Spectrum leader touts Grand Rapids at World Leisure Congress


The city of Grand Rapids made a global debut at an international conference last week where academic professionals, policymakers and business leaders in the industries of leisure, tourism and recreation gathered for the first time in the United States.

The World Leisure Organization, an international nonprofit, hosted its biannual 2014 World Leisure Congress conference Sept. 7-12 at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center in Mobile, Ala., and highlighted Grand Rapids as a “livable city.”

The 2014 World Leisure Congress is an event promoting the research and development of building social, cultural, economic and sustainable communities and nations, which contribute to the health and wellness of its residents.

Members of the global association and interested professionals gather every two years to share best practices and learn from each other’s expertise in specialty fields such as: tourism, parks and recreation services, arts and culture, sports and exercise, environmental studies, health promotion and wellness, and children and youth.

As part of the closing day’s theme of “Building a Livable City,” Steve Heacock, senior vice president of public affairs at Spectrum Health, was scheduled to discuss how Grand Rapids’ collaborative partnerships between the private sector and governmental agencies, entrepreneurship and philanthropy are driving forces behind the community’s success.

Heacock spoke with the Business Journal last week, prior to his scheduled presentation.

After spending some time introducing Grand Rapids to the audience, Heacock said he would delve into how the collaborative nature of business leaders and community members make projects such as ArtPrize, Van Andel Arena, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park and Downtown Market possible.

“I am going to spend some time on how did this happen, why is this true here, and how is it that we have been able to create such a phenomenal community really for a relatively small city,” said Heacock.

“This is a place where a renowned heart transplant surgeon has done over 30 heart transplants here in this city of 200,000 people. I mean it really is remarkable when you start looking at our community objectively, as these folks will, from the outside.”

Heacock’s presentation also focused on growth areas in Grand Rapids, such as: increase in the housing market for millennials, jobs, lower crime rate, entrepreneurial hub, quality of life and the emergence of downtown.

“I am going to pitch at some length the collaborative nature of this community and how, in fact business leaders and community leaders sit in the same room and choose to make this town better,” said Heacock.

“I really think it is about this community encouraging and not stifling innovative ideas from the private sector as well as government. Here there is a lot of action that goes on outside of government that then works with a cooperative government to get it done.”

Beginning the “Building a Livable City” theme was a keynote address from Andres Duany, founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism. The attendees also heard from leaders Dr. Song Rui, director of Tourism Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in China; Charmaine Crooks, the five-time Olympian president and founder of NGU Consultants based in Canada; Dr. Ulrich Reinhardt, scientific head of BAT-Foundation for Future Studies in Germany; and Dr. David Edgell, research scholar and professor of tourism at East Carolina University.

With individuals gathering from around the world to talk about improving and enhancing the human condition, particularly within cities, Heacock said the recognition of Grand Rapids on this global scale is amazing.

“We really do play above our weight class,” said Heacock. “We really are something special, and it is kind of fun to have this group of academics and others who study these things pull us out of the thousands of other cities around the world as an example of a particularly livable city that is doing the right things as it moves forward, to not only stay livable but also become more livable.”

The Alabama-hosted international conference launched on Sunday, Sept. 7, with speakers and presenters focusing on the topic of health and wellness. Throughout the week, educators, researchers, professionals and governmental officials from different regions in the world explored issues related to topics such as: arts, culture, sports and recreation, economic development, environmental stewardship and emerging technologies.

Several of the other keynote speakers and presenters who spoke during the event were Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, 18th Surgeon General of the United States; Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Travel Association; Celine Cousteau, founder and executive director of CauseCentric Productions; Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria; and Ed Hall, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Department of Interior.

The World Leisure Organization was founded in 1952 as an international, non-governmental association of various individuals and organizations supporting leisure as integral to improving quality of life. The 20-member governing board has international representation from Canada, Brazil, the United States, United Kingdom, Hungary, New Zealand, Romania, Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Hong Kong, Australia, Spain, Chinese Taipei and the People’s Republic of China.

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