When GR Grows Up

March 3, 2003
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Several years ago, Doug Rothwell, who was then CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., was visiting with the Business Journal’s Editorial Board when the subject of certain cities’ development plans came up.

The seemingly hodge-podge of ideas, including one hamlet that wanted to place itself squarely on the Information Superhighway, gave Rothwell reason so chuckle.

“These places have to decide what they want to be when they grow up,” Rothwell said at the time.

Although the context of that conversation was small towns, Grand Rapids now finds itself at a similar crossroads.

A study reported in today’s paper (see story, page 1) indicates that if Grand Rapids wants to attract the high-tech, 25-to-34 demographic, it will have to change. The city is not alone. In fact, the report, released by the MEDC and the Michigan Business Roundtable, indicates that only Ann Arbor is positioned to attract what it sees as a highly desirable “new economy workforce.”

Why? Because other cities, from Grand Rapids to Traverse City to Saginaw to Detroit, don’t have the “quality of life” that these younger workers desire.

“While factors such as cost of living, safety and housing are important, this group of people is looking for opportunities to interact socially,” said Bill Rustem, senior vice president of Public Service Consultants, the Lansing-based think tank that surveyed workers and issued the report.

So, Grand Rapids, what do you want to be when you grow up?

The region has gotten along quite well over the last 150 years or so by offering numerous recreational activities, a conservative family-oriented background, family businesses that care about the community and political leadership that has set a slow and steady — and progressive — course.

Is it time for a drastic change? Or, is it time to look at what makes Grand Rapids good and make it better?

If the latter is the case, then there is one area that needs immediate attention.

Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bert Bleke on Monday called for help from the business community to make the city’s schools better. He asked that business leaders take an ownership role in children’s education.

In a story in today’s Journal (see page 7), businessman and former GRPS board member Ed Kettle calls for a revision in the management and delivery systems of the public schools. At the forefront of that change is a deeply involved advisory capacity for city business leaders. Kettle and his group, the Coalition for Community Involvement, want to see the school system operate more like a franchise business and change the accounting emphasis to costs from the current method based on expenses. In effect, each school would be run as an independent business with district headquarters acting as an administrative center while focusing on curriculum, not dollars.

The proposal is at least worth considering, since it already works in the business sector quite well.

The students currently in public schools at some point will be the 25-to-34 demographic. That will happen. Will they be the skilled, high-tech workers the region apparently is trying to draw? That will depend on what happens with the school system as a whole.

School leaders are asking for help from the business community. If quality of life in Grand Rapids really is a concern, then let’s start with what we have and mold it into what we want it to be.  

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