By Scott Sullivan
New McClendon land owner Jeff Padnos recalls growing up when “capitalist” was followed by “pig” in some minds.
Now, as third-generation board chair of Padnos — which has grown from a Holland-based scrap metal processor to a “paper, plastics, metals and more” recycler — he talks about other means of transformation.
“There are stereotypes,” says Padnos, “and opportunities to learn from them.”
We are seated in the Lake House, commanding a view of the Kalamazoo River channel flowing into Lake Michigan. Behind us roll 308 acres of dunes, woods, shorelines … a rich and diverse ecosystem called “the Wild Heart of Saugatuck” by many.
Padnos, in concert with Cottage Home, a builder/designer of high-end lakefront dwel-lings, proposes to build around 40 homes on the parcel. Twenty-three of them would bring a boat basin on about 96 acres that once housed the lost lumber village of Singapore, drifted over by sand in the 1870s, and later a boat-building factory.
“By building on land that has long been disturbed,” says Cottage Home president Brian Bosgraaf, “we won’t need to reclaim our investment elsewhere and can place 208.3 acres in a conservation easement.”
There has been opposition — expected — to the proposal, but nothing like what arose when the land’s prior owner — natural gas magnate Aubrey McClendon — pitched a resort with a 66-slip marina, seven-story inn, nine-hole golf course, 100 homes and equestrian area on the land stretching eastward to Blue Star Highway. Litigation came part and parcel.
After McClendon was killed in a high-speed single-car crash in March 2016, his estate put the local land up for sale. Padnos bought it.
“We see opportunity to do thoughtful business that benefits the community,” says the new owner. “We are very aware this is sensitive land. It deserves careful uses where it can be used.
“Economics and the environment need not be adversaries. They can work together. I’m a passionate moderate. Balance matters to me,” he says.
One plan is for a community historical and environmental education building near the boat basin. Another calls for a public path to a breathtaking observation point high on the eastern property.
The Saugatuck Township board Aug. 2 spending up to $20,125 to drill for a possible municipal water well site on 10 acres Padnos says he will donate to the Kalamazoo Lake Sewer and Water Authority for that purpose.
“We’ve been looking for our next site to serve the community for years,” KLSWA manager Daryl VanDyke told the board. “This is by far the most promising site we’ve seen: fairly flat and ringed by a conservation easement.”
“There’s no quid pro quo involved,” Padnos says. “If they find good water source, it’s the best use possible for the land.”
When the company says it recycles plastics, paper, metal “and more,” Padnos means it. At least metaphorically, the firm also recycles people.
“Welcome!” writes Jeff Padnos on its website. Next to three tulips sculpted out of recycled metal, he has penned this greeting.
“I’ve sometimes introduced myself by saying that my grandfather was a ‘junk dealer,’ my father and uncle were ‘scrap processors,’ and that my brother, cousins and I are ‘recyclers.’ More recently, I’ve started to add that, with the next generation, we are moving into ‘sensible sustainability.’
“But underneath all those phrases, the passion has always been the same. This passion starts with our people, and extends to all the materials we process and recycle, and to the energy we use doing this worthwhile work.”
Part of that is “personal recycling”: offering employment to people, including ex-prisoners, who might otherwise not have that opportunity.
“Our attitude,” says Padnos, “is, If we would not throw a piece of metal away, why would we want to throw away a human being?”
What about local land that’s been long disputed? “We’re invited people to tour it,” he says — the next opportunity comes Thursday, Aug. 10, from 3 to 8 p.m. — “hearing their thoughts and engaging them.
“We can’t accommodate the people who want nothing on this property. But we can find sensitive uses that benefit almost everyone.
“Business done right can be like applied religion that way,” he says.
What about arguments that building homes will create new jobs, add to the property tax base and bring new residents here to patronize restaurants, shops and galleries?
“You can make them,” says Padnos. “But people who do get called ‘capitalist pigs.’ Money is involved, but it’s not the only thing.
“Here is an opportunity to take something that has been subject to controversy and to leave a good legacy.”
Our talk strays. Padnos, who worked for a precursor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Mayor John Lindsay in New York City and gave a speech to a Katmandu science club, has wide interests.
He recalls a speech he made at a meeting of the Michigan Civil Liberties Union: a tough crowd for some business leaders.
“I said free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty than any other system. They gave me a standing ovation.
“Who would have thought?” he says.