Mayor says much left to be done

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In her fifth state of the city address, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss touted the accomplishments of last year and brought to light the challenges that lie ahead.

Bliss began by lauding Grand Rapids for achieving realtor.com’s “hottest ZIP code” in America, which the Business Journal covered in an earlier report.

“With a booming real estate market, a growing economy and a strong sense of community, this isn’t just a ‘nice place’ to live. It’s the best place to live,” Bliss said.

Bliss said a significant part of the city’s success comes from strong relationships and partnerships, as well as collaboration among elected officials.

“While much of the politics outside Grand Rapids is divisive and divided, our West Michigan leadership works together,” Bliss said. “We don’t always agree, but we always keep in mind that we serve the same people.”

Grand Rapids had a lot of new developments to celebrate in 2019. Olsen Loeks Development opened the $160-million Studio Park in the heart of South Arena in September, along with the announcement that Acrisure will move its headquarters to Studio Park and bring hundreds of jobs to the city.

Orion Construction also completed the $55-million Warner Building at 150 Ottawa Ave. NW. The 15-story office tower is the new home of Warner Norcross + Judd LLP, Chemical Bank and Van Wyk Risk Solutions.

A team of community and business partners also broke ground around the end of the year on the Doug Meijer Medical Innovation Building. Partners include Rockford Construction, Walsh Construction/Walsh Investors, Murphy Development Group and Michigan State University.

Bliss added the city has taken steps to ensure it is an inclusive city, while recognizing there’s still a long way to go to get its house in order.

Bliss touted the Downtown Development Authority’s support of minority- and women-owned businesses with over $200,000 in grants, citing such businesses as Ambiance GR, Mosby’s Popcorn, Mel Styles, GR Noir, Oh, Hello Co. and Art Caribbean.

The Grand Rapids Economic Development Department also worked with more than 35 partners in the community to create an Equitable Economic Development and Mobility Strategic Plan. The plan was finalized last month and sets objectives to embed equity into every aspect of city work.

The city also finalized the Heartside Quality of Life Study and the approval of the Southtown Business Area Specific Plan.

“We are now seeing the benefit of that work with the activation of vacant space along Division, improvements in lighting and the addition of a public restroom that will be installed this year,” Bliss said.

“We have momentum, but we need to remain committed to becoming the exceptional community we aspire to be. My personal commitment is to work side by side with you — to make this city an even better home for families, businesses and neighborhoods.”

Recently the city announced a partnership with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the DDA on a Retail Retention and Recruitment Initiative, which includes the completion of a citywide market analysis and hiring a specialist who can focus specifically on this goal.

Bliss said the goal of this work is to support current small businesses and increase the number of new businesses — resulting in fewer vacant storefronts.

New businesses will be supported by a new business liaison who will help remove barriers when moving through the permit and approval process.

Each year the city supports neighborhood associations with roughly $600,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding, Bliss said. Last year, the city awarded more than $96,000 through the Neighborhood Match Fund to 46 creative neighborhood-driven projects.

“One powerful example is The Black Book Exchange House, a beautiful space for Black literature,” Bliss said. “The founder of this project wanted to build awareness of African-American culture and creativity. The match fund allowed us to do just that.”

Bliss added for neighborhoods to be truly strong, however, home ownership must be affordable.

Last year, Grand Rapids partnered with the Michigan Land Bank, KConnect and the Grand Rapids Chamber to tackle affordable housing.

The group launched a countywide housing analysis and will partner in 2020 with Housing Next, an organization that has a proven track record of advancing affordable housing efforts. Over the last two years the city added over 250 affordable housing units and another 800 are under construction or planned, Bliss said.

“But new businesses, better neighborhoods and more affordable housing doesn’t mean much if our homes are toxic,” Bliss added. “In 2019, we increased our focus on protecting children from lead poisoning. Too many children in Grand Rapids live in older homes that are not safe, with old windows covered with lead paint that when opened and closed creates toxic dust. We can and must do better.”

The city also partnered with Kent County, Well Design Studio and Ingalls Pictures on a lead poisoning public awareness and education campaign. The campaign will help inform more people about the dangers of lead poisoning and where to go for help.

The city also won a $4.2 million federal grant from HUD that now will be used to remediate lead in homes.

The city also moved forward on updating its human rights ordinance in 2019. The strengthened language in the ordinance expands and affirms protections for individuals against bias and discrimination, Bliss said.

“We continue to be a leader in our state in our commitment to civil rights, which is why I am also actively supporting the recent ballot initiative to expand Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the list of protected classes,” Bliss said.

The city welcomed its new police chief, Eric Payne, in 2019. Bliss said he has a strong commitment to building trust, improving community police relations, working in partnership with community and embedding community policing throughout the department.

As Grand Rapids experiences positive growth and development, it also saw the number of people experiencing homelessness in Kent County grow by 16% between 2016 and 2018, Bliss said, but there also was a 9% reduction in single adults experiencing homelessness.

“The unacceptable news is that we saw a 47% increase in the number of families coming into the homeless system and reaching out for help,” Bliss said.

In 2018, there were 10,538 people in Kent County in the homeless system. Nearly 6,500, or over 60%, are children and families. For many families, services were not available, which left them sleeping in cars or desperately looking for a safe place to sleep.

“To put these numbers in perspective, there are nearly as many children in the homeless system as the number of third graders in the county who are proficient in reading,” Bliss said. “And overall, there are over twice the number of people in the homeless system in our county than high school graduates who enroll in college.”

Grand Rapids, along with KConnect and other community stakeholders, has worked to identify root causes of homelessness, analyzing data illuminating racial disparities and implications for children and families and compiled research on best practices from communities throughout the country, she said.

“This year we hope to create a homeless outreach team that will include individuals specially trained from our police, fire and community development departments with a mission to more effectively respond to those struggling with mental health or substance abuse,” Bliss said.

In addressing issues of sustainability, Bliss praised former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and others for making Grand Rapids a leader in environmental sustainability and innovation.

“Our city proudly ranks fourth in the nation in the number of LEED-certified projects and we have more LEED buildings per capita than any community in the country,” Bliss said.

Grand Rapids in 2018 began converting downtown shuttles and Rapid buses from diesel to cleaner compressed natural gas. The May Mobility autonomous shuttle initiative launched last summer uses electric vehicles and has had over 50,000 passengers.

This year the city will finish building a biodigester that will convert waste to renewable natural gas.

“We hold firm to our goal of getting to 100% renewable energy for city facilities by 2025,” Bliss said. “And we will work on converting over 18,000 streetlights to LED lights.”

As in the previous year, Bliss closed her address by drawing attention to the fast approaching 2020 census.

“This upcoming census is vitally important for our city. The more people who stand up to be counted, the more leverage we have in Lansing and Washington to protect and improve Grand Rapids,” Bliss said.

“As you can see — we’ve accomplished a lot together. And there is a lot more to do. And we will do it together. I couldn’t be more proud to hold this position and serve the people of Grand Rapids.”

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