Detroit Can Learn a Thing or Two From Grand Rapids

Over the past few decades, Grand Rapids has seen an exciting boom of sorts, the result of several improvements and initiatives that over the course of time have led to a revitalization and reinvention. While the magnitude of a Detroit turnaround will require much more, I believe the Motor City can learn a thing or two from our neighbor city in West Michigan as it continues to capitalize on recent successes going forward.

It's impossible to partake in discussion about Grand Rapids today without mention of the contagious philosophy of giving back to the local community instilled by the city's first-generation catalysts: the DeVos, Van Andel and Meijer families among several others. You see it everywhere you go. While some seem to bemoan the number of buildings named after those three families, those plaques stand as a symbol of the commitment to the overall mindset of giving back as well as the impact it can potentially have on a community.

We see this same mentality being replicated in Detroit with business leaders like Roger Penske, Peter Karmanos, Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch who are taking the lead. Giving back provides more opportunity for others and, while this mindset seems to be more present now in Detroit than even 5-10 years ago, I believe that this is an area that needs to continue being cultivated going forward. Detroit will need involvement from as many business leaders as possible if we are to one day see the Detroit of tomorrow that many are beginning to discuss.

In addition, a strong partnership between the public sector and private sector is imperative for growth in any city. In the early 90s, several leaders in Grand Rapids assembled a public-private partnership called the Grand Vision Committee with the goal of planning for revitalization in Grand Rapids. The organization, whose name has since been changed to Grand Action, still exists with a primary objective, according to its website, "to identify downtown building and revitalization projects, to galvanize public opinion and support for these projects, and to design and implement funding strategies for each project, including securing enough private sector support to guarantee funding from existing public funds."

The organization has been instrumental over the past two decades in attracting several crucial developments including Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place, Michigan State's new medical school as well as the soon-to-be-open $30M Downtown Market, a marketplace that will be open year-round and is estimated to create about 600 jobs.

For Detroit, a similar organization has emerged in recent years with the Downtown Detroit Partnership who, according to their website, are a "private/public partnership of corporate and civic leaders that supports, advocates and develops programs and initiatives designed to create a clean, safe, beautiful, inviting, vibrant and economically viable Downtown Detroit community." This partnership has had a hand in several recent developments in the city and will certainly play a major role going forward.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Rick DeVos to get his thoughts on what has happened in recent years in Grand Rapids as well as what is currently transpiring in Detroit. As the grandson and son of two primary catalysts in Grand Rapids' turnaround, he has added to that legacy by putting his own unique stamp on his hometown as the founder of two of Grand Rapids current and most exciting initiatives, ArtPrize and Start Garden.

Brandon: Was there anything specific from your standpoint that you would identify as a turning point for Grand Rapids' in its revitalization?

Rick: It has really been a whole series of efforts, but one particular physical/building development that I have heard a lot of people refer to was my Grandfather and Jay Van Andel's decision to renovate the Pantlind Hotel (now the Amway Grand Plaza). It was a decision that made little economic sense, but it signaled to the community that the downtown was important. Other milestones were the development of the Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place Convention Center. Locating both of these community assets in the core of the downtown vs. on the outskirts or commercial strip areas was a big deal.

Brandon: One thing we are learning in Detroit is that it's difficult to change perceptions. Although many good things are beginning to happen, we're learning that it's going to take many positive developments over an extended period of time for those perceptions to change. What advice would you have for those trying to be catalysts for change who are getting pushback and when did the overall perceptions among the GR community change and begin to go from negative to positive?

Rick: I'm not sure that there was a moment, even if there was that it makes sense for other communities to aim for one. To me, catalyzing change in the community is most effective when you're providing platforms for people to make their own and build on themselves. That's what we've tried to do with both ArtPrize and Start Garden. Centrally planned master visions don't work. You just don't have enough information to make effective decisions, so the more cellular those decisions, visions and efforts can be the better. A lot of this is, unfortunately, countercultural for Michigan. Our political and business culture is built around the idea of the big corporation where the executive team can plan and allocate and forecast the market share it's going to have next year. I'm trying to push that sort of culture/mindset change in GR, but it is a process.

Brandon: There are a lot of new industries and businesses in downtown GR these days. What's your favorite new thing(s) about GR?

Rick: We have some really great businesses that have popped up downtown, specifically around coffee and beer. Overall though I love seeing any glimmer that shows the mindset shift where people are working on new and interesting things. We see a lot of that around Start Garden events actually.

Brandon: From a business standpoint, Detroit has begun to develop an exciting startup community. As someone who is very much a part of the startup community in a city that is experiencing revitalization, what is a tip you would give to those in Detroit's startup community?

Rick: "Stay hungry, stay foolish." We need to do weird stuff. Stuff that looks stupid and that people laugh at at first. Automobiles were seen as goofy toys for the rich when they were first being developed. We aren't going to find or create breakthroughs in Michigan just by doing a slightly better (but fundamentally less interesting) version of something we saw in Chicago or the Valley.

Brandon: I recently wrote an article titled the "Detroit of Tomorrow" where I asked several business leaders in Detroit what their vision for success is for Detroit. My question for you is the same for GR: what is your vision for the Grand Rapids of tomorrow?

Rick: It comes back to the desire to see a whole bunch of people doing and trying lots of interesting and exciting things. I guess I could come up with a list of physical things I would like to see developed, but to me it really comes back to culture and mindset. I want to be surprised by the amazing things people come up with and make happen.

While Detroit still has a ways to go and we can expect at least two decades before change is recognized on more of a macro level, Detroit can learn a thing or two from Grand Rapids as we continue to come to the table with new ideas. This is a long term process and we need to remember that a city revival cannot and does not happen over night.

Two decades ago, the leadership in Grand Rapids drew a line in the sand and that is when the revitalization began. I believe that Detroit is there and that the decision has been made. As Josh Linkner likes to say, we are in the midst of the greatest turnaround story in American history. This city is wide open and brimming with potential for those who subscribe to the "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish" mentality and anyone who so chooses is invited. Come here, build and create cool things and you can be a part of history.