Dixie lands another big one


    The World Affairs Council of Western Michigan, led by Dixie Anderson, is known for bringing world leaders to Grand Rapids. They’ve done it again, with the announcement that Vicente Fox will be speaking at the Council’s 63rd Anniversary Dinner in October at the JW Marriott.

    Fox, of course, was the president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006. His election was a historic event in itself, because he is a member of the National Action Party, and his victory ended 71 straight years of the PRI — the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which translates as Institutional Revolutionary Party — winning the presidency. (Mexican presidents are only allowed to serve one six-year term.)

    Fox was in the news again this summer after Enrique Peña Nieto, from the PRI party, was elected. Fox was criticized by members of his own political party and others opposed to the PRI for suggesting that President-elect Peña Nieto be given the opportunity to make much-needed reforms. Some, however, may see Fox’s remarks as reaching out in a spirit of bipartisanship.

    “This is a particularly important time for President Fox to visit us, just a month before our own presidential election,” said Anderson.

    “Immigration, border security and illegal trafficking of drugs are critical issues and surely will be addressed by both President Obama and Mr. Romney. We can expect President Fox to have strong views on these topics, and people will find his remarks candid and provocative.” 

    Since leaving office, President Fox has been involved in public speaking and in the development of Centro Fox, his presidential library. The center is for the advancement and study of democracy and leadership that encourages a sense of commitment and solidarity among the Mexican population, in support of the underprivileged and for those who have not enjoyed the benefits of development.

    In his book, “Revolution of Hope: The Life, Faith and Dreams of a Mexican President,” Fox outlines a new vision of hope for the future of the Americas.

    Other former world leaders brought to Grand Rapids by the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan include the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf; former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak; former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson; and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

    Incidentally, Ferris State University will underwrite the 63rd anniversary dinner, as it did last year when Gov. Rick Snyder was the speaker.

    FSU just created a Center for Latino Studies to provide its students with educational, social engagement and leadership development opportunities with the growing and vibrant Latino community throughout West Michigan. The center’s Advisory Board includes Carlos Sanchez of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Jose Reyna, fiscal services manager for the city of Grand Rapids, Stacy Stout of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan in Grand Rapids, and Roberto Jara of Latin Americans United for Progress in Holland.

    Destination GR

    Experience Grand Rapids President Doug Small had plenty of good news for Kent County Commissioners last week. “We’ve had fabulous growth in the last three years,” said Small. “It’s also our charge to drive leisure visitors here. This destination was always marketed heavily as a convention destination, but we’re marketing to the leisure market.”

    The biggest recipient of that change is the county’s lodging industry. Last year, hotel revenue grew by 12.3 percent to $114 million — the highest it has ever been. Revenue growth here topped that of Michigan and the nation as a whole, which rose by 9.7 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively. But hotel revenue didn’t only grow last year. It also went up in 2010 to $103 million from $93 million in 2009.

    When revenue rises, occupancy usually goes up, too, and it did last year when the rate went to 57.5 percent. That growth, too, wasn’t a one-year blip. In 2009, the occupancy rate was a dismal 48.8 percent, but the following year, it jumped to 53.9 percent.

    Small told commissioners that through June of this year, the occupancy rate was 58.7 percent. He also mentioned the local lodging industry has never reached the coveted 60 percent mark, but with the way things are going, it might do that soon. “We’re projecting we’ll end the year up 9 percent from last year and we should reach $124 million,” he said of hotel revenue. “We’re hoping to increase that by 3 percent next year.”

    Small said an industry analyst told him that Grand Rapids is outpacing every market of its size in hotel traffic. He said an executive with Amway Hotel Corp. told him that last month was the best occupancy month in the history of the three downtown hotels it manages. Amway owns the Grand Plaza and JW Marriot hotels and operates The Courtyard by Marriott.

    But Small didn’t discount the convention business his team, led by Executive Vice President George Helmstead, has booked. He said the sales crew hosted 168 clients here, captured over 125,000 room nights, met with 136 clients nationwide, and attended 24 trade shows in North America. That effort resulted in more than $100 million in direct convention spending here last year. “Once we get them here (for a visit), we close (the deal) about 40 percent of the time,” he said.

    When a few commissioners pointed out that the downtown hotels reap the bulk of the rewards, Small said, “Everything we do is to represent Kent County. I don’t mean to be flip, but I don’t care where they stay as long as they stay in Kent County. Our job is not to steer the business anywhere.”

    Ed Wilson, who manages the suburban Country Inn & Suites and chairs the Experience GR Executive Committee, added, “The suburban hotels have more total hotel rooms than downtown and they can’t do anything without us.” Wilson, who is also on the hotel advisory group for the Kent County Lodging Association, said business was up by 10 percent this year.

    Small said his organization has a program called Four Corners, which offers grants to the county’s outlying hotels that operators can use for marketing purposes. “We’re trying to develop new marketing opportunities. Regular and business travelers that can’t stay downtown go to the suburbs, and then the suburbs can raise their rates,” he said. “We’re almost like a broker. We don’t get involved with rates.”

    The name change from Kent County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to a destination marketer (Experience Grand Rapids) has been driven by Vice President Janet Korn, who specializes in that area. Korn has fully embraced the virtual world, social media and more-traditional advertising and marketing means to do that. Small said visits to the group’s website were up by 46 percent over the previous year and have more than 6,000 Twitter followers and 13,500 Face Book friends.

    Don’t say small, say boutique

    A news release came in the other day announcing that a “boutique business law firm” has been launched in Norton Shores.

    Gielow Groom Terpstra & McEvoy actually set up shop back in April in the Michigan Commerce Bank Building near the intersection of Seminole Road and Seaway Drive.

    Attorneys Eric Gielow, Brad Groom, Rachel Terpstra and Keith McEvoy all have business backgrounds with years of hands-on experience in owning or operating private sector businesses, according to the release.

    The firm concentrates on representation of businesses, business owners and entrepreneurs.

    The firm said in its release that to be competitive in today’s economy, a law firm must be able to provide high-quality service in a timely manner, at an affordable price, so Gielow Groom Terpstra & McEvoy has been structured with systems and staffing approaches consistent with a lean model approach, as used in the manufacturing industry.

    Each member of the firm has a specialty: Gielow is the environmental expert; Groom has more than 30 years of trial experience; Terpstra focuses on family law and domestic relations; and McEvoy concentrates on corporate, real estate and liquor law.

    “We know the market has changed dramatically and clients are demanding rapid turn-around on legal projects without breaking the budget. Our small size allows for more personal attention and competitive pricing,” said Gielow.

    The firm is paperless, too, or at least that’s the goal. Document delivery is via electronic means, all files are maintained in an electronic format, and client invoices and statements are e-mailed.

    The talent pool

    It looks like Grand Rapids does have talent and the cream of the local crop will be doing their thing on Saturday at the Civic Theatre when the Arena District, a coalition of downtown businesses, presents the finalists of its talent search.

    Finalists in the youth division will perform from 2-4:30 p.m. and their older counterparts in the adult division will take to the Division Avenue stage at 7 p.m. Performers will compete for cash prizes, with the winners in each division receiving $1,000.

    Ticket information is at grsgottalent.com.

    Lighting up the charity

    The Grand Rapids Griffins lit the lamp more than 300,000 times last season.

    Kyle Kujawa, of the team’s communications department, reported the franchise raised nearly $330,000 during the most recent campaign for charities. That charitable-revenue total was more than 10 percent of the $3 million the entire American Hockey League, which has 30 teams, raised last season.

    The Griffins Youth Foundation was the biggest beneficiary, netting a little more than $100,000 from three off-ice events. The most profitable on-ice event for area charities last season was the Throw for Dough where fans raised $54,500 by airing it out.

    Over the last decade, Kujawa said the Griffins have raised $3.1 million for local charities.

    Got an itch?

    If your eyes have been itchy and your nose has been runny no matter where you’ve traveled in the state, and you don’t understand why, the following might explain it.

    The Natural Resources Defense Council reported last week that Michigan was seventh of all 50 states in the amount of toxins released into the air from coal-fired nuclear plants. The council also found that the state stood in the 10th spot for the most mercury air pollution from power plants.

    The most toxic state on the list? Kentucky — followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia and Florida. Then came Michigan.

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