Mayor Rosalynn Bliss recently entered her fifth year as Grand Rapids mayor — she was sworn in on Jan. 1, 2016 — looking forward and more than ready to tackle the city’s tough issues that seemed to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered Grand Rapids.
“The impact of the pandemic has been devastating on people’s lives both emotionally and physically,” Bliss said. “So many locally owned businesses have struggled with some going bankrupt and closing their doors forever. These are our neighbors and friends who make up the uniqueness of our neighborhoods.”
She also points to a significant increase in violence this past year; there has been more gun violence and homicides than at any time in the last decade. She attributes this to schools being closed, youth centers and afterschool care closing, and significant numbers of people losing their jobs. There also was a lack of what she calls “proactive policing” in the early days of the pandemic as officers were forced to keep their distance.
Yet, says the first female mayor of the second-largest city in Michigan, “We saw our community come together in beautiful ways despite the challenges and heartbreak.”
Bliss points to thank-you signs outside hospitals, businesses giving out food to those in need, local distilleries converting to making hand sanitizer and partners across the city coming together to see what could be done to help businesses.
“People were intentional about supporting local businesses and people were stepping up to give, really coming together to support one another,” Bliss said. “There were beautiful acts of kindness all over our community.”
The mayor also saw an increased and deepened partnership with the county and the state. As soon as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the state’s shutdown last March, Bliss and city and county officials began meeting virtually to create emergency operation plans and to address other issues including, more recently, the county taking the lead in vaccination rollout.
“And at a city level, we were able to quickly identify ways to change city policies around supporting local business, including changes to allow outside seating for restaurants and creating social districts,” she said. “At a state level, the legislature supported bills that allowed restaurants to serve food and alcohol outside in social zones and districts.”
Priorities for the future
Bliss has four main priorities as the end of the fiscal year approaches (the new fiscal year begins July 1) and as the city looks forward. The first is violence reduction and public safety reform with a new violence prevention program in the works.
“The police department presented a plan that includes key efforts around shifting to a neighborhood policing model and developing stronger relationships with community members. The Office of Oversight and Public Accountability (OPA) is now fully staffed as well,” she said. OPA is designed to act as a liaison between the community and public safety departments; its focus is to create mutual trust and respect between those entities.
A second focus is on housing and homelessness. In April of last year, the city formed the Homeless Outreach Team that includes police and fire departments and other players in the arena such as Community Rebuilders and Arbor Circle with the goal of improving outcomes for the homeless in the community. It joined with Network180, the community mental health authority for Kent County, in October 2020.
“I saw an acceleration of some of the things we talked about because of emerging and growing needs. I hope we can build on what the team has done so far,” Bliss said.
Bliss also is co-chair of the Housing Stability Alliance which, in September 2020, released its plan to address housing insecurity titled, “Redefining the Path Home: System Building for Housing Stability in Kent County.” While the plan was in the works before the pandemic, it addresses the need for collective effort around housing for all.
Previously, the housing discussion was largely led and addressed by nonprofits and disparate other groups. But under the auspices of KConnect, which brings people from all sectors together to address community needs, the alliance hopes to create an inclusive plan for housing needs across the county, including Grand Rapids.
Toward that end, Bliss hopes to grow the Affordable Housing Fund, which supports affordable housing projects. She would like to grow the fund from its current $800,000 to $10 million. “There isn’t funding available for smaller-scale infill projects for affording housing; we want to support the missing middle that doesn’t get funding,” said Bliss, describing how funding for low-income housing and high-end housing is more readily available.
A third focus is on economic recovery with a particular focus on minority-owned businesses. “I want to focus on how we look at revitalization coming out of the pandemic, focusing on investing in Black and brown communities, as well as minority-owned businesses that haven’t been able to tap into state and federal funds,” Bliss said. She plans to include organizations such as Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses (GRABB), Local First and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for input.
Fourth, Bliss wants to focus on the fiscal stability of Grand Rapids. “If we don’t get some relief from the state and federal government, we’re facing a $10 million-$12 million deficit. I was disappointed that the COVID-19 stimulus package didn’t include direct help for cities,” she said.
She’s optimistic that work at the state level with the governor and the legislature will yield help, as will her work with Urban Core Mayors, a group of 13 mayors that she sees as an “opportunity to be more active and vocal in Lansing on these priorities.”
The future for Grand Rapids
Bliss’ hope is, post-pandemic, Grand Rapids will “build back with a focus on equity and justice and inclusiveness, which will take our community coming together in intentional ways.” She’s already seen steps in the right direction as businesses, organizations, the city and the county ask how they can work together to eliminate racial disparity.
“This is some of the most important work we will do in the community this year and beyond,” Bliss said. “We are already a generous and compassionate community. That spirit has shown bright this past year.”
This story can be found in the March 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here.