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Wednesday, July 18,2012

Keri Litwiller swims with the big fish

by Lawrence Cosentino

One of these things is not like the others.

There’s a wild — and wet — card among the five proposals for redevelopment for the Red Cedar golf course.

Two days before last week’s deadline, Lansing grad student Keri Litwiller knocked out a Power Point presentation urging the city to build an aquarium there.

There’s no financing and no developer, but there is a lot of passion. Litwiller has been thinking about the idea for two years. She proposed it to the Lansing City Council earlier this summer, but got no reply to her letter.

Litwiller sees an aquarium as Lansing’s smart answer to the state’s Great Lakes beaches — only better, because the weather won’t shut it down.

“We live in the Great Lakes state,” she declared. “We have three rivers that converge in Lansing. [The Red Cedar site] is next to the interstate and two malls. People are becoming more environmentally conscious, and we need to bring more culture into the area. Why not combine everything?”

Realistic or not, Litwiller’s proposal shows up the other four by one measure: boldness. It’s hard for some people to get excited about another mixed-use development, however big or strategically placed.

“When I look at the other proposals — nothing against them, but we have empty office and retail space. We need something new to draw people in,” she said.

“One of the proposals [from Chris Jerome and Joel Ferguson] involved a hotel. They need people to fill the hotel. Why not bring the aquarium first and then build the hotel?”

Former Lansing Mayor David Hollister called Litwiller’s proposal “really interesting.” In the early 1980s, when Hollister was in the state Legislature, he and other lawmakers tried to develop an aquarium in the Capitol Complex, east of the parcel where the Hall of Justice now stands, but couldn’t get it started.

Without money or a development team, Hollister cautioned, the aquarium idea is “just an idea.”

“There might be some potential to integrate some of her ideas into the larger plan,” Hollister said. 

Litwiller is from St. Johns, lives in Lansing, works at the Delta Township District Library and studies community counseling at Siena Heights University in Adrian. She spotted the Red Cedar request for proposals while scanning a job listing on the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) website.

She doesn’t consider the proposal symbolic.

“I’ve never done anything like this before, but I’m pretty persistent when I want something to happen,” she said.

She wasn’t expecting the Red Cedar proposals to be made public on the LEAP website, but she’s glad they were. Since the proposal, with her email address included, has gone on line, she’s gotten several emails expressing support. 

Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann, a member of the panel that will choose one of the five proposals to recommend to the city, was also intrigued.

“What’s unique about Lansing is that it sits in the exact middle of 20 percent of all the available fresh water in the world,” Lindemann said. “We’re the seat of the state’s government and we have an extraordinary university. Does that not deserve unique ideas?”

Lindemann said he’s not supporting any particular plan, but he thinks the aquarium idea is at least worth looking into.

“We ought to apply to the Department of the Interior and see if there’s any grant money,” he said. 

Littwiller plans to investigate grants, ask for help from big guns like GM, Meijer and the Kellogg Foundation, and contact some of the other developers who submitted plans last week. She also wants to recruit Michigan celebrities like Kid Rock, Tom Selleck and Jeff Daniels to the cause.

“It’s hard to do, when you’re busy with school and work and you’re not a 501(c)(3), but I’m going to keep at it,” she said.

Her dream is to someday take a group of children she is counseling to the Lansing Aquarium.

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