Montague — Amy VanLoon has a small dilemma on her hands.
For nearly a decade as executive director of the White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, she’s been charged with promoting the community to potential visitors and outside businesses. For that entire time, and the previous 20 years, the White Lake region has been designated an area beset by environmental damage.
In the coming year, White Lake is expected to be removed from that list, creating the dilemma for VanLoon. What does she do with that information? Should she promote the development, or would that call attention to area’s negative past?
Most outsiders, the ones who flock to this resort community and triple its population in the warmer months, aren’t aware of the area’s past. And you’d be hard-pressed to think the area had a stigma attached to it by the summertime traffic.
“Right now we’re certainly on board with recognizing that the lake is coming off the (state’s Areas of Concern) list,” she said. “I think it will be a feather in our cap to us. What happened, happened. But now we’ve cleaned up the lake and it’s given us another notch on our belt.”
In many ways this area has already moved on from the past’s environmental problems. U.S. Census Bureau figures show a population that has remained fairly stable. From 2000 to 2010, Montague Township saw a loss of 37 residents, while Whitehall Township saw a loss of 91. Those year-round numbers have been offset by the rising seasonal population.
The chemical companies that helped grow the community and, later, were found to be putting it at risk, are gone for the most part. Automotive companies are now shaping the future.
Alcoa-Howett, a casting operation in Whitehall, is now the area’s largest employer with 2,100 workers. Across the lake in Montague, Chassix, another casting and machining operation, is thriving. The company grew from 450 employees in 2010 to 650 in 2013.
And now, locals face that most classic of dilemmas — the possible arrival of a Wal-Mart superstore just outside downtown Whitehall.
Emery “Mac” Hatch has been Whitehall’s mayor for 14 years and sees the potential delisting as something worthy of celebration.
“To me, it shows that a lot of hard work has gone into getting this done,” he said. “And I don’t mind that being out there. It shows the right thing is being done here.”