Community Interest Above Self-Interest

The events of the past two weeks were unexpected but certainly anticipated. As the family of former President Gerald R. Ford bore his body home to his beloved city on the Grand, the impact of the life of a single individual was measured around the world, and most especially in this mid-size city struggling with its place in the New Economy. The stature of its most famous son still far overshadows that of the community he regarded as his hometown.

Since the world last looked in on Grand Rapids — in 1981 when the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum was dedicated — it has been said over and again that Ford provided Grand Rapids with its most significant economic impact.

Ford’s rise to President of the United States served as an alarm bell to the business leaders of this community. Former Ambassador to Italy Peter Secchia has often recalled that on the eve of Jimmy Carter’s defeat of Ford in 1976, as Ford prepared to visit home, it was painfully (he said “embarrassingly”) apparent that the urban core of the community needed attention, and a lot of work. Secchia recalls that the Secret Service nearly cancelled the parade through downtown because of the number of vacant and dilapidated buildings.

The revitalization of the 1970s included planning for the opening of the Ford Museum in 1981, also giving economic domino to one of the city’s largest renovations to date: that of the Pantlind Hotel and its metamorphosis into the Amway Grand Plaza. In a comparatively short time, other building initiatives followed: the Public Museum’s Van Andel Museum Center, the opening of Frederik Meijer Gardens, the Van Andel Arena, the Van Andel Institute, the Maya Lin installation, a $30 million renovation for the Grand Rapids Public Library and the DeVos Place Convention Center.

Even prior to those significant and transforming milestones, it was Congressman Ford who assisted in giving the community something to rally around: the first National Endowment for the Arts grant, provided for the sculpture created by Alexander Calder in 1969.

Dick DeVos, in April 2004, noted in sister publication Grand Rapids Magazine that the most significant aspect of this renaissance was the concept of public/private partnerships. “In many other communities, the private sector was viewed as something that funded what the public sector wanted to do. Yet in this community, we’ve really acknowledged that there is wisdom — in addition to resources — in the private sector.”

It is another aspect of Ford’s character, as eulogized last week. The public sector or rare private sector individual cannot attain what an entire group can accomplish given the teamwork of compromise and consensus, especially in a community of this size. It requires one to put community interest above self-interest.

Grand Rapids Business Journal this week reports on 10 projects initiated in 2006 that have the potential to spur continued or new long-term economic development in the metropolitan region.

The deliberation and selection of these “Newsmakers of the Year” have been determined the past 15 years on the same principles. It is a reflection of the community, as the community reflects its beloved Jerry Ford.    

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