Commentary: What’s In A Name?

Last month the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI) changed its name to the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. We wanted a name that better reflects the spirit and substance of our work – and, ultimately, to build a stronger base of support.

After two decades as MLUI, we simply outgrew our old name. “Land use” doesn’t entirely reflect the integrated work we’re doing in local food, clean energy, walkable communities, public transit and Great Lakes protection. And as a grassroots membership organization, the Groundwork Center needs people to be engaged if we are going to advance our mission to protect the environment, strengthen the economy and build community.

This was a big move for a 20-year-old Traverse City-based nonprofit. And it was big deal for me personally because I’ve been on the staff since the beginning.

My wife, Maureen, and I came to the region in 1995 having just returned from 10 months of volunteering and traveling in Africa and Asia. We landed in Michigan with two guiding thoughts: First, after seeing how hard people worked just to get by in so many other places around the world, we believed anything was possible in this country, and we were dead set on building the careers we wanted. Secondly, we knew we wanted to live in northwest Michigan.

With no jobs, few belongings, and not much money, we headed north. I set out looking for a job in environmental advocacy – not an easy thing to find, especially back then – and I heard about a guy who was starting a new nonprofit in Benzonia. I hopped in the car, drove to the little town in Benzie County and knocked on the door of the historic one-room-schoolhouse-turned-office. Keith Schneider answered the door and right away I sensed he was playing for keeps.

Keith had just stepped down as the national environmental correspondent for the New York Times to launch the Michigan Land Use Institute. His idea, informed by a decade of covering issues across the country, was that the environmental movement was losing ground and reviving it would require making the economic case for a clean environment and livable communities. Rather than protest in the streets about what was wrong, he said, MLUI would partner with businesses, promote jobs and the economy and advance solutions.

“I want in,” I said.

“You’re hired,” Keith said.

Then the adventure began: lively town hall meetings; long days in shirts and ties driving to and from Lansing; struggling to find the right words for an op-ed; the nerves before public speaking. And throughout it all, overwhelming support from committed people across Michigan.

If there is one thing I learned, it’s that it takes unyielding persistence to turn big ideas into reality. It takes time to bring people along, to build the case for change. The notion of “laying the groundwork” describes it well.

We’re framing our work around resilience as we advance economic and environmental solutions in northwest Michigan, a place we believe can demonstrate community-based models for the rest of the state. For me, it’s all about targeted projects that provide diverse benefits. A few examples Groundwork is working on include:

  • Building a resilient local food system that produces 20 percent of what we eat in northwest Michigan. It will grow the local economy, safeguard our agricultural landscape and give more people easier access to healthier food.
  • Advancing energy efficiency programs for homes and businesses that save money, reduce carbon emissions and keep our energy dollars local. A recent MLUI-contracted study, for example, found that a modest expansion of residential energy efficiency in Grand Traverse County could create 76 jobs annually and generate $212 million in the local economy.
  • Working to connect Traverse City to Ann Arbor by passenger rail to give thousands of people a cost-effective transportation choice for getting in and out of the region while reducing air pollution. It would also help grow the local economy – one reason why key local players including the Traverse Area Association of Realtors and TC Tourism have jumped in as early supporters.

When I signed up with MLUI, I had a strong feeling it was the start of something that would make a real difference, but I honestly couldn’t have predicted half of what we’ve accomplished, and I’m blown away by the incredible support we’ve received. Now as we launch our next 20 years as the Groundwork Center, I have an even stronger sense that our best days are ahead.

Hans Voss is the Executive Director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, based in Traverse City, formerly the Michigan Land Use Institute. Email your feedback and ideas to