The Grand Action co-chairs are, from left, Tom Welch, Carol Van Andel and Dick DeVos. Courtesy Grand Action 2.0
After a nearly two-year hiatus, the organization behind several catalytic projects downtown is re-launching.
Announced today, Grand Action 2.0 is the next iteration of the organization behind a portfolio of major projects — the Van Andel Arena, DeVos Convention Center and Downtown Market — that have spurred billions of dollars in economic development.
The nonprofit’s primary mission is to identify capital-intensive projects that could transform the downtown area, galvanize public opinion and support for those projects, and leverage public and private investment.
Grand Action 2.0 is co-chaired by Carol Van Andel, Dick DeVos and Tom Welch. David Frey serves as vice chair. Jon Nunn is the executive director.
Founded in 1992, the original Grand Action group completed major public-private developments that accounted for $420 million in direct capital investment, including private funding of $130 million. Other projects include DeVos Performance Hall, the Grand Rapids Civic Theater and the Secchia Center at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.
“It's all about economic development,” Van Andel said. “We enhance the city so that other organizations become stronger.”
The co-chairs of the first Grand Action — DeVos, Frey and the late John Canepa — had decided to retire from their roles and deactivate the organization indefinitely, effective March 31, 2018.
“I think it was our collective view that organizations should only exist as long as it is clear that they're serving a purpose,” DeVos said.
He said they felt the best option at the time was to step back and see whether an organization like Grand Action still was needed in the community. That never meant they were done for good, however. He said there always was an understanding that, if needed, he and Frey would help a future group of leaders take on similar endeavors.
Nearly the whole time Grand Action had been dormant, there was talk that some private sector leadership may be needed for projects in the pipeline, particularly the ones that will need private-public partnership, Frey said. After the September 2017 announcement that Grand Action would be deactivating, Frey said the former co-chairs were hoping another group would step up to “fill the vacuum.”
“For a variety of reasons, all understandable, it didn't quite happen as we may have anticipated,” Frey said.
So, he and DeVos took the initiative to gather community representatives who could help determine who the next leaders should be. Of course, DeVos does not intend to remain a co-chair forever, but in the meantime, he and Frey can mentor the younger group of leaders, such as Welch. The time for DeVos to step back will present itself when appropriate, he said.
Welch recalled when Frey approached him last summer about joining an informational meeting regarding a potential impactful venture.
“And because David Frey asked, I said yes,” said Welch.
Following those meetings, Welch, who became the Grand Rapids-based regional president for Fifth Third Bank in 2013, said it did not take much convincing for him to join as co-chair.
“I was the recipient of 25 years of Grand Action, having moved here six years ago,” Welch said. “So I see what it did to the town, and I just couldn't be more excited to have the opportunity to be part of this moving forward and see what we can do in the next 25 years.”
The re-launch comes after a great deal of encouragement from community leaders, which DeVos sees as a validation of the work completed by the first organization.
“It’s an opportunity to extend that good work for many years to come,” DeVos said.
One of those encouraging voices comes from Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place.
From an economic development perspective, Klohs said companies care greatly about offering their employees quality lives in a vibrant community.
“Place-making today — if you want to compete for talent and for companies — is an absolutely critical part of economic development,” Klohs said. “A company doesn't come without team members. So it goes hand in hand.
“That's why I'm really excited that Grand Action is going back into action.”
Planning for the future
Grand Action was born in 1991 as the committee Grand Vision, which sought to explore the possibility of building an arena and expanding and renovating local convention facilities.
“I don't think any of us had anticipated that we were starting a 25-year relationship,” DeVos said. “You never know how these things work out. You just make the best decisions you can at the time to do what's right.”
While the first co-chairs worked well together, DeVos said they had some generational differences in perspective, which he believes strengthened their decision making.
All these years later, the number and diversity of leaders has grown significantly along with the city, so the goal was to create executive and advisory committees that reflect the variety of people, the co-chairs said.
“Down the road, they're going to be in our shoes, so we have to make sure we listen and gather the information needed to make the proper decision,” said Van Andel, who was involved in the first iteration of Grand Action.
The 20-member executive committee includes newcomers to the community, like Bill Pink of GRCC and Philomena Mantella of GVSU, as well as people who have been around for a while, like Klohs, who said she was happy to join the committee for the second time. To help maintain impartiality in the group’s decision making, names of other committee members are not being disclosed.
DeVos also noted that much of Grand Rapids’ growth was started by wealthy individuals who donated their personal funds. Now, much of that wealth has been transferred to family foundations, so there are a lot of people making decisions about the future of the area.
“Those will be two points where we will need to do things differently, not because it didn't work well in the past, but simply because the environment's different today,” he said.
As with the first organization, Grand Action 2.0 leaders plan to continue carrying out feasibility and economic impact studies to ensure their investments are worthwhile.
They said the organization isn’t ready to determine exactly what those projects will be, but there are some options on the table the team can discuss right away. In the meantime, the group is searching for a permanent office.
Welch said the organization’s first step likely will be to get the executive committee up to speed on Grand Action’s 2016 destination asset study, which outlined several major projects that could elevate the Grand Rapids market. The Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority is actively gathering information on one of those projects, a 400-room convention hotel, which has been said likely will take a public-private partnership to complete.
Whatever project the group chooses to pursue first, the leaders agree it will only make Grand Rapids stronger.
“It's going to be another exciting period in the history of the city,” Frey said.