2004 Year Of Unfinished Business

December 23, 2004
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Maybe 2004 could be termed a year of "transition."

From bank mergers to medical schools to hospital complexes, a lot was started in 2004, but not everything was finished by the end of the year.

Here is a look back at a year that, when recalled a decade from now, may be seen as the start of something really big in West Michigan

JANUARY

The year started with changes in significant leadership positions in West Michigan

Jeanne Englehart became the first woman to ascend to the presidency of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Englehart, the former founder and president of Englehart Training Centers, topped 130 candidates following a three-month search for a successor to John Brown.

George Heartwell became Grand Rapids' first new mayor in a dozen years when he took over the keys of the city from three-term incumbent John Logie. Heartwell pledged to promote the common good and goodwill, specifically mentioning a stronger partnership between the city, the public schools and the business community.

The New Year brought new ideas for the engineers at JCI's EdgarPrinceTechnicalCenter, who unveiled "futuristic" plans for their "3E" concept for automotive interiors. The Es, they explained, stand for economy, ecology and ergonomics.

HollandHospital also started the year looking to the future when it applied to the Michigan Department of Community Health for a certificate of need for a $46 million expansion project.

In the first major award of the season,

DeVos Place
picked up the Grand Rapids Business Journal's Newsmaker of the Year honor. While the $212 million convention center certainly impressed the judging panel, it was the cooperative effort among all involved that tipped the vote in the center's favor.

Riviera Tool Co. anticipated new heights in 2004 as it led a group of Michigan tooling suppliers in a collaborative effort to produce the Mercedes Benz M Class sports utility vehicle. By December, however, Riviera had missed a pair of SEC filing deadlines for its Form 10-K and the project's future was uncertain.

On the national front — but with plenty of local ramifications — J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Bank One Corp. announced a merger that would create a $1.1 trillion entity with 2,300 branches. That merger was not fully implemented locally by year's end, however, as the Bank One name still adorned West Michigan branches.

The local economic picture was muddied at the start of the year, as forecasters predicted anywhere from slight declines to modest growth for 2004. Hari Singh, chairman of the Seidman School of Business Economic Department, chose the growth side, basing his scores on a jump in the business confidence index late in 2003.

FEBRUARY

February drew the national spotlight to Grand Rapids, when the American Hockey League played its All-Star Classic here and the event was televised to 100 million households in the United States and Canada. It also was worth $350,000 to local coffers.

West Michigan also drew attention on the health-care front. Gov. Jennifer Granholm touted Muskegon's Access Health as a plan by which to extend health coverage to the uninsured across the state.

In KentCounty, commissioners were keen on a 1.25-acre tract of land on

Monroe Avenue
fronting the Grand River, with thoughts of eventually using the site for the county's next administration building. But while the land was eventually purchased, 2004 came and went with the county planning to stay on CalderPlaza

Muskegon also welcomed the region's newest sports franchise, the Continental Basketball Association's Michigan Mayhem. Owner Jannie Scott hoped the team, which began play in the fall, would draw more people to downtown Muskegon's growing business district.

One of the year's biggest stories came to light in February when Michigan State University President Peter McPherson acknowledged that a full-blown medical school in Grand Rapids was something the College of Human Medicine "must examine." By year's end, the plans had changed dramatically — including an alternative proposal put forth in a study commissioned by the Grand Action Committee — but the goal had not: Grand Rapids still was ripe for a partnership with MSU's medical school.

Plans also were heating up for one of the city's most visible intersections:

Division Avenue
and
Fulton Street
. The former City Centre parking ramp, which had been closed for two months, would come down. Replacing it would be … Well, that's something that will play out in 2005, as the city ended the year entertaining proposals from developers.

February also saw something unusual in the financial sector: Lake Michigan Credit Union revealed plans to change to a federal mutual savings bank. But while board members spent the year considering the move and touting its benefits, a December membership vote fell short of the two-thirds majority required to make the change.

Wells Fargo Bank joined the local market in February, opening a commercial lending office — its first in the Lower Peninsula — in downtown Grand Rapids

MARCH

Lakeshore Advantage, a Holland-based economic development group, began the search for its first full-time director and announced plans to establish a business incubator. By the end of the year, Randy Thelen was in place as director and the LakeshoreBusinessGarden had attracted its first tenant.

The structure that had served as a poster child for the revival of the North Monroe Business District and as a showcase for what could be accomplished in Grand Rapids' Renaissance Zone — the BrassWorksBuilding — was sold to Brass Works Equities LLC, a group that included Todd Schaal, Michael Miller, Sam Cummings and John Green.

There was more movement on the building and development front when Union Foundry LLC demolished the third and final building of the former Grand Rapids Foundry to make room for a $50 million, twin tower apartment project. Nine months later, however, weeds would be the only things going up on the site as the project remained in limbo.

A couple of major projects did get underway in March. Northpointe Bank scooped up 10 acres on the East Beltline with plans to put a new headquarters there, and the city's oldest commercial structure — 180 Monroe Ave. NW, opened in 1853 — had more than a million pounds of junk extracted from it as part of Terra Firma Development's renovation project involving loft-style office space.

On the energy front, Crystal Flash President Tom Fehsenfeld was pleased with sales of soy diesel and predicted that 7 million gallons of the environmentally friendly fuel would be sold in 2004, and that he expected that number would more than double in 2005.

But raw materials were crimping other parts of the economy. Many industries locally were feeling the pinch from rising steel prices — in some cases more than 60 percent — and were judging just how much of that price hike could be passed on to customers.

While the Convention and Visitors Bureau celebrated the booking of its 100th convention for

DeVos Place
, the lodging industry started to worry about occupancy rates. Despite those fears, by the end of the year Grand Rapids would see plans for a new hotel to be built by Alticor Inc., just across the street from the AmwayGrandPlaza

On the positive side, VAI Chairman David Van Andel told the Economics Club that the life sciences sector might be the ticket to re-ignite the state's struggling economy.

APRIL

Spring sprung some surprises when Johnson Controls Inc. announced plans to move its sun visor production from Holland to Mexico, eventually costing the region hundreds of jobs. Also on the Lakeshore, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan secured a deal with HollandCommunityHospital — the last holdout in the state — for its PPO and POS health plans, after years of prolonged and complex negotiations.

In Grand Rapids, the new ThomasM.CooleyLawSchool turned the tables on the American Bar Association and took the governing body to court over its refusal to grant accreditation to satellite law programs in GR and Rochester. By year's end, the situation still wasn't fully resolved.

While the legal community was up in arms, the arts and entertainment sector got a boost when city commissioners chose Urban Marketing Collaborative, of Toronto, to help put together a downtown arts and entertainment district. Such a district would certainly feature

DeVos Place
, which during March recorded its second consecutive profitable month.

KentCounty also recorded a milestone when it topped the $20 billion mark for the equalized value of real and personal property.

MAY

Residents started the month learning that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, West Michigan lost 16,200 more jobs from 2001 to 2003 than were created in the region. That broke down to 2.6 jobs lost for every one gained. While manufacturing took the biggest hit, it was expected that health care and education would actually be job-generating sectors in the years to come.

The ongoing push for more downtown housing got a boost when Front Row Condominiums took over seven buildings on MonroeCenter with plans for upscale living quarters.

Area hospitals also got good news when officials found out that a change in the Medicare reimbursement formula meant another $90 million for area caregivers over the next three years.

But not all the economic news was good. The Environmental Protection Agency was unhappy with West Michigan's air quality and slapped some restrictions on development. Legislators worked all year, in cooperation with the federal government, to get the non-attainment status reduced and put the blame where it belongs: on cities across Lake Michigan that are generating pollution that travels here.

JUNE

The month opened with news that MetropolitanHospital, nine months after breaking ground on its $150 million health-care village in southwest KentCounty, was putting the project on hold to explore financing options. Not much would change on this front by the end of the year, with construction plans and funding still up in the air.

There was plenty of change on the "high seas," however, as the LakeExpress made its first run between Muskegon and Milwaukee. The high-speed ferry would prove popular among business travelers all year, and plans for next year could include more routes and boats.

Another cool development happened when Grand Rapids went 2-for-3 in the Cool Cities Pilot Program, meaning state funds would be coming for the Avenue for the Arts and Uptown Revitalization projects.

But while the state giveth, it also taketh away. County officials across Michigan got news that revenue sharing would be one of the targets as the state attempted to balance its budget. By the end of the year, that plan would come to fruition and property owners began seeing changes in their tax bills.

Officials feared that another change on the local front — the proliferation of the signature chrome pole of the exotic dancer — would become a mainstay in downtown Grand Rapids with the opening of Tini Bikinis Bar & Grille and a proposal by the owner of Sensations to open an "adult mall" at the site of a former steel factory. The latter plan hadn't developed by year's end.

The new Rapid Central Station opened in June, with officials crediting the teamwork of six cities for bringing the new ITP transportation center to fruition.

Nine West Michigan firms closed the month by picking up Ernst & Young West Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year awards, including Rita Williams, of Gill Industries, for master entrepreneur.

Things also were looking up in the office furniture industry, as the big three began to see results from cost-cutting and restructuring moves, as well as an uptick in orders. At Holland-based Herman Miller, more change was in the air as Brian Walker succeeded Michael Volkema as CEO.

Also on the lakeshore, Muskegon got good news when the state included it in its

Michigan Main Street
program and pledged assistance in revitalizing its downtown.

JULY

ITP narrowed its transit study to two corridors — East Grand Rapids/Kentwood and South — for enhanced services and development that could include light rail, streetcar and express bus transit options.

If the South option is chosen, it may have a new destination to feature. Celebration Cinema announced plans to put a $15 million movie complex near

Kalamazoo Avenue
and M-6 featuring 16 auditoriums and seating for 2,600.

In Muskegon, redevelopment of the downtown mall took a turn when city officials decided to forego using a single developer to redesign the 23-acre site and instead open it up to several development firms.

Also in Muskegon, a test run for jet service at the county airport was off to a smooth start. Officials were still waiting in December for word on whether the service would become permanent.

For once, the news was about jobs that were coming to the area, not disappearing, when Haworth Inc. closed production facilities in Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and brought the work to West Michigan. The move created 200 new jobs in the region and promised to add 1,000 more over the next dozen years.

Another Lakeshore firm, Gentex Corp., made plans for building a fourth local production facility boosted by an upswing in overseas shipments of auto-dimming automotive mirrors, which accounted for more than half its mirror sales in the first six months.

Another automotive supplier, Lacks Enterprises, decided to stay home, too, committing $51.8 million over the next five years to expand and improve production facilities in West Michigan

AUGUST

The 2004 presidential election trail wound through West Michigan when both President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry made stops in Grand Rapids. The ensuing debate over attendance figures at both events made for some nice political rhetoric.

Grand Haven captured some national headlines when Ottawa Wireless Inc. connected the entire city to a high-speed wireless Internet network, the first time such a feat had been accomplished.

One of the summer's biggest celebrations, the Muskegon Air Fair, ran into foul weather over the July 4 weekend and by August was asking creditors for some patience and support. At year-end, however, the news was much better with a new date for 2005 that avoids the holiday weekend and features a return engagement by the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels.

Back to school took on a whole new meaning when the Van Andel Institute announced it was forming its own Ph.D. program in cellular and molecular genetics.

SEPTEMBER

On the heels of its Ph.D. decision, VAI came up with a strategy that may be even more far reaching. The institute announced it was in the "very, very early" stages of forming a commercial division to bring new developments to the market.

A new development also was underway at Consumers Energy's J.H. Campbell Generating Complex in West Olive, where over the next two years more than 2,000 construction workers will be completing a $350 million project to reduce emissions at the plant.

September marked a fresh start for the 25-year-old DeVos Performance Hall, which had been closed since Memorial Day for renovations.

Health care got a new look, too, as Saint Mary's Health Care touted its new name with a sharpened awareness campaign.

Grand Rapids unveiled its personal parking meter plan, in which users would skip the coins and hang on their rearview mirrors a device that features pre-paid minutes. After two months of testing, the city in December decided to expand the program.

The abrupt departure of Robert Krasa left Haworth without a CEO, but the post didn't stay vacant for long. Richard Haworth, who had served as CEO from 1976 to 1997, resumed the day-to-day operational duties of the office furniture maker.

OCTOBER

Community leaders were recognized for their contributions when Sharron Reynolds, a vice president with Huntington Bank, picked up the ATHENA Award and John MacKeigan, M.D., a colon and rectal surgeon with Michigan Medical PC and the Ferguson Clinic, was inducted into the Grand Rapids Medical Hall of Fame.

Local restaurants flexed their muscle when they banded together to form West Michigan Originals, an organization solely for independent restaurant owners.

A local caregiver, ZeelandCommunityHospital, completed a bond sale to finance a new $36.1 million campus now under construction on

Chicago Drive

Not all was fiscally fit along the lakeshore, however, as Holland-based Macatawa Bank suffered a bad loan of $5.9 million to Rycenga Homes, meaning the bank took a $2.3 million loss provision and ruined what would have been a tremendous quarter.

In Grand Rapids, the city went high-tech when officials started a citywide WiFi effort, spearheaded by the CommunityMediaCenter

Technology, in the form of Quixtar, helped Alticor Inc. reach $6.2 billion in sales for the year, up $1.3 billion over 2003. During that time, Quixtar achieved a new single-day sales record of $12 million.

NOVEMBER

The life sciences sector got a virtual boost when it was announced that Internet2, linking researchers to scientific data, would be a priority in Grand Rapids in 2005, when fiber for the new high-speed, broader-bandwidth network would be laid.

KentCounty commissioners agreed to fund the Convention and Visitors Bureau, but first wanted some answers regarding the lodging industry's lackluster occupancy rate of 54.5 percent. They were assured that the money given to the CVB would help attract more visitors to area hotels and boost the occupancy levels.

Perrigo Co. stepped into the generic prescription drug market by entering an agreement with Bentley Pharmaceuticals, based in New Hampshire, to co-develop, market and sell prescription drugs. Just a few weeks later, the Allegan-based manufacturer would leap into the market with the purchase (for $818 million) of Tel Aviv-based Agis Industries Ltd., the second-largest pharmaceutical company in Israel

The region reached another milestone with the opening of M-6, commonly referred to as the Paul B. Henry Freeway or the South Beltline. By whatever name, commuters were happy to shave time off their drives, even if the 20-mile stretch of road took $700 million and almost a quarter century to become a reality.

Although it wasn't as long in coming as M-6, it was just as welcome. The office furniture industry, after a horrific three-year stretch, began forming "rebound strategies" for the coming years. In fact, Herman Miller called for a doubling of annual revenues, from the current $1.3 billion to $2.6 billion, within six years.

Ferris State University/Kendall College had some expansion plans of its own when it unveiled a proposal to expand its downtown Grand Rapids presence to cover a full three blocks of

North Division Avenue
, including the current site of the Grand RapidsArt Museum

The Neighborhood Business Alliance recognized growth in the city with its 15th annual awards ceremony, which honored the ThomasM.CooleyLawSchool and NBA Executive Director Sharon Evoy with its top two prizes.

A Bloomfield Hills-based technology company, NuSoft Solutions, eyed a prize of a different sort when it acquired Grand Rapids-based Sagestone Consulting. The agreement resulted in a 250-employee company, the largest concentration of Microsoft Certified Professionals in Michigan, if not the Midwest

Saint Mary's Health Care announced plans for a $30 million outpatient campus in southwest KentCounty — near Metro's new health-care village site.

While that type of gamble was OK, most other forms of gambling were not, according to 23 Is Enough, a local political action committee that took its fight against tribal casinos nationwide. The group would score a victory just a few weeks later when the state Senate voted to rescind a resolution that awarded a gaming compact to the Gun Lake Band of Potawatomi Indians for a casino in AlleganCounty

The sad story of the CyberNET Group and its ill-fated CEO, Barry Watson, garnered a storm of local media attention. More quietly, however, a group of engineers from the shamed company teamed with counterparts from Trivalent Group to save RoadLink USA's national network over the long Thanksgiving weekend, earning the eternal respect of the $200 million Pennsylvania-based company.


DECEMBER

A report commissioned by the Michigan Department of Community Health and the Department of Labor and Economic Growth showed that the state will need to fill more than 100,000 professional and technical health-care positions over the next decade to keep up with a services.

Backers of reform in Federal Prison Industries ended the year on a high note when the federal budget bill included language permanently lifting mandatory-source status for FPI among all federal agencies, allowing private manufacturers to compete for federal contracts on more level footing.

A Cascade-based shopping center, Waterfall shoppes, scored a trio of Fortune 500 companies when it lured Costco, Target and Staples to the half-million-square-foot project at the former site of Showcase Cinemas on

28th Street SE

While her designs probably won't show up at Waterfall shoppes, Pamella DeVos enjoyed plenty of national TV exposure when actress Kim Cattrall wore an original from her firm, Pamella Roland, to the Emmy award show.

Grand Rapids lost one of its originals when Amway co-founder Jay Van Andel died at the age of 80. Van Andel, with an estimated net worth of $2.3 billion, left a significant legacy to West Michigan — and the world — by opening the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids.

Apparently, the Convention and Arena Authority could use some of that money, as the owners and operators of Van Andel Arena and

DeVos Place
were left looking for $2.6 million annually to cover capital replacement costs at the two buildings.

Money also was on the minds of city and school officials as the year ended, with city commissioners considering use of the Brownfield Redevelopment Act to provide a sustained source of funding for Grand Rapids Public Schools.    

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