James White Represents Third Ward

October 24, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — There will be a new face on the Grand Rapids City Commission beginning tomorrow — that of long-time businessman and educator James B. White.

The City Commission Tuesday appointed White to fill the 3rd Ward seat vacated by former commissioner Scott Bowen, who was appointed in August as judge to the 62-A District Court serving Wyoming. 

White was one of 14 candidates seeking the seat.

By Tuesday, commissioners had whittled the candidate roster down to five finalists but were still having a hard time selecting one because all five were well qualified for the job.

As Second Ward Commissioner Roy Schmidt put it: “I dislike ranking these five people because I honestly believe that any one of them could serve as city commissioner.”

Joseph Jones, principal of Jones & Gavin public relations firm, was one of the three top finalists and said he was not at all disappointed with the outcome.

White happens to be the associate pastor of his church, Brown-Hutcherson Ministries.

“I was very, very pleased with the process and even more pleased with their decision in terms of selecting Jim White,” Jones said.  

White has had a long-term relationship with the Grand Rapids community.

Years ago, while still a graduate student at Calvin College, White helped co-found Camp Tall Turf, a year-round urban ministry for youth, and the Baxter Community Center, an organization that addresses the immediate needs of  residents in the city’s Baxter neighborhood. 

Both organizations are still running, which White finds immensely rewarding.

“I always wanted to do things so I could walk away and it would keep going,” he observed.

Early on in his career, White was in charge of one of the planning districts for the city of New York. He managed a budget of $400 million and was responsible for delivering a full range of municipal services to 189,000 people.

“I know what it is to deliver municipal services, and about the challenges and the budget cycle of the city,” he said. 

White came back to Grand Rapids 24 years ago and joined Calvin College as a professor. He had a consulting business on the side called JBW Associates.

As a consultant, he worked with different church denominations and national groups across the country helping them develop urban-based, service-type programs. 

He went into business with a friend in the mid-1980s, opening  J & B Computer Products Center in Kalamazoo.

They sold a variety of products, he recalled, including personal computers and printers at a time when the computer revolution was just taking off. 

He and his partner caught that wave and subsequently earned recognition from the state Department of Commerce as the fastest growing minority business in Michigan.

As the company grew, the partners established offices in Lansing, Midland and Grand Rapids.

Among their major clients were the former Upjohn Co. in Kalamazoo, Michigan State University in East Lansing, and Dow Chemical in Midland. They opened a store here when the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel became a client.

White and his partner started the company with an investment of $800,000 and built it into $4 million-plus enterprise.

“I ran four retail stores,” White recalled. “I experienced all the growing pains and frustrations of growing a small business. That was very, very valuable experience.”

White’s next stop was Grand Rapids Public Schools, where he was initially hired to help the school district develop ways to do more business with small business. 

“My goal was to develop policies and procedures to open competition to all the smaller companies,” he said.

That gradually led to a position as GRPS assistant superintendent for research and evaluation. His job was to evaluate public school programs to see if they were working, and if so, how well.

He retired from GRPS three years ago, and has since done some part-time teaching at Calvin.

    White briefly served as a city parking commissioner in the 1990s, served on the former GRATA public transit board, and more recently, on the Kent County Senior Millage Advisory Board.

As an associate pastor, he’ll be the third reverend on the city commission, joining Rev. Robert Dean of the 3rd Ward, and mayor-elect Rev. George Heartwell.

     White said his primary focuses as a 3rd Ward commissioner will be employment and public education.

     He’d like to see robotics become a new core industry and job creator in Grand Rapids, with the development of a robotics SmartZone.

     All the components needed for a robotics industry are already here, he said —  the small parts manufacturing and the university-level research into artificial intelligence.

     White said he hopes to help strengthen public education here.

“When people think about moving to a new city, one of the first questions they ask is, ‘How are the schools?’” White said. “I know that if our schools are weak, our city will always remain kind of weak.”

He has some very concrete ideas for doing just that, which commissioners and residents are likely to hear about in coming weeks.

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