Reflections On A City

June 19, 2002
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The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel turned 20 last week and some of the best birthday presents were quips and quotes from the founders and some of the city’s most famous citizens.

Here are some of the highlights from the “media availability” for the 20th anniversary celebration for the hotel and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. The “availability” was held in the Continental Ballroom amid Secret Service agents. A lovely, bomb-searching German shepherd sniffed the camera equipment before former President Gerald R. Ford arrived. The media were told to limit their questions to the anniversary event, but Ford graciously agreed to discuss national matters.

Rich DeVos, to the assembled reporters: “It’s nice to have you children here.” DeVos then discussed the history of the Amway Grand, saying that in 1981, the town was “going down the tubes.” He described the Pantlind Hotel as a place where “bums and ladies of the night” hung out. “It wasn’t a very pretty scene.” When he and the city leaders of the time decided that the hotel should be the “meeting place off the Grand,” hotel companies were not interested. DeVos recalled that the Hilton people said, “We don’t build hotels in old cities anymore.” DeVos and Jay Van Andel decided to take on the restoration, and what was billed as a $6 million project turned into a $22 million project. DeVos said that when they were halfway through with the restoration, they thought, “maybe we should stop where we are — this is getting pretty expensive.” He emphasized that the Amway Grand was “built by people of divergent views,” union and non-union laborers, for example. “It has stood the test of time.”

Steve Van Andel: He recalled watching the tower being built … “20 years ago I was more interested in what I was doing on a Saturday night” than the business of his father. He said that as chairman of the U.S. Chamber, he can now appreciate his father’s role in the hotel: “I see it’s truly an investment in downtown Grand Rapids.” As for the future: “I would certainly hope we see the hotel have the impact it’s had over the past 20 years.”

President Ford: “It is a high honor and great privilege to be one of the few people in the room to remember the Pantlind Hotel in its heyday.” Later, the city’s largest hotel was facing ruin. “In the ’40s and ’50s the Pantlind for all intents and purposes was bankrupt.” That’s why he liked the idea of the Amway Grand. “If we were to revive downtown Grand Rapids, it had to have a focal point.” It took “courage and good judgment and vision to take this facility and make it what it is today.”

Ford then waxed nostalgic. “As an old-time person from Grand Rapids, I’m extremely proud of this facility. I’m extremely proud of DeVos Hall, the convention center, the arena … it’s a privilege to be here.”

He said that the museum is across the river because he had a feeling that Grand Rapids “would be revitalized. I had pressures to put the library and museum on the Beltline.” He went on to reminisce about the opening of the museum, how the French president and Canadian prime minister attended, along with BobHope and his wife, Dolores. He said that just the other day, he found a photo of Hope and BettyFord dancing. “It’s hard to believe that the terminal for the streetcar was right outside the Pantlind Hotel.

But the former president also offered a snipped of his trademark humor. “Betty said to say hello. She doesn’t travel well these days. And, at 88, I don’t either.”

A reporter asked Dick DeVos whether Alticor would be around 20 years from now/be associated with the Amway Grand. DeVos replied, referencing the Sept. 11 tragedy, “All of our views of the future have been altered.” But then he went on to say that the Amway/Alticor roots “go very deep in this community. … We are very much part of the fabric of West Michigan. … This is where we live. We vacation elsewhere, but this is where we live.”

He said spreading the message of West Michigan is important. “We hope we serve as good ambassadors to the world.”

On the national front, Ford said he is following the situation like everyone else in the world. He said he “fully supports” President George W. Bush and the actions that have been taken. Ford talked about his administration: “We had our share of problems.” He referenced Watergate and the “lousy economic situation.”

“Our problem was only with another superpower … we had a known enemy.” Now, he said, “we have no real solid target.”

And Ford is thankful he’s not in the Oval Office right now.

“I don’t relish the responsibility President Bush has.”

On Israel: “Arafat and Sharon somehow have to sit down and negotiate.” … “I was always hopeful there could have been future peace in the Middle East. … It’s disappointing that 25 years later, we still have a problem. In some respects, the fighting is more vicious.”

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