Heading east from Chicago along the Lake Michigan shoreline, you’ll pass urban areas, commuter towns, and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Just beyond the Michigan state line, you’ll find Berrien County, a quiet landscape of sandy beaches, tall grassy dunes, waterways, woodlands, farmlands, and vacation homes.
George S. Lucas spent many memorable childhood days exploring this southwesternmost corner of Michigan, officially called Chikaming Township. And it was here where Lucas returned to live full-time after a career in marketing and sales in Chicago. A REALTOR® since 1999, Lucas has built a niche specializing in Chikaming Township’s beachfront homes and farmland properties.
As with so many places around the country and world, population influx and increasing development have taken an ever more noticeable toll on the open space and natural areas that give Chikaming Township its unique character. Lucas decided he had to help preserve the place that he considered his home. “It was time to do something about preserving what makes it special,” he says.
Seven years earlier, four of Lucas’s friends had come to the same conclusion. They founded Chikaming Open Lands, a nonprofit trust dedicated to working with private landowners to protect open space through conservation easements, donations, and community fundraising to purchase land.
At first, COL was run entirely by volunteers, as is common with many smaller land trusts in the United States. “[The group] did whatever it could to gain traction,” Lucas says. Although the organization was successful in preserving environmentally sensitive acreage, “it didn’t have focus or specific goals,” he says. It also became too dependent on foundation grants — never a sure bet — for funding.
Building From the Ground Up
Among the first steps Lucas took was to create a founders’ statement, to help the group’s four founding members identify goals. Doing so helped set the overall direction, a vital element that was unarticulated before and that provided a set of criteria that enables COL to rank future land acquisition opportunities. Lucas created and executed a five-year strategic plan and established the Lakeshore Conservation Initiative to give highest priority to properties closest to Lake Michigan, which are typically the most desirable for development and therefore most at risk.
Another major accomplishment that Lucas orchestrated was a 2-to-1 challenge match fundraising effort in partnership with the Pokagon Fund, a private charitable foundation. In three years, the partnership raised more than $1.3 million, allowing the conservancy to complete four land protection projects. “It put us in a position to finally drive our own destiny,” reflected Lucas.
That destiny is being further bolstered through greater engagement with the community. Through marketing, events, and education, such as a new partnership with the Chicago Field Museum’s Mighty Acorns program for elementary school students, COL is able to foster appreciation for open space and, hopefully, inspire future leaders. “When you help a community help itself by creating preserves,” notes Lucas, “it helps the organization by getting more people involved.”
Over the past 10 years, Lucas has served the COL board of directors in numerous roles, including secretary and vice president. Currently president of the organization, he volunteers an average of 80 hours per month, time he is able to set aside in part because of the highly seasonal nature of the area’s real estate market.
For both COL and the community it serves, those 80 hours per month have been very well spent. COL executive director Chris Thompson is proud to point to a long list of accomplishments. COL is now a sophisticated land conservancy with four paid staff members. More than 550 member households contribute financially and give hundreds of hours of their own time each year. Most importantly, the trust has been been able to conserve almost 1,600 acres of vital open space, much of which is accessible to the public in 10 nature preserves. Within two years, Thompson says, COL hopes to increase its holdings to 2,000 acres.
Much of that success was made possible through Lucas’s business acumen and leadership skills. “He is a doer,” Thompson says of Lucas. “If he says something, he does it and gets it done.”
On the road to helping COL volunteers understand the mission, establish goals, and gain a stronger footing in the community, Lucas was able to turn around some preconceived notions about land trusts and the real estate business. When he began volunteering, “a couple of people were suspicious of having a real estate agent on the board of a land conservancy,” Lucas says. He encountered skepticism from people with a perception that real estate professionals automatically favored development over preservation.
“We’re in the real estate business, in a way. It worried me that his competitors might make a big deal of it,” says COL cofounder Peter van Nice. “I got over those concerns very quickly.” Lucas says he was able to quell concerns because his motives were pure. “I demonstrated a different point of view and was able to turn that perspective around,” Lucas says. “I never did it to enhance my business. If you live in a community and do something noteworthy to improve the community, it attracts attention.”
At the same time, van Nice says, “the idea of a land trust isn’t always popular with [real estate professionals] until they know more about them.” Lucas’s work with COL has helped other REALTORS® recognize that the land trust helps everyone. “It made the community better and more attractive to tourists. That creates more demand for the general area,” he says.
Contributing his time and expertise has enabled Lucas to make a difference in his community while gaining valuable executive experience. “It’s been intellectually challenging and stimulating,” Lucas says. “I like to leave things better than how I found them.”