Business Has Voice In Plan Grand Rapids

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS —  The city’s master plan process continues to seek public input and involvement, including that of the business community.

While the East Fulton Business Association, in particular, and some West Side businesses have been active participants in Plan Grand Rapids, thus far, involvement by business associations in general has been moderate compared to the neighborhood associations, said Suzanne Schultz, a planner with the city’s Planning Department.

The master plan will guide city development and investment decisions for the next 20 years. And business and neighborhood groups are finding the need to have dialogue with one another, Schultz said.

“There are a lot of issues — for instance, parking — that they need to discuss together. I think what we’re lacking right now is involvement from the larger business community, from the bigger corporations and the people who may not be in a business association.”

Since kicking off Plan Grand Rapids in January, the city has held more than 120 meetings among city staff, neighborhood associations and 20 currently active business associations.

Participants of all meetings were asked to identify current community issues, including the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats they perceived in their geographic areas, Schultz said. Input from those sessions was whittled down to 11 major topic areas for further discussion.

The business community’s focus is on business and job opportunities, and its concerns center around “the belief that a healthy business area is one in which new businesses replace outgoing businesses,” Shultz said.

The main concerns that surfaced at meetings were:

  • Empty and underused buildings.
  • Vacant properties.
  • The need for land assembly for redevelopment.
  • Industrial uses in older commercial areas.
  • Handicapped accessibility and building code issues.
  • Environmental contamination.
  • Hours of operation for public transit.

Earlier this year, Master Plan Committee member John Jackoboice, president of Monarch Hydraulics, hosted one of two roundtable discussions that concentrated specifically on the needs and wants of local businesses in respect to the master plan. The issues brought up at both roundtable events were nearly identical, he said.

Business wants to see continued improvements in infrastructure — everything from roads to utilities. In the area of transportation and infrastructure, the most prevalent request was for cross-town transportation, Jackoboice noted. The business community would like to see cross-town express buses that don’t require any bus transfers, such as a direct shuttle from the Standale business district to Woodland Mall.

Another concern was safety, but as Jackoboice was quick to point out, there were no adversarial comments about current police protection.

“Business people just want the city to continue to be a safe place where people can walk to work or ride the bus and feel safe about it,” he said.

In educational matters, business wants to see better public schools and better support of them. Also stressed was the need to produce a highly capable labor force, which means schools need to concentrate more on workforce development, he said.

“There needs to be more emphasis on trades,” Jackoboice said. “We feel there’s an awful lot of pressure to go to school for 21 years and get a college education, because you certainly shouldn’t work in a factory or you shouldn’t be a bricklayer.

“There’s money to be made in the trades and nobody is encouraging young people to go into them. If you’re a good mathematician, you can run a very sophisticated CNC machine and make a lot of money, but nobody is telling anybody that. We feel that’s part of what needs to be done in the educational sector.”

Business representatives also stressed the need for a vibrant core area downtown. The feeling is that downtown should be an ongoing draw, like Old Town in Chicago or Greek Town in Detroit.

As Jackoboice put it: “Right now downtown is a destination when there is an event. It’s not ‘let’s go see what’s going on’ just because it’s the place to be.”

City neighborhoods need better connections with surrounding neighborhoods. A lot of neighborhood associations are “islands” — they’re not cross-communicating and collaborating.

Business would like to see bordering neighborhoods coordinate their efforts for the benefit of all and thinks local governments could do a better job of communicating with each other as well.

“Let’s find out what we’re all doing and let’s do it collectively,” is the general consensus, Jackoboice said. “We think local governments are trying, but everybody gets very provincial. They shouldn’t stop at their borders.”

Likewise, a coordinated, collaborative health care system, rather than a competitive one, is favored by business, he noted.

Another concern expressed by local business representatives is that Grand Rapids doesn’t seem to have any central venture capital or economic development “place to go.”

“We know there’s The Right Place Program and we know what they’re doing. But when someone really wants to start a business in Grand Rapids, they still go to the bank,” Jackoboice said. Ideally, business would like to see a single entity where entrepreneurs could go to have all their business needs met under one roof.

In the core city, neighborhood groups are talking about the development of small neighborhood shopping centers, with a grocery, drug and hardware stores to supply residents with the essentials. Business likes that idea, too, he said.

So far, business and neighborhood groups haven’t clashed over anything and appear to want many of the same things, Schultz observed. But that could change this fall when the third community forum starts honing in on specific recommendations.

The last citywide meeting on March 20 was followed by seven outreach meetings in May, in which discussion focused on opportunities for change: where people are afraid of seeing change happen and where they would like to see it happen, Schultz said.

That will be the focus of further discussion and prioritizing at the second community forum tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Union High School.

A calendar of upcoming outreach meetings and community forums is available through the city planning department, (616) 456-3031, or on the Web at

www.grand-rapids.mi.us

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