attends most village meetings and now identifies as a citizen activist, expressed concerns about how the project was funded but those have since been resolved, she said.
The Elk Rapids Chamber of Commerce is the project manager of the 13 Ways contract, said staff member Mary Kohl. The chamber, the Elk Rapids Downtown Development Agency, the village council all kicked in $10,000 and the project received a $10,000 seed grant from Rotary Charities, Kohl said.
The remaining funding came from private donations, she said.
A final report with formalized recommendations is expected by the end of the year and on Friday members of a chamber steering committee gathered to discuss options for a second contract with Griffiths for strategic planning.
“It’s a very niche area where you have a small rural community consultant who doesn’t specialize in transportation issues or economic development but will look at an entire community, the issues and the personalities, and help us figure out our cultural issues,” Kohl said.
Perlman said she believes such work is valuable.
“After spending 36 years as a social worker myself, I see in this team who visited a kind of community social worker,” Perlman said. “You can’t fix something until you know where it’s broken.”
Griffiths said he is accustomed to being described as a community therapist and he doesn’t mind it. Communities are made up of people, and people often need help communicating with one another he said.
Griffiths said he’s open to meeting with anyone from the community who has ideas or thoughts to share and encouraged anyone interested to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Elk Rapids Interview” in the subject line.
Editor's note: This story was updated 10/13/21 to add context with the total number of donations returned by the board.