What Makes Grand Rapids So Grand?

The Michigan city is rebounding, and its secret to success includes partnerships and a regional agenda.
by | March 28, 2013
 

Like many of its neighbors, Grand Rapids, Mich., was once a robust manufacturing center. At its height, the city was known as the "furniture capital of the world." Also like many of its neighbors, Grand Rapids started struggling in the 1970s as factories shut down and residents moved away. Today, however, the city is "resurgent."

Grand Rapids earned the accolade in a 2009 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which looked at 25 mid-sized manufacturing cities to find out why some were growing economically, socially and demographically, and others were not. So how did the second largest city in Michigan become resurgent?

For Kara Wood, the city's economic development director, the recipe for success is simple. "It's our public-private partnerships," she says. "We don't do anything without a partnership."

One of those partnerships is Grand Action, a nonprofit organization of public- and private-sector leaders who work together to identify downtown revitalization projects worthy of support and development. The Downtown Market is just one such project. The new state-of-the-art center for culinary arts and fresh local foods, housed in a $30 million, 130,000-square-foot brick and glass building, is expected to attract 500,000 visitors annually.

Another, perhaps more significant project is one that will turn the former "furniture capital" into a magnet for the health-care industry. Grand Rapids has created what's known as the "Medical Mile," a designated area in the downtown district that has become a major hub of medical research, education and services.

The key to Grand Action's success is its savvy group of leaders, which include public officials and philanthropists like David Frey, chairman of the Frey Foundation. Robin Boyle, professor of urban planning at Wayne State University, says the leadership behind the public-private partnerships in Grand Rapids "has played an incredibly broad role in galvanizing the political center and the community into addressing the problems in the downtown and helping to revitalize it." Their work has led to more residential development in the downtown area as well.

In addition to public-private partnerships, Grand Rapids' success can also be credited to its having a regional agenda when it comes to development projects. Eric DeLong, deputy city manager, ticks off a list of reasons why the city has rebounded, and engaging the community throughout the region is near the top. "We're good at planning," says DeLong. "We do it differently by engaging the neighborhood and the region."

Many cities flounder because they don't build coalitions with their richer suburbs. Most mid-tiered cities are home to a region's poorest populations while middle-class families live out in the suburbs. Developing a regional coalition of city and suburban municipalities can go a long way towards addressing deep-seated economic challenges, and Grand Rapids has done that, according to Boyle.

Grand Rapids has also learned the art of self-promotion and is not afraid to tout its success. It has created a nonprofit organization called the Right Place that does a good job promoting the region as well as the central city.

While Grand Rapids is resurgent, the city does face a few challenges. It's workforce is still based around manufacturing, which means most workers are under-skilled and have no more than a high school education. The good news is that city leaders "know that's a problem and they are trying to address it," says Boyle.

The lesson Grand Rapids offers is simple: With a well-thought-out regional plan and the right leadership, partnerships, talent and resources, gritty cities can gleam once again.

New & Noteworthy: The Urban Land Institute and the American Planning Association have just published Pedestrian & Transit-Oriented Design, a nicely illustrated guide to designing public places to accommodate the needs of pedestrians and transit users. Written by Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew, experts on pedestrian design and planning, the book is organized around checklists of 28 features that should be considered when planning for pedestrians. The authors use photographs and illustrations to show the right and wrong ways that cities have planned sidewalks, street crossings and transit stops, as well as the overall streetscape.

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