Grand Rapids gets its message out to states’ leaders


Local stakeholders got a chance to tell the country’s lieutenant governors how grand Grand Rapids is.

“You’re catching us maybe halfway,” Amway President Doug DeVos told his audience. “I don’t know what chapter we are in in the story of Grand Rapids, but we have a culture that’s been developed here that says, ‘We want to make it better.’”

DeVos was part of a panel discussion on the city’s economic development, growth and strategic partnerships at the National Lieutenant Governors Association’s annual meeting, July 6-8 at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel downtown. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney of Montana moderated the discussion by DeVos, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and ArtPrize Director Christian Gaines.

Bliss spoke about how the city’s logging industry earned it the name “Furniture City,” and how today this legacy continues with two of the largest office furniture manufacturers in the world: Steelcase Inc. and American Seating Co.

She praised the Van Andel Institute for spurring growth along Michigan Street in what eventually became Medical Mile and laid the economic and cultural groundwork for the upcoming Michigan State University Grand Rapids Research Center.

“A lot of people talk about ‘eds and meds.’ We are very proud to have a strong educational presence in the city,” she said. “Grand Rapids is home to 22 colleges and universities that add to the innovation and future of our city.”

West Michigan also has one of the nation’s largest and most extensive manufacturing sectors, Bliss said, adding that the region has some of the industry’s largest concentrations in metals, plastics, biopharmaceutical, medical devices, production technology, automotive, office furniture and food processing.

These types of businesses are why the city is currently ranked No. 3 in the nation for economic growth, by the national Area Development Magazine, and ranked among the top 20 places to visit in the world, she said.

Bliss also brought up one of her passions.

“Food trucks are an example and symbol of an ever-growing, evolving, innovative economy and are a fast-growing component of our local economy,” she said. “To me, they represent the next world of entrepreneurs providing the city with a new way to understand culinary entrepreneurship, grow more small businesses and jobs, activate public space, increase consumer food choices and boost our exciting local culinary scene.”

She highlighted the city’s growing entertainment and arts scene, specifically mentioning the “Beer City USA” designation from USA Today.

“The absolute most important part is that all of this — all of the incredible things that been having happening in our city — have been and continue to be driven by people,” she said. “It’s people who are committed to be a part of a community and continue to be part of its success.”

DeVos took the stand to speak about the city’s business growth and public/private partnerships. He began by offering his only complaint about the local beer industry’s growth: it happened too late.

“Where was it when I was young, for Pete’s sake” he said, as the audience laughed.

DeVos shared a story about Grand Rapids’ favorite son: In 1976, the Secret Service refused to allow President Gerald R. Ford to walk up Monroe Avenue because there were too many abandoned buildings.

“President Ford, as you can imagine, is someone that our town loves dramatically. I think that may have been something that triggered people to say, ‘That’s enough. We’ve got to do something different,’” he said. “We were fortunate, I think, that there was a momentum created by a potentially negative incident that said ‘We want to be different. We’re not going to let our downtown and our community go in this direction.’”

A number of innovative projects born from the partnership of the DeVos and Van Andel families, co-founders of Amway, followed that moment. Public/private partnership helped build the city of Grand Rapids, DeVos said.

DeVos said business leaders were encouraged to give back to the community not just as some vague social responsibility, but by personally volunteering, sitting on local boards and encouraging employees to do the same.

“The idea of setting a goal and working to achieve it and working as partners to make it happen — I think that’s the biggest thing I can stress: that momentum,” he said. “The efforts by the people involved at that time created a culture that said, ‘we’re going to invest in our downtown. It’s our responsibility. And we all have a role to play.’”

Gaines spoke about the economic and social value ArtPrize has brought to the city. Only eight years old, the world’s largest public art event makes serious economic waves in the city. Gaines said last year ArtPrize tracked approximately 400,000 attendees and tallied about $27.5 million in net new direct economic impact in the city of Grand Rapids over 19 days.

At this point, ArtPrize is part of the city’s DNA, he said.

“I feel this is the golden age of America’s mid-size cities in many ways,” Gaines said. “Along with Grand Rapids, you see a lot of cities that are investing or re-investing in their downtown area as an essential element to make a city a great place to work and play. I’m really excited and energized to see that in Grand Rapids.”

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