Local Giving Turns Out Just Grand

December 1, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Individual donors, local foundations, private-sector enterprises and governmental units all freely contributed to make the sparkling $212 million DeVos Place a truly grand reality.

The fundraising effort turned out to be the largest public-private partnership in the city’s history, easily surpassing a similar endeavor that opened the Van Andel Arena in 1996 — another partnered venture that raised “only” $75 million.

In fact, the DeVos Place capital campaign was even more special than could be imagined as it received a gift from its very first client.

The Midwest Industrial Woodworking Expo, which opens the exhibit space Thursday, gave $45,000 to help accelerate construction so the long-awaited building could open this month instead of next month, and that gift made the sources of revenue for the project numerous.

Public construction money came from the State of Michigan, Kent County, the city of Grand Rapids, the Downtown Development Authority and the federal government.

The state, then under the leadership of Gov. John Engler, donated $65 million to the project. Kent County agreed to issue a pair of bond packages totaling $91 million to be backed by revenue from the lodging excise tax. The city and DDA gave $10 million to the project. The federal government awarded the project $7.3 million.

Kent County and the city sold the former Hall of Justice property on the riverfront to the Convention and Arena Authority for $1 to accommodate the expansion of the building. And the city gave up roughly $300,000 in annual parking revenue from its DeVos Hall parking ramp, which was demolished to make room for the project.

Private construction money came from a fundraising drive directed by the Grand Action Committee, which also led the private financial campaign for the arena. Initially, the group announced it would raise $30 million for the construction project. But later, Grand Action upped its pledge to $33 million to help close a funding gap.

“It’s the first campaign, of the many I’ve worked on, where we stepped up to the window when we had that 10 percent rise in the cost way back about three years ago. And we said we were going to step up and do 10 percent more,” said Robert Hooker, who chaired the Grand Action capital campaign.

“Well, when you’re in the fundraising mode and you’re looking at $30 million, that seems like a big, tough one to crack — and when you add another $3 million on it, that will make you swallow twice,” he added. “But it’s happening.”

The lead gift to the drive came from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, a single donation that filled 45 percent of the campaign’s goal. In return for their generosity, the new convention center was named DeVos Place in their honor.

Ten donors each gave $1 million or more to the Grand Action drive. Six more donated from $500,000 to $999,999, while two more pledged between $250,000 and $499,999. Another seven gave from $100,000 to $250,000. Banks, individuals, foundations and corporations were the most active of the biggest givers.

On top of that, no donor who gave to the arena drive failed to give to the convention center campaign, too, despite much tougher economic times this time around.

“We have experienced zero loss from pledges and that, to me, is really a telltale sign. We’ve had one or two ask to please extend their giving from a three-year commitment to make it four years, or four years to make it five. But otherwise everyone is paying their bill,” said Hooker. “That really feels good.”

Grand Action opened its drive to the general public in October by offering bricks, tiles and pavers for sale. These will be inscribed with the purchasers’ names and planted in the Riverfront Promenade, a new plaza just south of DeVos Place on Lyon Street along the Grand River. The sale will raise $1.5 million for the final leg of the campaign.

More than 250 people in business, education, health and human services, labor and religion make up Grand Action, which is co-chaired by John Canepa, Dick DeVos and David Frey. In the group’s most recent capital campaigns, Grand Action has pledged $60 million to local projects.

“We have traveled a long way on this journey over the past 10, 12 years,” said Canepa.

In September, county commissioners authorized the second of the two bond packages for DeVos Place. The 20-year, $10 million issuance came about as the result of a last-minute agreement made by DDA Executive Director Verne Barry and then Kent County Chairman Steven Heacock last year to eliminate a nagging construction deficit.

Each pledged an additional $5 million gift to the building project from their respective public organizations. Those bonds were sold in October.

The first bond package was worth approximately $86 million and those securities sold in about a week two years ago.

“If you have any doubt in West Michigan’s generosity,” said Hooker, “just take a look at what has happened here over the last 10 years.”    

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