Rosalynn Bliss has seen numerous changes in her seven years as mayor of Grand Rapids.
There have been plenty of ups and downs, particularly in the past two years, but as Bliss closes in on the end of her eight-year tenure, she said she hopes Grand Rapidians can see the progress the city made under her leadership — the first female mayor in the city’s history.
“My hope is that people in our community, even with the challenges we face, remain hopeful that our city is moving in a positive direction and that even through tough times, we can figure out how to learn and identify ways that we can be a better city for everyone,” Bliss told Grand Rapids Magazine in May. “And I hope people feel that there’s a lot of dedicated people who care deeply about this community who continue to show up and want to be a part of solutions.”
Bliss took office in 2015 amid a period of unprecedented growth in Grand Rapids. The downtown skyline has changed dramatically under her watch, while surrounding neighborhoods have exploded to become vibrant communities of their own.
But it’s the undercurrents of how the city works that she hangs her hat on — whether it’s the Office of Equity and Engagement, or the Office of Public Oversight and Accountability or the Affordable Housing Fund to help solve the housing crisis in West Michigan.
“When I look around our entire city, there’s a lot of things I’m proud of,” Bliss said. “But I think I’m proud of probably some of the things that people don’t always recognize. I see that all of those efforts are moving our city forward in a really meaningful way.”
She was at the helm of the city through what is unquestionably one of the hardest situations many leaders could face during a tenure: a worldwide pandemic. Her main mission during that time was to help the frontline workers, those who lost loved ones and business owners manage the catastrophic changes as best as possible.
“I had a lot of meetings and conversations with so many people impacted in different ways, and it was just hard for me to know what I could do to be most helpful and supportive when so many people were struggling,” Bliss said. “Personally, that was hard. And then just trying to navigate through and balance out how do we be realistic about the challenge, but also hopeful that we’re going to get through it? Balancing that was a daily struggle at times.”
With the pandemic largely in the rearview mirror, Bliss now is facing another balancing act: guiding the community through a contentious relationship with the police. As the city’s top executive, she has the unenviable task of being the authority figure atop a police force much of the city distrusts.
An issue for most of her mayorship — and also the 10 years prior when she was a city commissioner — Bliss recognizes Grand Rapids is not alone in the nationwide problem.
“I’d say, in the last five years, under the leadership of City Manager (Mark) Washington and the current city commission, we’ve made some significant strides with the creation of the Office of Public Oversight and Accountability, some of the policy changes we’ve made and some of the work we’ve done in partnership with the community,” Bliss said, roughly a month after the killing of Patrick Lyoya. “The recent tragic officer-involved shooting really amplifies that we have a lot more work to do, especially around building trust in this community.”
That trust-building process will include creating safe spaces for the community to express fear, anger and concerns, she said.
“How do we build trust that was never there in the first place?” she said. “How do we really develop meaningful relationships between police and community? How do we take a hard look at our internal policies and procedures and make changes based on not just what we learned from this tragic incident, but from past incidents or from other cities, and how do we really take on police reform in a meaningful way that results in meaningful systemic change?”
Beyond fundamentally changing how the city’s residents feel about the Grand Rapids Police Department, Bliss has a slew of other projects she wants to finish before she completes her term. One of them is working to further solve the affordable housing crisis. The Affordable Housing Fund kicked off with $6 million, but if the 11-acre sale of property for the downtown, riverside amphitheater goes through, that will likely add another $10 million to the pot.
“I’d like that Affordable Housing Fund to be closer to $20 million, which would allow us to, I think, do some really creative initiatives, especially around smaller-scale infill for affordable housing,” she said. “I’m hopeful that along the housing front, working with Housing Kent to start to do more preventive work, to make sure that we have good support in place so that people don’t lose their housing in the first place. That’s a huge gap in our community.
“We don’t help people until they’re in crisis. We need to be doing much more to help people stay in the housing that they do have.”
Also on the docket is a plan for reaching a goal of 100% renewable energy. Bliss said she believes that’s an achievable target within the next few years and mentioned the recent ribbon cutting for a solar array at the Lake Michigan Filtration Plant. She also said she hopes the city’s biodigester project soon will be fully operational and is excited to see a solar array at the Butterworth Landfill.
Then there’s continued economic development in Grand Rapids, a process that will never end, but she said she plans to leave the city in a better place than when she took office.
“Continuing our work to support local businesses, businesses that are owned by people of color and women and then trying to get larger companies to shift those dollars to procurement, to support our local businesses,” Bliss said. “Trying to get more of our big companies who are spending millions of dollars to support our local businesses when they’re identifying people to do their work. And then our continued work with The Right Place and attracting headquarters and companies to our city, but also how we continue to support the companies that are here.”
This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.