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Ice-Free Shopping District : New Downtown Attraction: Warm Feet

October 30, 1988|LISA PERLMAN | Associated Press

HOLLAND, Mich. — Best known for growing tulips in the spring, this Dutch-flavored town soon may be famous for melting snow in the winter.

When the snow begins--an average of 100 inches falls here each winter--warm water from the city's power plant will be pumped through a subterranean grid of plastic pipes to keep downtown streets and sidewalks clear.

No longer will shoppers have to hunt for parking space between mounds of shoveled snow, or risk slipping on ice. Shopkeepers no longer will spend more time behind a shovel than the cash register.

Project Snowmelt here is similar to systems used for decades in northern Europe and Scandinavia, but the one being installed under three downtown blocks here is the largest of its kind in the United States, according to the system engineers. It is expected to be ready for use after the first snowfall.

Underground systems that heat with electricity or steam are being used on a smaller scale, such as in driveways and parking lots, in other U.S. cities, said Pieter Dekker, the project director.

A larger snowmelt system that uses warm water is being installed at a Minneapolis mall to replace an aging system of heating mats, but that won't be completed until 1991.

"It's designed so that the snow melts almost instantaneously as it hits the ground," Dekker said. "In theory, there should never be an accumulation."

When the project was introduced earlier this year, some downtown merchants were displeased with having to share the $1.1-million cost, but when local industrialist Edgar Prince, who has a mini-snowmelt system in his private driveway, agreed to kick in $250,000 for the project and $25,000 a year toward the annual $100,000 operating costs, the storekeepers warmed to the idea.

Holland already had committed itself to a $2-million beautification plan for downtown that would mean demolishing streets to put in brick sidewalks, landscaping and mini-parks as well new utility and sewer lines.

The warm water will come from the power plant less than a mile from downtown, which has been dumping the water into Lake Macatawa.

The water, which runs at 51 degrees year-round, will wind through 58 miles of plastic piping. The heat can be turned up during heavy snowfalls.

Already, officials of other communities are visiting Holland to find out more about the snowmelt system.

"Historically, older downtowns die when shopping malls come in. The core of the city becomes an eyesore of abandoned buildings," said John Hutchinson, former chairman of Holland's Mainstreet Committee, formed three years ago when the city was designated a "Main Street community" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Since then, developers have taken advantage of low-interest loans to renovate the facades of older buildings instead of tearing them down to build new ones.

"We're determined that Holland, Mich., is not going to follow that pattern," said Hutchinson, an attorney whose wife owns a children's clothing shop downtown.

The city's tulip festival draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each May. The state park on Lake Michigan here is considered Michigan's busiest beach, and the city's Dutch architecture has made it a popular tourist stop.

Most shopkeepers are enthusiastic about the snowmelt system, but some aren't so sure.

"The problem is you won't see the pavement unless you go there, and the people who don't like to go downtown won't go there in the middle of winter just because the snow melts," said Tim Jenks, a small-business consultant and former member of the Mainstreet Committee.

Still, with proper promotion, its novelty could make it a success, he said. "I believe you can bring people downtown with a snowmelt system or with a three-humped camel. It's all a matter of how you promote it."

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