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The old Federal Building

GRAM & Amway in parallel

By Curt Wozniak

A new hotel from Amway and a big move by the Grand Rapids Art Museum trigger celebrations — and a sense of déjà vu for 1981.

"From our rugged pioneer ancestors, who stubbornly pushed on to new frontiers and tamed the wilderness, we inherited a precious heritage … tenacity, pride, hard work, (the motivation) to do better.

Our forebearers wanted no fame or public acclaim. Their reward was in seeing the communities they founded grow through their efforts, in watching them become self-sufficient … a pride in self-accomplishment.

“Times have changed, but Grand Rapidians still maintain much of this inheritance. And this September, we are celebrating another chapter in the city’s rich history.”

Those words, written by Grand Rapids Magazine publisher John Zwarensteyn, appeared on the pages of this magazine 26 years ago, but their sentiment echoes with remarkable relevance today.

In September 1981, Grand Rapids hosted one serious party in honor of three serious new additions to its downtown. That was the year the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum opened, the Grand Rapids Art Museum moved from the Pike House at 230 E. Fulton St. to the former Federal Building at 155 N. Division Ave., and the Pantlind Hotel reopened as the Amway Grand Plaza. (The tower, then called Grand Plaza West, was still under construction and did not open until 1983.)

This year, the cause for Celebration on the Grand — as the annual party came to be known — is another new hotel from Amway Hotel Corp. and another big move for the Grand Rapids Art Museum — this time to a brand new building at 101 Monroe Center NW designed specifically for the GRAM.

“We only thought that was going to be one celebration, in 1981,” explained Martin J. Allen Jr., who served on the initial planning committee for Celebration on the Grand. Allen is a former Old Kent Bank executive and Chairman Emeritus of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation. “And here, they still continue to have Celebrations on the Grand, and there’s always been a new reason to celebrate.

“Now, we’re on the threshold of other reasons to celebrate: another new hotel and the new art museum. So there is a great parallel there from what has happened and from what has continued to happen in this community.”

What’s continuing to happen is an ongoing improvement project referred to as “the multiplier effect” by the late Richard M. Gillett, former Old Kent Bank chairman.


The new Grand Rapids Art Museum

Former Old Kent president and CEO John Canepa succeeded Gillett as chairman in 1985. In 1995, he retired from the bank that eventually became Fifth Third. Today Canepa co-chairs the Grand Action Committee, the group of community leaders that has built support for various downtown projects in Grand Rapids.

“Developing the Van Andel Arena — that had the multiplier effect, where all of a sudden we had 18 to 20 new restaurants downtown,” Canepa said. “These things feed off one another. The opening of the Pantlind and the subsequent building of the tower helped our convention business because we finally had good facilities for conventioneers when they come into town. And when they come into town, conventioneers aren’t going to sit in meetings all day; they want to go around downtown and they want to see what’s available.

“And so the museum could become a showpiece.”

Canepa co-chaired the $3 million capital campaign that moved the GRAM from its original home into the Federal Building. In 1981, the museum was not in a position to build its own building, but the organization desperately needed more square footage and more visibility than the tiny Pike House could provide.

Canepa called the GRAM’s move into the Federal Building a “stepping stone.”

“It was first things first,” he said. “‘First, let’s get out of the building where we don’t have enough space and get into a building that has more square footage at a reasonable cost’ — that was the goal initially. And the next step was, ‘Let’s design a museum that architecturally cements our identity.’ And that’s what they’ve done.”

The growth of the DeVos and Van Andel involvement in the hospitality industry downtown also came in stages as Grand Rapids developed into a viable convention destination. What started in the 1980s with the Amway families’ renovation of the Pantlind and the building of the Amway Grand Plaza tower continued in the 1990s with the Plaza Towers project, née Eastbank Waterfront Towers. Amway partially financed the building of the project. The company took over controlling interest in 1993 after leaking exterior panels led to a series of lawsuits, which Amway settled within two years. Plaza Towers is home to a 213-room Courtyard by Marriott, which was franchised by Radisson prior to Amway’s takeover.

The most recent stage — the new JW Marriott — was initiated in the early years of this decade after a series of studies on the potential impact that the DeVos Place convention center would have on the hospitality industry when it opened in 2003.

“A couple of other people talked, but nobody talked with any money — as far as building a new hotel,” said Richard M. DeVos, who co-founded Amway with Jay Van Andel. “They talked about moving City Hall and all that stuff, and I agree, that would have been a good location — maybe.

“The city felt it needed more (hotel) capacity; everybody seemed to think we needed more capacity. … Finally I said to Jay, ‘What do you say? You got one more good building in you?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’”

Van Andel died in December 2004. The JW Marriott, the last project he and DeVos worked on together, will be more modern, more luxurious and more expensive per night than the Amway Grand Plaza. However, DeVos and Van Andel took pains to insure that guests at their original hotel don’t feel like they’re getting second-rate accommodations.

DeVos said that in the 25-plus years of operation of the Amway Grand Plaza, he and Van Andel never took any profits out of the hotel. Instead, they have made the hotel their own self-contained continuous improvement project.

“It’s always a little shock to people that we’ve never taken any money out of that business,” DeVos said. “I don’t think Jay and I ever discussed it. Joe (Tomaselli, president and CEO of Amway Hotel Corp.) ran it — and I guess maybe one time he said, ‘You need any money out of here?’ And we said, ‘No, we don’t need any money out of here. Just use it to keep it up.’ And so all the money went into improvements, and that hotel looks just as good today as it did 25 years ago.”

Thanks mainly to the dedication of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in 1981, the inaugural Celebration on the Grand welcomed dignitaries from around the world to Grand Rapids. This year’s event won’t have the same star power. But as the rich history of downtown redevelopment in this city opens another chapter, the future continues to look pretty bright.

“People keep saying it’s going to stop, and then you see a new hotel go up and a new art museum,” Allen said. “And you see a lot of new things going up in the medical center, and the colleges — even though they’re on the periphery — building new athletic facilities.

“It’s an amazing story.” GR

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