City’s equity plan moves forward

One year later, office of economic development reports over $1 million in MBE investment.
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Six projects are in the works in Grand Rapids that have completed the equity plan and are ready to begin construction. Courtesy city of GR Economic Development Department

Nearly a year since his appointment as Grand Rapids’ economic development director, Jeremiah Gracia reported his office has made great strides in leading the city’s equitable economic development plan, adopted in January 2020, including a commitment from two developers to invest more than $1 million in minority contractors.

Gracia said every decision his office makes both program- and policy-wise has revolved around the equitable economic development plan.

“When I started in May, one of the reasons that attracted me to this opportunity with this city was that plan itself,’ Gracia said. “There was a plan that already had been adopted, and it was implementation time. Credit to the team that was here to make sure that plan was adopted so we had common ground to work with businesses and community stakeholders.”

The plan lays out specific short-term, near-term and long-term goals, and the economic development department specifically has been focused on achieving those short-term goals, which Gracia said could take as little as a year.

Some key short-term goals are information — given the recent rebrand of the economic development department’s website courtesy Well Design Studio — incentive, small business support, neighborhood business district development and economic growth as it relates to underserved entrepreneurs.

“Now we’re in what I would describe as the testing phase,” Gracia said. “We’ve put a minimum viable product out there (the website), and we’re testing those things in the market and making sure that we get consistent feedback, make some changes and put another product out there.”

Regarding the revamped EDD website, Gracia said the office wanted to ensure it improved its accessibility to its services, be a hub of information, and identify and promote inclusive business practices.

“We needed to make that clear,” Gracia said. “I said this to Well Design and our team, we’ve got to simplify it to where we talk to anyone, we can tell them, ‘if you want to know how the city can support you, you go to this page,’ and those programs are there, and they are written in a plain, concise language, so you don’t get lost.”

Through the incentive process, developers are expected to have a certain percentage of women-, minority- and micro-local business enterprise (WBE, MBE and MLBE) participation through contractors, service providers and the like.

While the EDD puts the expectation on the contractor – and the business – to on-board WBE, MBE and MLBE subcontractors, legally, the office can’t enforce a certain percentage of participation in these areas for any incentives to be available. It is, however, highly encouraged, because the EDD will report those levels of participation in its evaluation and public presentation.

“It’s a good indicator of saying, ‘look you really need to think about this,’” Gracia said. “When we rolled this out in January of 2021, saying this is now going to be part of our application process, we already had people and projects committing to it.”

Gracia counted six projects in the works that have completed the equity plan and are ready to begin construction. One of them, Blackmer in Grand Rapids, plans to demolish an idle, 48,000-square-foot foundry and put in its place a $7.4 million, 55,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.

Blackmer’s aspirational goal is to commit $750,000, or about 10% of the overall construction cost, to recruiting MBEs, WBEs or MLBEs.

Outside of the EDD, the Grand Rapids Office of Equity and Engagement also is implementing a program to help MLBEs register with the city for city-specific projects. Because the office of equity and engagement already keeps a list of MLBEs, the EDD can use the list to help developers locate these subcontractors for their own projects.

“We’re not endorsing anyone, but these are the folks that have registered with the city and meet the requirements we are asking you to seek out in the bidding process,” Gracia said. “What’s important about the inclusion plan is there is some accountability, because we’re going to ask up front, ‘who do you plan to reach out to?’ And then we’re going to check in with you … let us know, and we’re going to help you along the way.”

The same focus extends down to smaller-scale projects in neighborhoods of focus, Gracia said. Isaac V. Norris and Associates, an architecture firm located in Southtown, is working on a project to create three separate business storefronts from a 3,400-square-foot property on 1002 Hall St. SE. Norris plans to utilize the city’s obsolete property rehabilitation exemption to create space for affordable business fronts for women- and minority-owned businesses that offer products to the Boston Square district.

While it’s a little bit of a smaller development – the overall project estimate was $331,000 – Norris committed to 100% MBE, WBE and MLBE support for the project, Gracia said.

Perrigo late last year announced it is moving its North American corporate headquarters to Medical Mile in downtown Grand Rapids in a move that will create 170 jobs, according to a previous Business Journal report. Gracia said while that’s great news for the area, it’s the smaller-scale projects in high volume that will lead to greater and more equitable development for Grand Rapids in the long run.

“How we show the greatest success – I love baseball – is hitting a lot of singles and doubles,” Gracia said. “I can show you a lot of home runs. Perrigo is a great home run … but the only reason we got to bat with that project is because of all the singles and doubles we’ve been hitting for all these years that made Grand Rapids competitive in that site-selection process.”

If both the Blackmer project and the Boston Square project come to fruition, those projects by themselves will equal over $1 million in MLBE, MBE and WBE investment.

Even through the economic slowdown brought on by COVID-19 and government shutdowns, Gracia said there is a positive side, because businesses are more actively seeking assistance and desiring to learn more about what the EDD can do for them.

“We want to make sure we establish trust with key multipliers in business and in the community,” Gracia said. “If I inform you really well about what these programs are, you’re our greatest advocate to share that message in the community and with other stakeholders who may not be aware or interested at this time in talking to our office.”

Restaurants have indisputably been hit hardest because of COVID-19, but through programming and funding from different offices, the EDD is deploying outdoor seating units to 10 restaurants across the city in key neighborhood business districts.

Restaurants include Daddy Pete’s BBQ in West Millbrook, Rising Grinds Café in Madison Square, One Bourbon in Stockbridge, Putt-Putt’s Bar and Grill in West Fulton, El Granjero Mexican Grill in Stockbridge, Tamales El Kora in South Division, Tacos El Cuñado in Burton Heights and Harmony Brewing Co. in Eastown.

“What I instructed our partners was, ‘I need you to really focus on those neighborhood business areas,” Gracia said. “We love downtown, don’t get me wrong, but downtown also has great support mechanisms … if we’re going to deploy these and make this investment, let’s go put these out in the neighborhoods.”

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