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Strength in Numbers

By Curt Wozniak

Grand Rapids Magazine’s Metro and School Rankings provide informative snapshots of what makes each West Michigan community stand apart. Yet the big picture — and the region’s future viability — may depend more on how those communities come together.

When Janice Westlove was growing up in Traverse City, she used to look forward to her family’s regular shopping trips to Grand Rapids.

“ It used to be the big city for us,” Westlove recalled.

However, when this former after-market sales manager for Ford Motor Co. in Chicago decided to leave that big city, move back to Michigan and open up a resale shop, she landed along M-21 a few miles east from this big city.

“ Even though I believe that Grand Rapids is an incredible city, the areas within the city where I looked into setting up business just didn’t suit me,” Westlove explained. “Of all the places that I researched in the Grand Rapids area, I thought Ada was the best, based on the demographics and the stability of the economy.”

We must have been looking at the same statistics.

West love concluded that Ada is a great place to do business. Our 2006 Metro Rankings placed Ada Township/Forest Hills Public Schools on top of the list of the best places to live in the metropolitan Grand Rapids area. By the numbers, this segment of Kent County boasts the top-ranked school district; the highest average home sale price; the third-highest percentage of owner-occupied housing; the third-highest voter turnout; the fifth-lowest average commute time; and relatively low crime rates.

Grand Rapids Magazine staff has painstakingly gathered data on the 29 public school districts and 36 cities, townships and villages that make up our survey area. (See pages 50-55.) Our evaluation system reflects the timeless values residents of West Michigan have historically weighed when deciding where to live in the region.

After collecting data on the school districts that serve all parts of Kent County, as well as the city of Grand Rapids’ western ring of suburbs that extends into Ottawa County, we assigned final rankings (1 to 29) based on student performance, school environment, funding and community-wide commitment to education. Further, we assigned final rankings (1 to 97) to each cross section of school districts and municipalities after factoring in each community’s home values, percentage of owner-occupied housing, commitment to diversity, access to parks, safe streets, state of environmental contamination, proximity to centers of employment, and level of civic involvement.

As the region continues to grow, municipalities and school districts have had to take proactive steps to preserve what their residents value. At the same time, social movements such as regionalism and new urbanism, which are deeply rooted elsewhere in the country, also have taken hold here, impacting the way communities plan for growth and leverage their future sustainability.

PRESERVING VALUES
According to Ada Township supervisor George Haga, Ada’s desirability as a place to live has as much to do with its rural character as its location within the Forest Hills school district. Recently, the township has undertaken an overhaul of its Master Plan, setting up zoning districts designed to help Ada preserve that character.

 

“ Buildings are going to be built,” Haga told Grand Rapids Magazine. “But if we can do it in a framework, clustering under a planned-unit-development process where we can look at how certain developments are built, that’s important to maintain that character.”

Ada Township also has enacted an open-land tax on itself, the revenue from which goes into a fund used to compensate land owners who do not sell to developers but keep their property in an undeveloped state. It’s a progressive idea, said Andy Bowman, planning director of the Grand Valley Metro Council, but “it’s kind of the rare example around here.”

Situated in the southeastern corner of Ottawa County, Jamestown Township certainly affords its residents a fair amount of rural character, as well. In fact, as stated by the Michigan Environmental Council — a coalition of six environmental and public health organizations that includes the West Michigan Environmental Action Council — Ottawa County is the most productive agricultural county in Michigan. It’s also the state’s second-fastest developing county, a fact cited by Richard Jelier, Ph.D., a social scientist at Grand Valley State University’s School of Public & Nonprofit Administration.

In terms of development in Ottawa County, Jamestown Township leads the charge. In the Grand Rapids metro area, only Solon, Algoma, Courtland and Ada townships saw a higher spike in population between 2000 and 2004. With more new subdivisions popping up every year, growth is changing the way Jamestown Township assessor Howard Feyen does business.

“ Before, we had individual, country-style homes. Now, we have subdivisions, so you can do that assessing work differently,” Feyen said. “It gives you a larger base of sales for use in comparing properties. When you’re in a truly rural area, a lot of the properties are unique, whereas when you get into subdivisions, a lot of times they’re very similar.”

With good schools (the Hudsonville Public School District ranks No. 7 in the region) and rising property values, township supervisor Jim Miedema doesn’t see an end soon to Jamestown’s current growth trend.
“ I don’t know if you can stop a rolling train, can you?” he asked rhetorically. “All you can do is hope to handle it in a way that it comes out nice when you finish.”

To that end, Miedema added, the township has hired a full-time planner to oversee growth patterns moving forward — but it may be too late for some residents.

“ A lot of these people moved there a number of years ago from Jenison to escape the suburban setting,” Feyen said. “And now Jamestown is becoming suburban.

“ It’s just like when people moved out of Grand Rapids and moved to Jenison originally. You’re upsetting the apple cart when what was rural is becoming suburban … and I’m sure there’s a pretty sizeable part of the population that’s not real happy about it, because they’re losing the rural life.”

Tom Leonard, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, put it in starker terms. “We can’t all move out to the country, because if we do, it’s not going to be the country anymore.”

SHIFTING STRATEGIES
Perhaps no place in the metro area better exemplifies the crossing of rural and suburban identities than Gaines Township. Since M-6 opened up in 2004, the area of Gaines Township along the new freeway near the Kalamazoo Avenue interchange has transformed. Big box retailers and a cinema multiplex now sit on land that was committed to agriculture just a few decades ago.

If development hit Jamestown like an oncoming train, it hit Gaines like a rocket. In 2005, only Georgetown Township in Ottawa County reported more new housing starts in the region than Gaines Township, according to the Home and Building Association of Greater Grand Rapids. And while township supervisor Don Hilton says his board has taken steps to make sure new developments — including a planned 227-unit subdivision from Eastbrook Homes and another 348 units from Bosgraaf Builders — will “snuggle up” to existing development and not “sprawl” into agricultural or mining areas, he doesn’t see much cause for concern.

“ Those areas have not been impacted all that much,” he said.

But the impact of new residents filing into the township by the hundreds has raised other questions.

“ We are the only township in the area that does not have a millage for public safety,” Hilton noted. “And with the cost of fire apparatus and other issues — including the fact that we may have to look more toward 24/7 full-time (firefighter) service and possibly a dedicated ambulance — there’s just a whole host of things … and we are currently scratching the surface, talking with our neighbors about these issues.

“ Maybe in the future, I could see us coming together with some kind of a coalition, a fire/public safety district, something of that nature. But at this time, we’re just scratching the surface.”

By merging assets to provide public safety and other services for residents, municipalities across the region will move closer to sustainability. So says Connie Bellows, director of The Delta Strategy, a community improvement initiative based at Grand Rapids Community College.

“ You can’t go it alone,” Bellows said. “You have to be able to join forces and do something better together, and I’m convinced that we could do that if we were to pool our resources. Whether it’s education or wastewater treatment — to collaborate and join forces and join resources, you can do so much more with less.

“ I wish for (Grand Rapids Mayor) George Heartwell’s sake that some of the other municipalities would look at some other kinds of partnership from the public sphere.”

According to the mayor’s office, many already have.

“ There are countless examples of mutual cooperation and support, where we’re working together on projects, on authorities,” Heartwell said. He specifically cited The Rapid, the six-city transit initiative that connects East Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker and Wyoming, and is contracting with four townships for fixed-route service (Alpine, Byron, Cascade and Gaines) and a fifth for para-transit for elderly and disabled residents (Ada).

Mayor Heartwell promised to announce another partnership by the time this article hits newsstands: a coordination of law enforcement efforts among the same six cities in The Rapid transit partnership.
“ We will literally be placing law enforcement officers in each other’s departments where there are areas of specialization,” Heartwell explained. “We’ll have nodes, where Kentwood might host a detective unit, Grand Rapids might host a drug enforcement unit, maybe the canine unit is in East Grand Rapids. … I think it’s very exciting.”

Converting minds historically set on municipal autonomy to focus on regional cooperation is a slow process. For all the gains made, perceived setbacks occasionally occur.

In a move last year that Heartwell characterized as “counterproductive,” the North Kent Sewer Authority (comprised of Alpine Township, Cannon Township, Courtland Township, Plainfield Township and the city of Rockford) unanimously voted to leave the city of Grand Rapids’ wastewater treatment system to build its own wastewater treatment plant. The PARCC SIDE Clean Water Plant is scheduled to come on line in November 2008.

“ I just think that generations to come will shake their heads and wonder what these people were thinking about,” Heartwell lamented. “It is so contrary to the whole spirit of regional cooperation — not to mention environmental sustainability.”

Rockford city manager Michael Young also serves as chairman of the North Kent Sewer Authority. Contrary to Heartwell’s opinion, he holds up the PARCC SIDE plant as a shining example of regional cooperation, one that brought five governmental units together to better serve all of their residents.
“ Look at The Rapid,” Young said. “We’re not part of that. Does that mean it’s not good regional cooperation? You could find 100 examples of great regional cooperation in the county that doesn’t involve every community.”

LINKING FUTURES
The push for more regional planning in West Michigan dates back at least 16 years. That’s when the Grand Valley Metro Council completed its “Blueprint” — a regional planning process that outlined more than 60 separate strategies for the metropolitan Grand Rapids area.

As the council’s planning director attests, many of those individual strategies already have come to fruition. For example, the Blueprint called for more residential uses for properties in downtown Grand Rapids, which is progressing at a rapid pace.

“ That may not be directly from the Blueprint, but it certainly is something that we helped foster,” Andy Bowman said.

Work on the Blueprint’s four key visions remains an ongoing pursuit, and it’s succeeding on various levels. The Blueprint’s call for efficient mass transit is being heeded in the communities connected through The Rapid partnership. Its call for growth along compact, livable forms has been answered in many of the cities and villages in the metro area, including Caledonia, East Grand Rapids, Rockford, Sparta and others.

“ Those kinds of communities fit into our scheme of things,” Bowman said. “But when it comes to the township areas, they generally have been created with more of a Cartesian layout with regard to the Northwest survey way back in early America. They were intended more as an easy conveyance of properties or maybe as a way of laying out a broader street pattern. They really weren’t intended to achieve the same kinds of goals (such as creating livable communities) that we’re looking at.”

The Blueprint’s call for greenways and open land is being heeded in places such as Rockford, where, according to City Manager Michael Young, local ordinances require new developments to set aside green space.

“ We don’t just let developers come in, grade the lot flat, and squeeze in as many homes as they can,” Young said. “Not only do we require open green space, but useable open space and park properties and trails.”

However, response to the Blueprint’s call for fostering of central areas of expanded employment capacity remains difficult to measure. Suburbs such as Gaines Township and Rockford take pride in their expanding commercial sectors and the employment opportunities they create for residents. They don’t want to be thought of as “bedroom communities.” But is spontaneous commercial expansion a measure of a community’s health or another symptom of the region’s fragmentation?

The Grand Valley Metro Council recently received a grant to further explore its regional centers of employment concept. The council hired George Erikcek, senior regional analyst at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, to work with it on defining the metropolitan area’s commerce centers and to specifically look at which types of industry the region should attract for the future. The council was expected to release the report in July 2006.

SHARING SUCCESS
Originally, Ada businesswoman Janice Westlove considered locating her upscale resale shop, Almost Heaven, in Grand Rapids’ central business district. The persistent myth of a lack of parking downtown prompted her to look elsewhere. She considered 28th Street, but stiff competition and high rents nixed that idea. So she looked to the suburbs, which, for her, was a great decision. Her business has exceeded expectations by fourfold.

Gone are the days Westlove remembers from her childhood when the urban core of Grand Rapids was the commercial center of the region, a shopping experience that attracted families from as far as Traverse City. The city is decades into its comeback, but the process is beset with obstacles. As townships such as Ada, Algoma, Courtland, Gaines, Jamestown, Lowell and Vergennes continue to grow, Grand Rapids conversely continues to face a declining population (No. 34 of the 36 municipalities in the region in population growth rate) and the challenges brought on by generations of disinvestment.

From a regional perspective, the sustainability of all municipalities in the metro area is bound to the vitality of the city at the center.

“ A person who lives in any part of this area is connected to every other part,” explained Tom Leonard of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. “We are, each one of us, both part of the problem and part of the solution. You don’t escape being those things by moving somewhere else. You may make things a little better, you may make things a little worse, but there are certain ways of acting and living that are going to contribute to our future sustainability as a region, and we need to encourage more people to make those kinds of choices.”

This doesn’t necessarily depend on altruism of suburbanites. In his 1993 book “Cities Without Suburbs,” author David Rusk examined the measurable benefits a strong urban core has on the communities that surround it. By his assessment, whether you live in a farmhouse in Vergennes Township or a condo in downtown Grand Rapids, you stand to gain from the city’s success.

“ Suburbs shouldn’t care about the core city out of charity; they should care about the core city out of economic self-interest,” said Richard Jelier, who uses the 2000 update of Rusk’s book as a text in one of his classes at GVSU. “Any place where you have more regional patterns in place, the suburbs are stronger and better off, because externalities spill over. Crime and an underinvested work force — those aren’t issues that just stay within a core city. Those are metropolitan problems.

“ If you look at a dissimilarity index between suburbs and the core city, the healthier the core city, the better off the suburbs are in almost every category.”

In evaluating your community’s place on the ensuing charts, also take Grand Rapids’ scores into account. The city ranks anywhere from 81 to 96 among municipalities in our Metro Rankings depending on which public school system you’re in (six intersect the city limits). Your hometown may have landed in the top 20, but it shares responsibility for the withdrawal of investment in housing stock, the higher crime rates and the industrial legacy of environmental contamination that drive down the city’s rankings.

SEEKING SOLUTIONS
In gathering data for this feature, Grand Rapids Magazine staff made every effort to present the most up-to-date information in the most consistent format in every category across all communities. When you find the average commute time for your community, for example, and scan up or down that column, you’re comparing apples to apples. In fairness, however, nothing changes the fact that as you examine the most scanned column — the Metro Ranking — you’re comparing a city with its suburbs.

 

“ There is this deeply embedded suburban mindset in West Michigan that I think creates a bias toward the one-acre lot in the suburbs, and may well find itself unconsciously embedded in the measurement process that (Grand Rapids) Magazine goes through,” Mayor Heartwell observed.

The adjacent school chart represents another compilation of a large amount of quantifiable measures. Yet, according to Bert Bleke, outgoing superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools (No. 26 of 29 school districts), the chart also reveals a subjective yardstick.

“ My contention is that the measurements that we have to measure school systems in this country are very, very shallow,” Bleke said. “They don’t really measure the true value that systems give children.”

He continued: “I think that the only way we will be successful in the long term is if we continue to enhance the relationship between community, business, schools and nonprofits, because in reality, urban schools are not educational issues — although that’s part of it obviously. They’re social issues. And that’s what everybody has to begin to understand. And everybody has problems.

“ I don’t want to sound like it’s easy to run these other schools. They’re all fraught with problems. But when you’re looking at 80 percent poverty and things like this, the same old solutions aren’t going to work.”

Such paradigm shifts are already generating new solutions in other city-related contexts, according to Heartwell.

“ I think we’re at a bit of a transition point, because urban living is becoming so much more attractive to people generally and to young people specifically,” he said.

Heartwell cited the example of his own daughters, both of whom are “confirmed urban livers” who have chosen to raise their young families in Grand Rapids neighborhoods and send their children to Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Confirmed urban livers don’t assess their quality of life by the size of their yard, number of bedrooms, or even by the formula applied to Grand Rapids Magazine’s Metro Rankings. According to Heartwell, they evaluate their community by a different set of measures — with Grand Rapids topping the list locally. These include:

A sense of connection: “Connection to neighbors, to neighborhoods, to the context of the environment — and that happens so much better in an urban neighborhood than it does in a suburban neighborhood,” Heartwell observed.

Racial diversity: “This is something that many more people today prize than have in the past, and clearly the city is the place where you find that richness of diversity, of different cultures and different world views. Inclusiveness and welcoming attitude are very closely connected.” (Grand Rapids Magazine rankings value diversity as well, placing it on the middle tier of ranked categories.)

Beauty: “It’s public art. It’s interesting spaces that are created in the urban environment that I find lacking in suburban life. It’s the historical buildings. It’s monument plazas and squares.”

The vitality factor: “I live in the Heritage Hill neighborhood, but it’s equally true of neighborhoods all over this city — in the evening, people get out and walk. There are sidewalks. They stop and talk to neighbors. There’s just a certain energy or vitality that’s created in an urban environment.”

WEIGHING PRIORITIES
On the pages that follow, you’ll find no columns labeled “A Sense of Connection” or “The Vitality Factor.” We have not scored each individual governmental unit in the region based on the level of regional cooperation in which it engages. But as you peruse the following charts, think about what you value in a place. If those values are quantifiable, we’ve gathered data on them.

We present this information as a resource for residents of all communities in the region, not as a tip of the hat to those whose town ranked near the top or as a wag of the finger at those whose town did not. We do so realizing that there are several intangible factors that make a great place to live.

These prove trickier to measure, but they are valuable. That’s why as the lifestyle magazine for the city and the region, we remain committed to exploring the intangibles of life in all parts of the metro area in every single issue. GR

   
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