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The Next 40
By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck

The making of bold predictions is not the type of behavior in which the steadfast leadership of one of the bastions of midwestern conservatism might typically participate.

On the occasion of Grand Rapids Magazine’s 40th anniversary, however, several community leaders made exceptions.

GEORGE HEARTWELL SPENT a good portion of the last year outlining his vision of the city’s future for voters. Since his swearing in as mayor in December 2003, Heartwell has kept the future on the agenda.

In his three-part state of the city address delivered earlier this year, the mayor spoke about his hopes for Grand Rapids Public Schools, public transportation, regional cooperation, downtown development, new-economy jobs and the creative class of workers who will keep Grand Rapids moving forward through the next 40 years and beyond.

A recent interview with Grand Rapids Magazine allowed Heartwell to further articulate those hopes. “I’m personally convinced that the driving industries in the future are going to be health care and higher education — I guess what Dr. Richard Florida calls the ‘knowledge industries,’” Heartwell said.

“ We need to turn up the heat a bit and move more rapidly,” he implored. “Every city in the country is reading Richard Florida. We haven’t got a corner on it here in Grand Rapids.”

David Frey, former chairman of Union Bank & Trust Co., agreed.

“ I think our biggest challenge in the years ahead is going to be restructuring our economic base,” Frey posited. “Clearly our concentration of manufacturing jobs will probably not return to the level we experienced in the 1990s, so I think we have to work very hard at creating new industries, whether they’re biotechnology, life sciences corridor …”

When community leaders talk about the future of life sciences in Grand Rapids, the discussion inevitably turns to the possible relocation of Michigan State University Medical School from East Lansing to Grand Rapids. Michigan State alumnus and local business leader Peter Secchia cited “getting a medical school in this town” as the biggest challenge facing Grand Rapids in the next 40 years. Frey expanded on the opportunities such a move would create.

“ It would encourage tremendous cooperation and interaction in medical research and the biotechnology fields,” Frey said. “It would be a huge deal.”

Another huge deal for life sciences in the city, the Van Andel Institute, will become an even bigger deal during the next 40 years, according to immediate past mayor John Logie.

“ By 2044, the Van Andel Institute will have built out the already-designed and planned 260,000-square-foot addition to its existing 130,000 square feet of operational space,” he predicted. “And it is likely that in terms of funding, it will have become the second largest medical research institute in the world.

“ In that mode and in that status, it will have attracted a whole new cadre of medical-related industries.”

IN TERMS OF attracting new-economy jobs, economic development guru Dr. Richard Florida has advised cities to create the neighborhoods where a creative work force wants to live, the theory being that business will follow them. While Heartwell is not entirely sold (“I think it goes both ways,” he said), he concedes that Florida’s “cool city” concept has a place in Grand Rapids’ future.

“ We’re moving ahead to create the opportunities that will attract (the creative class),” Heartwell said. “At the same time, we’re also inching ahead toward those kinds of neighborhoods. Downtown recreation — we’re moving ahead on that front as well.”

But how “cool” will Grand Rapids really become in the next 40 years?

In 1995, then-mayor John Logie challenged Grand Rapids to create 5,000 new downtown residential units by 2005. Logie’s 10-year run-up may prove to have been a bit ambitious (he estimates about 3,000 have been created to date), but he is confident that Grand Rapids will surpass that mark in the not-too-distant future.

Logie also predicted that expanded downtown residential development would act as a catalyst for expanded downtown retail development. “When I came back to Grand Rapids in the 1960s to start practicing law at Warner Norcross & Judd, downtown had a full-service pharmacy, a full-service good book store, a full service food market and several movie theaters,” he explained. “We will know long before we get to 2044 that we have indeed crossed the Rubicon and downtown is fully back, because we will … see the reestablishments of all four of those in downtown.”

The last decade has already witnessed the re-establishment of downtown as an entertainment destination. And Grand Action co-chairman Dick DeVos expects great things in the future. “The entertainment district is going to start to become another one of the features of Grand Rapids: an exciting, an energized downtown entertainment section that will have a vitality of its own to be supplemented by events in the arena, and not driven by them,” he said.

Neither DeVos nor fellow Grand Action co-chairman, retired chairman of Old Kent Financial John Canepa, would predict whether a downtown amphitheater would be added to the mix in the downtown entertainment district.

“ Many of us think an amphitheater could be a very nice addition to the community, but view it as being even more valuable if it can be done in a way that’s synergistic with the existing entertainment alternatives,” DeVos stated diplomatically.

“ That’s one of a number of things that have floated to the surface,” Canepa added. “However, I think it’s still very much in the embryonic stage.”

FROM HIS SEAT on the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce regional issues committee, West Michigan Whitecaps owner Lew Chamberlain links all current and future “cool city” initiatives to one constant theme: a commitment to improving the quality of life in Grand Rapids.

“ The idea that this needs to become a better community that offers more to its citizens and to its visitors is what’s been driving the development that’s been going on in this community for quite a long time,” Chamberlain said. But quality of life goes beyond concert venues and restaurants. “Fundamentally, you’re talking about safety and schools,” he added.

It makes sense.

George Heartwell: “Nobody wants to move to Grand Rapids and bring their families here to the new knowledge industry jobs if they don’t know that there are good schools waiting for them when they get here.” Heartwell called on the corporate sector, higher education and city government to help brace Grand Rapids Public Schools for the future.

Former Michigan Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus concurred, but for more practical reasons.

“ For young people to be prepared for the jobs for tomorrow, it will no longer be adequate to have just a high school education. We’re seeing that already today. A high school education is no longer enough.”

According to Posthumus, it all has to start with “getting serious about how we provide good public education for our urban communities.”

He explained: “Clearly the Grand Rapids community has some of the same challenges that some of the other urban-based school districts have … We can’t leave those kids behind.”

EDUCATION AND CHILD advocacy are core concerns for Mary Alice Williams, not only in the future, but also in the present. Williams is the president and CEO of Arbor Circle, a Grand Rapids-based health and human services organization.

Expanding her focus more broadly, Williams observed another cause she’d like to see West Michigan take up in the coming years: regionalism.

“ I think that there’s a growing sense on the part of people who think about it that we can’t live isolated in our own little silos anymore,” Williams opined. “There are environmental issues, there are water issues, there are public infrastructure issues — the roads, the water and sewer amenities, even maybe public safety — that we will have to work collaboratively to solve.”

While other community leaders see Williams’ point, they are split into two camps about how the West Michigan region will come together.

“ I would like to see what happened in Indianapolis happen here through some mechanism,” John Canepa said, representing one side. “Indianapolis is a bubbling city today and the reason is that it went through this process of integration with the surrounding communities. And the efficiencies it creates! No longer do you have duplicated police departments, fire departments …”

That’s the good news. The bad news is obvious: There are serious political barriers to overcome.

“ The Grand Rapids of 2044 will still be, in my opinion, a multi-jurisdictional community,” John Logie said, representing the other side. “I do not predict that what has happened in Indianapolis, Charlotte, Jacksonville and most recently Louisville will occur here, even in the next 40 years.”

Logie continued, “I don’t believe that given the make-up of our local units of government here that we’re going to get there. On the other hand, I do believe that … a ‘metropolitan rebate system’ will be fully in place and will help us with the costs of government.”

Logie’s metropolitan rebate system would allow metropolitan areas to voluntarily opt into a program to consolidate services. As Logie pointed out, some services such as transportation already have been consolidated through the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP), an organization for which he has high hopes in the coming decades.

With population estimates of well over one million people in Kent County and eastern Ottawa County by the time this magazine celebrates its 80th anniversary, ITP certainly has an opportunity to make an impact.

"Somewhere around 2015, metropolitan light rail transit service will have become operational, so it will have had almost 30 years of operations and expansions during that time … to ameliorate some of what would otherwise be the worst conditions of both sprawl and gridlock,” Logie predicted.

IT TAKES A lot of vision to grasp how Grand Rapids will respond to current and future challenges. And it will take a lot of effort to see it through.

Is it worth it? Peter Wege thinks so.

“ I think that Grand Rapids is a remarkable city,” Wege told Grand Rapids Magazine. “I’ve been all over the world, and I come back to Grand Rapids and I breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘This has got to be the place that you should put your mind and body and spirit into and get some things done.’”

Here’s hoping visionary leaders in Grand Rapids will continue saying that for the next 40 years and beyond. GR

Curt Wozniak is the staff writer for Grand Rapids Magazine.

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