Sunday, September 20th, 2009
Detroit gets almost all the national press in Michigan. While Detroit certainly deserves coverage, sometimes one can get the impression that Michigan = Detroit when in fact there is much more to the state.
I got to check one other city out last week when I spent two days in Grand Rapids as part of the CEO’s for Cities Velocity program. I referenced this before when linking to Carol Coletta’s op-ed about creating a new narrative of an American Dream, one rooted in an urban, not suburban setting. As with most good discussions, I learned a lot, but also came away with a whole new set of questions and things to ponder along with the progress made. Much more to say on this upcoming.
But I wanted to highlight a couple of Michigan related items today. First, you may recall the name Dayne Walling from a Slate article I linked to before about the race for mayor of Flint, MI. Well, Walling ended up winning the election and attended this event as well. He was kind enough to record a short statement talking about the readiness for change in Flint, its challenges, and his plans for the city. (If the video doesn’t show up, click here).
As he says in the video, Mayor Walling is very open to ideas, so be sure to send them his way.
As for Grand Rapids itself, any resident of a small Midwestern city is likely to know the meta-story. Namely, it’s a much more interesting place than its reputation would suggest. Grand Rapids is the largest city in Western Michigan. It was originally settled by the Dutch, who logged trees and grew produce to ship across Lake Michigan to Chicago, though it also grew to have industry, especially furniture manufacturing, along with some automotive and other things.
The industry is mostly gone, and Grand Rapids has suffered for it like most Midwestern cities. But there’s a lot more to the story here. The region maintained a lot of its Dutch roots and character. There are still plenty of Dutch names around, extended families are still important – many of them can apparently trace their lineage back quite some time back to the Old World, there’s a certain thrifty state of mind, and enormous charitable giving and volunteer spirit. The city is still more oriented to Chicago than Detroit.
One thing you immediately notice about Grand Rapids is that it preserved a large chunk of its building stock. This is true even outside downtown. Many old factories and warehouses have been restored and repurposed. I visited no fewer than three of them. Here’s one such, though it doesn’t look like it. It’s the headquarters of the local Catholic diocese.
Grand Rapids is home to a culinary school, which perhaps has a bearing, but there appear to be an abundance of quality restaurants there. I know the food I ate was excellent. Grand Rapids also seems to punch above its weight in green building as well. There are 44 LEED certified buildings in Grand Rapids, giving it the 8th most such buildings of any city in the country. It’s the only city in the top ten that isn’t a blue chip brand you’d expect.
Here’s one of them, the Grand Rapids Art Museum. It’s the only LEED Gold certified museum in the world.
Grand Rapids also has a sleek new JW Marriott hotel I was fortunate enough to stay at. I think you are getting the picture. This is a bigger and more sophisticated place than you might credit.
Here’s a peek at the skyline from the interior of the art museum:
People relaxing in a public plaza. You can also see some of that preserved building stock here.
There are definitely a lot of interesting things happening in Grand Rapids. Two of the big local companies are Amway and Meijer. The families behind those businesses, as well as other local philanthropists, have put tons of private money behind revitalizing Grand Rapids.
One of the current projects that has come out of this is the Art Prize. This is pretty big news so you may have heard of this one before. It’s an open art competition that anyone can enter with a first prize of $250,000 cash, making it the biggest art prize in the world. The only real requirement is that you find a local venue in Grand Rapids to partner with to show the art. This attracted a large number of artists as you can imagine. It all goes on display Sept. 23 to Oct. 10th, so if you were ever thinking of visiting Grand Rapids, that would be a good time to do it.
The name “Grand Rapids” might conjure up some majestic images of nature. Alas, the reality is much more tame, but there is a small river running through town. Here’s a shot of it with some art and an outdoor cafe along it. I’m told there’s good fishing in this river too.
Grand Rapids looks to be the emerging hub of Western Michigan. As I see it, the city will have to overcome a couple of structural challenges to really take off. One is that it is just a bit too small. While there is a goodly population in the extended region, the core of Grand Rapids and its MSA is a bit smallish at only 776,000 people. Ideally it would be more like 1.2 million to have minimum scale. You see the challenges in the small number of local flights and such. Also, Grand Rapids is off the beaten path. With Lake Michigan creating such a huge barrier, Grand Rapids is a detour from almost anywhere. It’s not on the trade routes.
I barely got to scratch the surface of Grand Rapids. It was my first trip, but I hope not my last.