GRAND RAPIDS — Seven seats were reserved, but just two were filled.
Only Mayor George Heartwell and 2nd Ward Commissioner Lynn Rabaut attended the meeting the Neighborhood Business Alliance (NBA) held last week — and holds each year — for members of the City Commission.
So it was just Heartwell and Rabaut who heard about the alliance’s current successes and ongoing projects, along with a dozen or so personal pleas to keep city funds streaming to the NBA and its Neighborhood Business Specialist Program (NBSP).
At stake is $150,000 in city funds that come from a dwindling pot. It’s enough money to give the NBSP another year to serve the city’s 20 neighborhood business districts and maybe enough time to find another revenue source.
But right now, those city dollars haven’t been designated to the NBA. Another group, known as NED — Neighborhood Economic Development — also is hoping to have some of that money sent its way.
NED is a relatively new organization that has merged business and residential interests under one umbrella. In contrast, the NBA has been around for 23 years — the last 15 it has been affiliated with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The chamber really values this partnership and we want to see it continue,” said Jeanne Englehart, GRACC president.
The chamber supports NBSP financially to the tune of $58,000 each year.
“If our businesses are not healthy, we’re not going to be able to grow the community. We want commissioners to continue funding, until they can come up with something better,” she said.
In past years, the city has awarded NBSP $200,000, money that comes from federal development grants. But it’s unlikely commissioners can award the nonprofit agency that much for next year, unless another source of revenue is found.
NBA Vice President Kelly Wolthuis told Heartwell and Rabaut that NBSP had leveraged the $200,000 the city gave the group into $1.6 million, money that was used to help develop business districts through marketing programs, façade grants and beautification projects.
“It would cost the city much more (to do the same) if the NBSP wasn’t around,” said Wolthuis.
NBSP Executive Director Kimberly Van Dyk said it would cost the city at least $200,000 each year just to try to solve the problems that pop up, let alone make any real development progress.
“This is one of the best development tools we’ve ever had,” Jim Zawacki, owner of Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping, said of NBSP.
“We have to keep it going. It’s a valuable investment,” added Ed De Vries, owner of Ed De Vries Properties.
Heartwell told the audience that he knew how significant the NBSP has been to the city and that the contributions the agency has made have been remarkable. Rabaut, who has attended every annual meeting during her two terms, said the NBA needs to get its message across to all commissioners and encouraged the alliance to address them soon.
City commissioners begin working on the fiscal year 2006 budget this week, and must have one in place by July 1.
“The NBSP is not fighting to save itself, but to save the business districts,” said Leigh Vander Molen, owner of the Kava House and past NBA president. “We are a sweat-equity program. We don’t chase money. We’re just a bunch of volunteers that are just trying to help the city.”