Persistence Led To DeVos Place

December 1, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Looking back a dozen years, John Canepa says the work that led to this week’s opening of DeVos Place lies in great measure in the persistence of the membership of the Grand Action Committee.

But the real core of the success, he added, is the nature of the community.

“You know, I’m not from here,” the former Old Kent Bank president said. “I grew up in Boston.

“And the thing that always amazes me about this community is the support for anything that comes up — whether it’s something like the arena or DeVos Place or a health project, or you name it. There’s just an amazing amount of support in this community.”

He said he didn’t mean to give the impression that Grand Action found it a pushover to develop the arena and then to start the engine of the transformation of Grand Center into DeVos Place.

But the key thing, he said, is that Grand Action carefully sought the community’s embrace for both projects and obtained that support, and no meaningful obstacle ever arose to threaten either.

“From the first, we got tremendous support for the arena,” he said. “There was not a lot holding it back. The challenge was to work out the financing of the arena and part of it through fundraising — $18 million. That kind of fundraising is always a challenge,” he said.

“The rest was handled through a $55 million bond issue, and it just takes time to put that kind of thing together. I think it went very smoothly.”

He said the projects featured a great deal of follow-through and persistence on the part of the committee.

Canepa said Dick DeVos invited him and David Frey, then president of Bank One, to form the Grand Vision Committee in 1991.

“The purpose of Grand Vision,” he said, “was to ascertain the economics and the community support for both a new arena and an expansion of the Grand Center.”

At certain times of the year the center was past capacity, especially for the Midwest Industrial Woodworking Expo (see related story), which during its local four-year run had begun crowding the Grand Center.

Moreover, there was the sense that Grand Rapids was big and vibrant enough to support a downtown sports venue.

“Grand Vision retained a consultant firm to do an extensive study,” Canepa said. “What came back were some very positive reports.

“And based on those reports,” he said, “the Grand Vision Committee was transformed into the Grand Action Committee in mid to late ’92.”

After its formation, he said, the committee spent considerable amounts of time meeting with community groups.

“We met with groups in the community — public and private groups — getting information from them, sharing the report.

“The report’s information quickly became public,” he said, “because we were sharing it with everybody — certainly with the county and the city of Grand Rapids.

“The key was to get as much input as we could from the various components of the community — the business sector, the government sector, education sector — all the sectors of the community that we could.”

Where did the executives of three rapidly expanding corporations come up with the time?

“Well, this is important,” Canepa said, with a shrug. “You know, you hold evening meetings. You get up earlier and hold 7 o’clock meetings. You find the time.”

Canepa said that as Grand Action’s interaction with community groups occurred, the committee itself expanded as numerous interests came on board.

“At one time we had about 200 members,” he said. “And again, they were representing the various elements of the community, and then — out of that — an executive committee was formed to kind of lead the charge.”

Though the community supported both projects, he explained, that doesn’t mean the pieces merely fell into place.

“I’d say that persistence was one of the qualities we had in the Grand Action Committee,” he said. “We were persistent as hell.

“You have to be persistent, because in both these projects you had a lot of elements saying, ‘It can’t be done. It won’t be done.’ And you’ve just got to work through those things and that negativism and just be very positive about it.

“I mean, they’d tell you, ‘Well, you can’t get state funding.’

“Well,” he added with a chuckle, “if you go to Lansing often enough and bug them often enough, you know, you get it.

“You have to have some persistence, that’s all.”

On the whole, he said, the DeVos Place project came together fairly smoothly.

“With the convention center, something already was in place,” he said. “But the project was over $200 million. The mere size of it was a challenge.

“So what you have is multi-faceted financing — over $33 million to be raised in the private sector, and then the rest through state and city and county,” he said. “This requires the ability of various sectors to come together — the ability of all parties to develop a consensus. And that’s what happened.

“The interesting thing,” he added, “is that there was practically no bickering.”    

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