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M-6 To Open in November

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Opening of G.R. bypass promises to reshape traffic, growth patterns in West Michigan

Sunday, October 10, 2004

By Chris Meehan

Kalamazoo Gazette

For Melissa McKeown of Portage, it will mean a shorter drive to RiverTown Crossings, the megamall southwest of Grand Rapids.

For Mike Wright of Kalamazoo, it promises a quicker route to Gerald R. Ford International Airport, southeast of Grand Rapids' downtown.

Before year's end, the state Department of Transportation will open M-6, the long-awaited southern bypass of Grand Rapids, a project likely to change the face of southern Kent and northern Allegan counties.

But the $600 million, 20-mile freeway also has implications for the Kalamazoo area, even though many residents here are not even aware of the new highway or have only a vague sense that it's near completion.

The road officially will be known as the Paul B. Henry Freeway but has been known informally as the South Beltline. It will shave about 15 minutes off the trip from northbound U.S. 131 to two popular destinations: RiverTown Crossings and the Grand Rapids airport. Both of those destinations now require a 10-mile or so crawl either way along busy 44th Street.

The highway also is likely to continue the creeping growth of the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids metropolitan areas toward each other.

"This freeway is going to allow for greater interaction between the two" metro regions, said Greg Rosine, former director of the Michigan Department of Transportation and current vice president of legislative affairs for Western Michigan University.

"The rippling impact of these large freeway projects tends to be greater than people ever imagine," he said. "Transportation, unless it's a one-way road, is always a two-way street."

MDOT hopes to open the highway, which is projected to carry 15,000 to 40,000 vehicles per day depending on the segment, in mid- to late November.

Transportation and economic-development officials say the Kalamazoo area could benefit by having the Grand Rapids employment market, especially the booming southern suburbs, more accessible to workers here -- and similarly opening Kalamazoo businesses to employees and opportunities from the north.

In between, Allegan is likely to continue as the fastest-growing county in southwestern Michigan.

There may, however, be downsides for the Kalamazoo area.

Some are concerned about the impact the road will have on the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport, which already has to battle Ford Airport's more competitive fares and larger number of direct flights.

Wright, a frequent flier and owner of a travel agency at 1209 E. Milham Ave., said the new expressway will make "a lot of difference to me. It could save me 20 minutes" in travel time to the Grand Rapids airport.

"The road will dramatically improve access to their airport in Grand Rapids, which might create some 'leakage' for Kalamazoo's air service," said Barry Broome, executive director of Southwest Michigan First, the area's economic-development agency.

But Broome said that, overall, he views M-6 as "a good thing."

"It offers better infrastructure for Grand Rapids to move south," said Broome. "Everything that improves the area improves us."

Ken Potts, director of the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport, says he's not worried about the freeway drawing fliers away from his facility.

Most fliers buy tickets based on price and not necessarily on ease of travel to and from an airport, he said.

"I don't see a mass exodus of people going to Grand Rapids because they can save a few minutes in travel time," Potts said.

Maybe it won't be a mass exodus, but M-6 is likely to be a draw, said Bruce Schedlbauer, marketing and communications director for the Grand Rapids airport.

"We are one of the recipients of passengers who live in the Kalamazoo area," Schedlbauer said. "We're not looking at how we can attract people from Kalamazoo, but once M-6 opens fully, that will improve access to the airport. ... It will help people buzz across town and get in and out of the Grand Rapids area."

But Ken Fischang, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Kalamazoo County's Chamber of Commerce, says the freeway won't be enough reason to entice area people to fly from Grand Rapids.

Kalamazoo airport's all-jet service, easy parking, and other user-friendly features will continue to give it an edge, especially as gas prices go up, he said. The airport also is planning a $33.5 million upgrade, including a new air terminal, scheduled for completion in April 2007.

Nor is Fischang worried about competition from Grand Rapids for shoppers.

"Grand Rapids doesn't have a unique downtown like we do," he said. "We have a mall for people who want those, but we also have a downtown that is user-friendly, with unique shops and entertainment options. We have a nightlife."

Fischang may not be concerned about the siphoning off of retail business, but there are area shoppers who like the idea of being able to make it more quickly to RiverTown Crossings.

"I love going to Grand Rapids to shop. They have the best stores and you can find anything there," said McKeown, a Portage Central High School senior.

Michael and Lori Laughlin of Otsego say the road is likely to accelerate their shift from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids as a shopping destination. The new expressway will mean they can drive more quickly to RiverTown Crossings and provide a more direct route to Lansing.

Michael Laughlin said he had spent a lifetime shopping in Kalamazoo but has switched allegiance to Grand Rapids, where the malls are larger and feature a Galyans outdoor-sporting-goods store.

"When we moved to Otsego eight years ago, that's when we made the switch," he said.

Lori Laughlin said she welcomes the development of the South Beltline, too, because it will provide a more direct route to Lansing.

"We had an outing in Lansing two years ago," she said. "There's just no easy way over there. This new highway will make it much easier to go that direction."

But ease of travel is a worrisome thought for Roger Newman, who owns an antique mall on M-89 in Otsego.

He depends on the thousands of cars that travel M-89 past his store every day. If the new highway provides an alternate route to and from Holland and Allegan, he said, that could hurt business.

"Eighty percent of our customers are not local," Newman said. "They are either from Holland to Kalamazoo, or they are in South Haven and it's raining -- they come off that highway."

Any change that would disrupt that stream of traffic through downtown Otsego, he said, "would hurt us."

In the end, said Dennis Kent, MDOT's regional planner, only time will tell whether M-6 makes a significant difference to traffic patterns and business growth in and around the Kalamazoo area.

"Life as we know it (in southern Kent County) is already changing even without the new freeway," Newman said.

"There are so many variables involved in what causes development."

Chris Meehan can be reached

at 388-8412 or [email protected]

kalamazoogazette.com.

Rosemary Parker can be reached at 388-8543 or [email protected]

kalamazoogazette.com.

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