Grand Rapids is a city that defies expectations. It has a strong philanthropic heart, diverse economic engines and a robust and supportive community.
When my parents, Jay and Betty, founded Van Andel Institute in 1996, Grand Rapids had undeniable assets, but it was struggling. Businesses were closing, jobs were scarce and there was no defined economic path for the future. It was a place filled with hardworking people who were in need of a plan for renewed vitality.
In those days, the city lacked the infrastructure to support an institute focused on biomedical research and science education. Many early advisors suggested we look to other cities in the United States — cities that could immediately support our mission. We took their concerns under consideration, but in the end, decided to build Van Andel Institute in the heart of Grand Rapids with a bold goal in mind: to generate momentum for the city’s growth. This was, after all, my family’s home; our roots were deep, and our commitment to West Michigan was strong.
In 1998, we broke ground on a strip of land atop Belknap Hill along Michigan Street and began building on a vision for the future. When Van Andel Institute’s doors opened in 2000, hopes were high that it would serve as a source for good in the region. There was no way of knowing how many other passionate philanthropists, civic leaders and members of the public and private sector would join our quest, but the result has exceeded our expectations. I am confident if my parents could see how Grand Rapids has sprung to life around this bustling hub of research, medicine and education, they would be humbled and immensely gratified.
Today, thanks to a substantial amount of reinvestment and philanthropic support, including more than $2 billion worth of research and health care infrastructure, there is a sense of vibrancy and renewed purpose in downtown Grand Rapids.
The hospitals, research facilities and clinical centers that line the Medical Mile foster an economic environment that diversifies the employment landscape in West Michigan and creates demand for supporting industries capable of accommodating this surge in the workforce. Along with many other organizations, universities and businesses, Van Andel Institute has created a destination location for professionals around the world.
There is an undeniable uptick in interest in Grand Rapids as a region primed for expansion.
Our continued growth and influx of professionals has sparked an enthusiastic service economy that encompasses breweries, restaurants, specialty shops and cultural attractions. It’s a fairly simple equation — more opportunities lead to more people, which then leads to an increased demand for products and services.
Now, when you look up and down Michigan Street along the Medical Mile, you will see yet another phase of construction — the beginnings of impressive structures that soon will be hotels, apartments, condominiums and biomedical research facilities. This expansion signals a fresh period of progress and forward momentum — growth encouraged by a thriving medical and health sciences economy that has given the city a new identity.
According to an Area Development Magazine issue published in 2015, Grand Rapids has one of the best economies in the nation. In 2014, Forbes ranked the city fifth best in the country for regional economic growth on a per capita basis from 2010-13. This success is due in large part to the economic energy and vitality of the Medical Mile.
Looking toward the future, we can only imagine the many ways the Medical Mile will impact our city’s evolution, but by investing in education, technology and the health sciences, we are establishing a sustainable basis for development. The fields of science and medicine are never static; innovation constantly pushes the boundaries of knowledge. As a region, we are well positioned to ensure our contributions to the world will be groundbreaking, meaningful and long lasting.
Over the past two decades, I have seen firsthand how a powerful mission that embraces passion and ignites the imagination can create a rhythmic pulse that calls people to action. As we celebrate Van Andel Institute’s 20th anniversary, I am especially grateful to the people of Grand Rapids, so many of whom are collaborating with us to help shape the destiny of this vibrant, American city. Together, we will continue to evolve, to build on the dream and to achieve the audacious goals we set for ourselves in service to others.
David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.