Judging The Contenders

August 11, 2003
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Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s appointment late last week of Grand Rapids Third Ward City Commish Scott Bowen to Judge of 62-A District Court unleashed a pent-up flurry of politico wannabes who would vie for appointment to Bowen’s seat. At the very least, a political color is given to Bowen, whose previous avoidance of party affiliation gave him the distinction of being the butt of “bipartisan” jokes (meaning he thinks people believe he belongs to both parties).

And while all manner of lobbying began in earnest among friends of city commissioners, business leaders and city staff apparently are seeing an opportunity for real solutions and diversity in city leadership with previous commission contender Bing Goei. The owner of Eastern Floral (downtown and suburban) has been involved in neighborhood issues and in significant Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce minority business leadership positions. Goei also was among the city leadership team that headed to Florida a few years back to learn more about that state’s race-neutral hiring and contracting policies. Even then, the city saw the writing on the wall for further changes in its minority business hiring quotas, and last month announced the end of such “formulas” in city business.

  • The Building Owners and Managers Association has tracked suburban office market occupancy rates alongside those in the Central Business District (at one time the only “real” business district tracked), and long debated and dissuaded a separate organization specific to suburban areas (the ’burbs are perhaps less connected to one another than to the CBD).

Metro area business owners, however, may see a different type of organizing effort, one that groups building owners (and tenants) in specific geographic areas into associations akin to Grand Rapids’ neighborhood business associations.

The leader of one such now fully formed group is well known to downtowners: former Trust Building and Sundance Grill owner George Wanty, who has strong loyalties in both city and ’burb.

Wanty is chairman of the board of the new Centennial Park Building Owners Association, an area of Cascade with a rich legacy of connection to downtown. The former Foremost office park was left somewhat decimated by the insurance giant Foremost Insurance Co. (which was purchased by Zurich Financial subsidiary Farmers Group) in its piecemeal sales as its headquarters moved to Caledonia.

The corrections made by those who purchased the properties are now budding into a dominant office park — or neighborhood — built of long-time Grand Rapids businesses, thus continuing the ‘legacy” of the Centennial Park area. The extent of that is partially exemplified in the new board members: Kirt Ojala, Dan Carter, John Shape, Larry Fleis, Chris Beckering, Dick Morton and Marianne Althouse. The current geographic boundaries extend from the relatively new Family Video/Wendy’s, Panera Bread complex to Kraft Avenue, and include businesses as varied as the Centennial Country Club, the Charlevoix Fitness Club (now owned by Karen and Larry Knowles and managed by Ray McCahill’s Corporate Fitness Systems, which also manages the Peninsular Club), Fleis & VandenBrink Engineering, GMAC, Kean Corp., and the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The latter also is under new management in David Rijos, who is said to be a significant player making significant changes at the hotel and in community involvement.

  • A very big coup for the downtown office market is the rumored move of Blue Cross Blue Shield and its 2,000 employees from its suburban offices. The only confirmation from the insurance giant is that it is considering a move. Speculators believe it will be to the Steketee’s building in the heart of the renovated Monroe Center.

  • It’s a matter of communicating … and who you know: Grand Rapids-based telecommunications company VoEx Inc. has established three centers in Baghdad, Iraq, where Iraqis can make affordable telephone calls and send uncensored e-mail to the rest of the world. VoEx Inc. will open 20 such communications centers in the greater Baghdad area within two months, according to the privately held company’s executive vice president, Michael Vorce

Friends contacted Haydar Haba, VoEx’s chief executive, a naturalized Americanbornin Iraq, and associates from his native country soon after the war ended and expressed a need for telephone and Internet services.

The company was founded in 2001 and is primarily a wholesaler of international telecommunications services. VoEx extended its global-communication infrastructure into Iraq with help from its in-country partner, The Albanna Group, which acquired the necessary equipment and secured retail space for the centers. The company is working with Cisco Systems Inc. to route phone calls through the Internet to the recipient’s computer, telephone or fax machine. Iraqis manage each center.

  • Meanwhile, Holland-based Sordal Inc. has entered the ice age on the back of Grand Rapidian Jim Dreyer, who is known to throw himself into the frigid waters of the Great Lakes and swim in the name of the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.

Dreyer is jumping in to Lake Superior on Aug. 26 (depending upon weather) to take a 73-mile swim, which would provide the distinction of being the only person to swim direct crossings of all five Great Lakes.

Sordal CEO Dale Danver, a NASA licensee, created “Iceman ThermalWear,” said to be the first clothing product created with the patented insulation material invented by NASA Langley Research Center and commercially developed and trademarked as “Solrex” by Danver. The CEO is developing the technology for prime NASA contractors Boeing, Northrop-Grumman and Lockheed-Martin for the next generation of space shuttle. The product also is used by the U.S. Navy Surface Warfare vessels and in work for the Missile Defense Agency. The swimmer and the CEO are working with Quintana Roo, a leading international manufacturer of performance wetsuits (which also sponsors Dreyer’s swims).

Dreyer’s gear will be called “Iceman Sharkskin,” and will give Dreyer an edge to stave off the hypothermia that curtailed a similar quest last year.           

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