Mayor George Heartwell focused on three key areas Saturday morning during his last state of the city speech: equity, talent attraction and sustainability. He noted while the impulse is to look backward — “listing off accomplishments” and “savoring the successes” — he would continue to look forward.
In an interview with the Business Journal based on his speech, Heartwell emphasized the importance of ensuring equity, particularly racial equity, in Grand Rapids. “What we share is a vision for an inclusive community in which no distinction of race or ethnicity, no division of youth and age, no separation of disabled and abled, no difference of gender or gender orientation, and no variety of faith practiced put any one group of people in a disadvantaged place vis-à-vis any other group. That is our vision and, to the extent that we still fall short of achieving that vision, it remains our central challenge as a people living in this time and place.” He then cited four individuals for their long advocacy for the disabled: Rae Bower, Joanne Reeves, Dave Bulkowski and Dr. Christopher Smit.
Heartwell noted the cataclysmic events across the nation that led to protests and calls for action throughout the country, including Grand Rapids.
“Following the Ferguson grand jury verdict and again following the New York grand jury verdict, there was peaceful protest here,” Heartwell said. “Racial justice organizations like the NAACP and the Grand Rapids Urban League, along with community development organizations like LINC, sprang into action. The city manager, police chief and I immediately convened leaders from across the community to discuss next steps.”
Following much discussion in December, policy recommendations regarding police and community interactions were presented to city commissioners this past week.
“The recommendations are responsive to the concerns we heard from the community and, if adopted by the city commission, will implement 12 new policy initiatives including the use of body cameras on police officers, review of hiring practices, reorganization of the department to enable Chief (David) Rahinsky and his captains to spend more time in the community listening and building relationships.
The mayor made clear his support of the recommendations, and commended the Grand Rapids Police Department for the great work it has done and its commitment to justice.
Next on his agenda for 2015 is increasing the city’s talent attraction through a number of programs and initiatives.
Heartwell said he plans to move forward on three of the 10 recommendations presented to city commissioners in December by a group of 12 Grand Valley State University students who had been enlisted to study issues of talent attraction and retention.
The first is the development of a mobile app to help college students connect with the greater Grand Rapids community. The app will offer a connection to existing city guides, electronic forums, transportation options, restaurants, stores, attractions, festivals and performances.
“This is a recommendation we can begin working on immediately,” Heartwell said. “During the fall of 2015, a group of five students from the Information Systems Project Capstone class will be assigned to develop this app.”
The second project is to form a Millennial Advisory Board, made up of representatives from the area’s young professional organizations as well as colleges and universities. Heartwell expects the board to begin meeting regularly this year.
Finally, Heartwell announced his previous initiative, the Mayor’s 50, will become the Mayor’s 100, to increase student internship opportunities.
“In response to the students’ recommendation we are expanding the Mayor’s 50 program to the Mayor’s 100, and we are including additional options,” he said. “Up to now, Mayor’s 50 businesses have offered six-month work experiences for youth ages 15-21 who have successfully completed our LEAD training program. I want to thank these awesome businesses. You have helped young people on career paths giving them direction and valuable experience. I am now calling on 50 more businesses — particularly those in technology, engineering, sciences and environmental fields, to offer summer paid internships so that young people can better understand the job market that exists, the careers they can aspire to, and the educational requirements needed.”
In his 11 years in office, the mayor’s commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility has been recognized nationally, most recently in Governing magazine and Green?Building and Design magazine. He also serves on the White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.
Heartwell noted the city would continue its efforts to install renewable energy solutions on municipal infrastructure, will embark this year on a conversion of the city street lamp system to LED-style fixtures, and is expecting to see the Butterworth Acres Solar Initiative and the bio-digester project at the Waste Water Treatment Plant move forward.
He said the city could not go it alone when it comes to sustainability and called for businesses and residents to get involved, promising the city commission would consider changes to its 2007 zoning ordinance that might help reduce any remaining barriers that “make it difficult or impossible for a home or business owner to install distributed generation.”
Heartwell’s main effort, however, is his plan to lead the community in a climate change challenge to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in Grand Rapids by 20 percent in 2030 as compared to 2009 levels.
“I am asking city staff and my city commission colleagues to join me in a bold partnership with the private sector to push forward renewable energy and energy efficiency practices across all sectors of our community,” he said. “This will be an effort joined by business, local government, institutions and homeowners.
“The city will lead the way by incorporating in our Sustainability Plan the work of resiliency outlined in the 32 recommendations of our Climate Resiliency Report, prepared in partnership with West Michigan Environmental Action Council and Grand Valley State University.
“Even now the municipal Office of Energy and Sustainability is partnering with the Institute for Energy Innovation, the West Michigan Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and a broad range of private sector leaders to create the Grand Rapids 2030 Energy District Challenge, a high performance building efficiency district. As an immediate follow-up to today’s announcement the Institute for Energy Innovation and the city are convening building owners and managers in the Rockford Construction LEED Platinum offices to launch this initiative.”
His final goal was a call for support from the city commission to place a moratorium on extracting natural gas within the city limits using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
He said a moratorium would give the commissioners time “to put good policy in place to address the health risks associated with fracking.”
Heartwell concluded saying he sees a “bright future ahead” for Grand Rapids.
“I am an optimist,” he said. “And that means that I am confident that the electors of Grand Rapids will put in office smart, dedicated and hard-working people to fill our shoes. And I am equally confident that, with the time remaining, this commission will accomplish amazing things.”