Alliance Learns Region Isnt What It Thinks It Is

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — When most people picture West Michigan, they probably don’t see the area as being the fastest growing region in the upper Midwest for the past three decades. But the proof is in the numbers pudding, and the triangular area of Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon has been just that — and more.

A handful of surprising findings were recently released by Michael Gallis, a nationally known regional consultant from Charlotte, N.C. Gallis was hired by the West Michigan Strategic Alliance to lay the groundwork for a regional plan that hopes to better position the area in the global marketplace for the next 25 years.

“We feel very positive about the process. This was another very important step in it,” said Jim Brooks, who chairs the Alliance.

“An event like today was an opportunity for Michael Gallis, his organization and the local technical committee members to listen, so they can use that in their thinking and understand the interactions that are occurring in our region,” he added.

Gallis, founder of Michael Gallis & Associates, recently spent three days meeting with the Alliance at the Eberhard Center in downtown Grand Rapids. He told them the region was in a transition period. He also said that the area’s image of itself as a cluster of small towns that dot rural stretches along Lake Michigan wasn’t reality.

Instead, Gallis offered that West Michigan was a major player in the upper Midwest. He outlined that area as one that runs east from St. Louis to Cleveland and south from Milwaukee to Louisville. In addition to those four, the area also includes Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Detroit, Indianapolis and, of course, Grand Rapids.

“Of those eleven, we’re actually the ninth largest. We’re not eleventh, we’re ninth. This is a metropolitan area of over one million people. We passed one million probably in 1997,” said Gallis. “Today, we’re probably somewhere north of 1.1 million and no one here, when we talked about it, spoke about a region of over one million people.

“We don’t think that way. We think of smaller cities kind of on the shore, a rural West Michigan,” he added. “We’re leaving behind where we used to be. We’re not really where we’re going to be. So we’re between leaving yesterday and arriving at tomorrow.”

Other key findings revealed by Gallis were:

  • West Michigan has grown from three centers, Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon, instead of the usual single, central-city growth pattern.
  • West Michigan has been the fastest-growing region in the upper Midwest over the last 30 years.
  • West Michigan outgrew each of the ten other upper Midwest regions in each of the last three decades.
  • West Michigan was the only region in the upper Midwest that grew at a faster rate than the national average over that 30-year period.
  • West Michigan recorded a 114 percent increase in jobs over the last 30 years, and exceeded the national job-growth average by 39 percent.

“We have outperformed every metropolitan region in the upper Midwest,” said Gallis.

Gallis will return in September with more findings, results that will take some time to be fully absorbed by all.

“I think that this is a continuing learning process and everybody has a little bit different take on it. There are some Essential Activities committees, like transportation and economic development, that have had organizations in place and data in place for many, many years. So, they’re at a little different evolutionary process in their thinking than perhaps arts and culture or environment,” said Brooks

Brooks added that even though different dynamics of learning were going on among the groups, everyone was beginning to see links that they haven’t understood before.

“We, indeed, are functioning as an integrated triplex,” he said.

But Brooks said not everyone presently shares that reality. In the past, he said, people focused their attention on their community and not the region. For the future, however, Brooks felt that focus has to change.

“We can understand the forces that are happening, learn to work together, take a proactive role in shaping our future and protect the quality of life that we all find most precious,” said Brooks. “Or we can ignore one another and let the kind of chaotic growth patterns that have occurred in areas like Los Angeles happen here.”

The Alliance is made up of business professionals and public officials from Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties who operate under a $1.3 million budget raised through public and private sources, and last year the group gave itself three years to create the plan.

Besides the ten Essential Activities committees, the Alliance also has an 18-member Technical Committee and 40 people serving on its Leadership Forum, the group charged with overseeing the massive project. In all, 250 people are working on this effort.

“We are really at a crossroad,” said Brooks. “We have a choice to make in terms of whether we communicate and collaborate together, or whether we kind of go our separate ways. The choice will have a profound impact in the long-term character of our region.”

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