Despite a year that brought the city double-digit unemployment, falling revenues, steep reductions in the work force, the closings of small businesses and a record number of home foreclosures, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell projected an optimistic future for the city and surrounding municipalities.
That optimistic future revolves around improving race relations, creating jobs, and furthering the sharing of municipal services that may even lead to a consolidation of governments throughout the county in the near future.
Heartwell, in his seventh year as the city’s top elected official, named five high school students — Walid Azim, Anthony Estrada, Elliot Keyes, KimAnh Nguyen and LaShone Williams — as this year’s Champions of Diversity who have agreed to work closely with him to enhance racial relationships.
“Over the next 12 months, I want to personally work with the five of you on a project of your choosing to improve race relations in our community. I want to learn from you; I want to share my experience with you. Together, I want us to do something lasting for diversity and inclusion in Grand Rapids,” he said, after introducing the young people to the diverse crowd at Saturday’s State-of-the-City breakfast.
Heartwell then announced a new jobs-partnering initiative called the Mayor’s Fifty. In it, he called for 50 local companies to hire at least one young worker on a part-time basis.
“The city will commit to pre-employment training through the 12-week LEAD program to give them work readiness and leadership skills. Further, through a grant for youth employment, we will pay up to 50 percent of the young workers’ wages to $8.50 per hour for the first eight months of employment,” he said, just days after PartnerAmerica honored him with its Small Business Advocate Award.
The mayor identified the first five young workers who will go through the initiative. “With only forty-five to go, I expect that we will meet our goal in no time,” he said, while adding that companies can join the effort at www.grcity.us/Mayor’s50
The most crucial element underlining the mayor’s optimism for the city’s future centers on intergovernmental cooperation, the kind of collaboration that will lead to a sharing of more public services and perhaps even a consolidation of all governmental units in the county.
Heartwell said the city was putting the finishing touches on a new partnering venture with the city of Wyoming that involves emergency dispatch for police and fire.
“Wyoming City Manager Curtis Holt took the lead in developing the metrics based on financial information provided by Grand Rapids. The resulting business model is sized to handle the needs of our two communities. Governance — just as it is in the bio-solids authority — is shared equally. The projected savings are significant: $1 million to the city of Grand Rapids and $500,000 to the city of Wyoming. One and one-half million dollars on a combined $7.5 million,” he said.
“The model is scalable so that other communities can be added. Most importantly, the model is transferable to other services.”
Heartwell said work has also begun on a second venture with Wyoming that could result in shared fire services, a new system that would be based on the dispatch model.
“This will take longer to develop but the indications are strong for this potential combination that will save precious resources and preserve critical services. Again, this model will be scalable to permit other communities to join. We are stronger and we are more efficient the more we partner with others,” he said.
When enough partnerships are created, Heartwell noted, those ventures could lead to some sort of governmental consolidation. Perhaps one, he said, would be the six largest cities in the county — Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Wyoming, Walker, Grandville and East Grand Rapids — coming together under one municipal umbrella. Possibly another would unite the cities, townships and Kent County under a larger public umbrella, which would make the new entity the 23rd largest city in the nation.
“It gives us political clout. It puts us on the radar screens of companies seeking new markets. It makes us eligible for federal grants for transportation, homeland security, education and a dozen other areas where currently we are simply too small to qualify,” said Heartwell.
“The most potent thing we could do that would have lasting economic impact on our region would be to consolidate governments. The most important thing we could do to contribute to the restoration of a strong Michigan economy would be to consolidate governments. The greatest gift we could leave for our grandchildren would be a consolidated government.”
Heartwell called for a new breed of citizen involvement that goes beyond voting and has residents rolling up their sleeves and taking initiatives at the neighborhood level. He pointed out that the neighborhood and civic organizations were already in place to support that new level of activity and could lead to a new level of unity.
“That is why we live in cities rather than hermitages in the woods. That is why we bind ourselves to this place and make it our own. That is why we care about what happens to our neighbor,” he said.
“Because our individual happiness is linked inextricably to the general prosperity, what happens to one — for good or for ill — affects us all and shapes the quality of life we live together.”