David Frey: ‘Not your grandmother’s Grand Rapids’


David Frey.

The current strength of private development in Grand Rapids has Grand Action Co-chair David Frey feeling good about handing off the baton.

Frey, the former president and chairman of Union Bank & Trust and Union Bancorp, said the sheer number of private developers interested in the region has been one of the most important results of Grand Rapids’ mid-'90s success story.

“The big message underlying a lot of the growth and dynamic here is it’s all private sector investment, private betting on the future of this city,” Frey said. “If you’re a law firm, county firm, commercial bank, public relations firm, manufacturing firm — whatever the nature of your business is, those are shareholder or partner dollars being invested here. And (those businesses) do a careful analysis of where to invest and they’re doing it in Grand Rapids.

“We’re hot and deservedly so. We’ve got a great story to tell and the story’s out there.”

When he thinks back on how Grand Rapids looked prior to his, John Canepa and Dick DeVos’s initiative to form Grand Action in 1992, Frey paints an image of a city vastly different from the one today. With the construction of Van Andel Arena and the DeVos Place Convention Center, Grand Rapids was given room to bring in that private development and it has blossomed.

Frey gives credit to both the arena and DeVos Place for incentivizing the growth in surrounding areas. For example, he cited Van Andel Arena’s role in securing the south end of the city as an entertainment center and the Convention Center’s development as opening a door that allowed projects like the J.W. Marriott Hotel to come in, forever changing the Grand Rapids skyline.

Where Grand Action succeeded in bringing in these projects was by facilitating the public-private sector relationships that Grand Rapids now is famous for, Frey said.

“One of the things we always did when we needed the city and the county to be great partners — and that’s where the partnership comes into play — but one thing we did different than a lot of leadership groups around the country, is we had private sector commitments in hand whenever we talked to the city, the county or Lansing,” Frey said. “We’d say we have a $50 million project with $20 million pledged to it and we need your assistance for it.

“It’s very different than going hat in hand saying we’d like to do this project — it’s a different take on how you get things done. But going to any governmental unit with pledges in hand gives a statement about the competence of the project and it gives enormous credibility to anyone.”

Frey said if the next group of economic catalysts to emerge follows that game plan, they’ll continue to be successful in securing federal assistance for development projects.

He also espoused Grand Action’s commitment to engaging legislators on all sides of the aisle in its success in pulling in public support.

“When Dick, John and I put on our Grand Action hats, we’re apolitical,” he said. “We talk to Republicans, Independents, Democrats — whether it’s county, city or state, these have nothing to do with politics, it’s all about building a great city,” he said. “In doing that, it’s gotta be bipartisan.”

Looking to the future, Frey feels confident that an individual or organization will emerge to take up the mantle of Grand Action’s work. The story of Grand Rapids is too enticing for there not to be another author ready to pick up the pen.

“We’re a Midwestern city with a great mission and great history, and it’s not your grandmother’s Grand Rapids,” Frey said. “It tips its hat to the past in the furniture business, which was the force majeure and morphed into office furniture, but it will be different in terms of economic components moving forward.

“The mix is changing but the city has never been a more exciting place to be.”

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