Grand Action leaders shut it down


Van Andel Arena in downtown Grand Rapids is one of the 100 busiest arenas in the world. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Grand Action Committee co-chairs John Canepa, Dick DeVos and David Frey are retiring from their roles within the organization at the end of the year, effectively sidelining the business-based nonprofit that has been the catalyst for more than $3.5 billion in downtown economic development and was instrumental in Grand Rapids’ growth over the past 25 years.

The Grand Action Foundation will continue to be maintained in a passive state, but the organization itself will cease to operate for the foreseeable future. Canepa, DeVos and Frey’s retirements from Grand Action will be effective Dec. 31, 2017.

Frey said the decision on Grand Action’s future was made following recognition that its current project portfolio already had strong leadership teams in place and potential future projects were too far out on the timeline to justify the organization’s continued operations.

“Right now, there’s not a project that fits our paradigm, our formula,” Frey said. “There’s a couple that are maybe two, three, five years down the road but not yet announced as being ready for primetime. They’re on the drawing board, but too far down the road (for us) to assume a leadership role at this time.”

While the infrastructure for Grand Action will remain in place, DeVos added the leadership team currently did not see a need for the organization to currently remain “on duty.”

“When the conversation occurs with some clarity around convention center expansion — and maybe there will be a role in the convention center expansion for Grand Action to be a value-added contributor — but right now we don’t know if or when that will occur,” DeVos said. “There’s just no reason to be on duty or stand by at the ready with a lack of clarity going forward.”

Grand Action largely was responsible as the motor powering key downtown investment projects like Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place Convention Center and Downtown Market. Grand Action also was the driving force behind projects like the DeVos Performance Hall improvements, renovation and expansion of the Civic Theatre and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine-Secchia Center.

Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids-based economic development organization The Right Place Inc., said just the inciting development of Van Andel Arena can be pointed to as the cause for downtown’s dramatic growth.

A 2015 study by The Philanthropic Collaborative reported that Grand Action projects accounted for $420 million in direct capital investment, including $125 million in private funds. Those numbers don’t account for the indirect economic impact of those projects, which totals into the billions over nearly three decades since Grand Action begun.

“Before (the arena) was built, downtown stopped at Fulton Street,” Klohs said. “Today, with it being the anchor … things started to happen in terms of eating establishments and events and a couple of years ago, we pushed it even further south to the market and residential developments are starting to happen now.

“I don’t know how anybody could capture the dollars that have been spent over the past 20 years, because of how many concerts have come since the arena was built.”

In 2011 alone, the economic impact of Van Andel Arena was $22.6 million, while DeVos Place had an economic impact of $26.2 million. The projected 10-year economic impact of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine-Secchia Center, completed in 2010, was $1.57 billion with a projected 2,835 jobs added. A 2010 analysis by Market Ventures Inc. calculated the 10-year economic impact of Downtown Market to be $775 million.

The TPC report concluded, “As long as private philanthropy is able to pursue generational objectives like Grand Action, the story of Grand Rapids can be repeated in cities across America.”

Frey said the deactivation of Grand Action creates a void — and that vacuums tend to have a way of being filled. He said there are a number of people and organizations in the community who might step up to carry the torch and potentially even some who haven’t been in the spotlight yet.

“I think there are some very capable next generation individuals out there — and I have my own list — and I guess the question is do they have the time, energy and passion that we’ve had for the past 25 years,” Frey said. “But I won’t predict who that might, or might not include, because there’s probably a fair number of that next generation who we might not know. They might be new to the city, or heretofore haven’t been active at the metropolitan level.”

Should Grand Action be reactivated down the line, DeVos said the organization will have assets in place that would allow for a successful continuation of its story.

“Certainly the Grand Action name has developed a certain caché, if you will; it’s almost shorthand for successful and effective public and private partnerships,” he said. “I’d hope that would continue to have a continued amount of value.”

DeVos added the organization will spend its final few months leading to its eventual shutdown trying to “capture” and “download” the processes Grand Action used to privately and publicly manage its projects to the end.

The Grand Action founders feel confident the city’s future is being left in capable hands. Still, the organization’s contributions to the city are evident not only in dollar figures, but also the shape and skyline of the city.

“An entire generation has come of age who have come to know downtown Grand Rapids only with these attractions,” Canepa, who was not available for interview, said in a statement. “They would not likely recognize the downtown we began with in 1992.”

Business Journal staff writer Rachel Watson contributed to this report.

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