Chris Van Hekken took the helm as director in May as NORA pursues new programs and a millage on the 2020 ballot. The authority is also moving its administrative services to the City of Grand Haven, as Grand Haven Area Public Schools becomes an official new member of the authority.
Van Hekken, a local high school baseball and basketball coach, said long-running programs are going strong, while new opportunities are on the horizon to account for growth in membership and new trends in recreation.
“Our numbers are growing, which is a good thing,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the quality of our instructors and the classes and sports we’re offering. We’re trying to find those right niches and find the right space in our community.”
NORA’s newest offering is a youth archery and BB gun shooting safety class that has surprised staff with its immediate popularity, according to Programs Director Jackie Rolland.
The program has attracted 99 pupils, many of them girls, and several classes at the North Ottawa Rod & Gun Club had to be added as they filled up. Rolland said the focus of the courses is safety and learning to respect the equipment.
In her nearly four years with NORA, Rolland said the key has been maintaining what’s always popular, like soccer camps, and analyzing new trends. The authority has the only youth pickleball program in the state and has gained interest from other recreation departments looking to add the sport.
NORA is exploring an esports program that would incorporate not just playing video games, but learning how they work and how to navigate online communication.
Rolland said she visited a conference in Kalamazoo this winter and toured Western Michigan University’s esports facility.
“My mindset completely flipped just in this one tour,” she said. “Esports is not just playing video games — it’s teaching respect and teaching appropriate behavior in an online forum.”
Van Hekken said the goal of the program would be to reach youth who aren’t “sports-first.” The program would incorporate lessons on YouTube. The Michigan High School Athletic Association, as well as local universities, are pursuing esports programs, which could make a NORA program the springboard for students.
Courses would emphasize mental health concerns like cyberbullying, Rolland said, which can go unnoticed by parents.
“You can teach them looking both ways before crossing the street, you can teach them the dangers that you know, but you can’t protect them from the dangers you don’t know,” she said. “If you can touch them in a world they already live in, that helps.”
Exploring a millage
NORA officials aim to place a millage on the 2020 ballot, but details are not final. Van Hekken said the organization is forming an exploratory committee of citizens from each of the authority's municipalities to figure out the scope of the initiative.
In addition to operations and programming, the director said securing places to host programs will be essential as the county population and NORA participation continue to grow. NORA could consider bringing enhancements to existing municipal parks, he said, while the authority has not made a commitment to operating its own facilities.
“There is a need for more space,” he said. “People can debate what that space needs to look like, or what it should be used for.”
A survey of NORA participants will likely be part of the planning for the millage proposal, Van Hekken added.
Website and administration
Norarec.org is the new website for the organization, which Van Hekken said is expected to be easier to use for registration. A class registration list has been downsized to a single webpage, he said, for all seasons and classes, while buttons and click points were minimized to make navigation simpler.
NORA will be putting greater emphasis on social media, Van Hekken said, using Facebook and Instagram for events and links to programs. Photos from events will also be shared regularly, he said.
What community members are less likely to notice is the recent transition of administrative services to the City of Grand Haven. Grand Haven Area Public Schools previously held that role for NORA, but will now become an official member of the authority. The transition officially goes into effect today.