Taking A New View

December 30, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — A new year is always a good time to begin preparations for a new economy, and that is what the city of Grand Rapids is doing.

City commissioners will look into recommendations presented to them recently by the New Economy Task Force that Mayor George Heartwell initiated and members of the commission ratified in March 2004.

The task force was put together to evaluate current city policies toward economic activity and to suggest new policies that the city could implement for a changing economy that is becoming more knowledge-based.

"I think that the product they turned out will be very helpful," said Rick Tormala, a 2nd Ward Commissioner, of the task force report. "I think it has some ideas on how we can be more productive."

For example, Jay Dunwell, task force member and Wolverine Coil Spring Co. president, told commissioners that one of the dozens of recommendations is for the city to create tax incentives for firms that lease space and have little in the way of personal property.

Current incentives favor industrial companies that own buildings and are eligible for tax exemptions when they expand or purchase new equipment, or get tax reimbursements for redeveloping vacant properties.

Dunwell said smaller knowledge-based businesses don't normally qualify for those types of breaks. But he added that many of these firms do need financial help to develop products, and also need assistance when they invest in intellectual capital.

"It's a discussion we may want to take to the state level," said Tormala.

Tormala noted that although tax exemptions and brownfield reimbursements are awarded locally, these incentives are the result of legislative efforts in Lansing.

Clipper Belt Lacer Co. General Manager Nancy Ayres, another task force member, reminded commissioners of the inescapable link between education and the quality of the work force in the city. She said the city needs to try to help schools lure the best and the brightest to come here.

"We could offer in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students," said Ayres of one method to bring new talent to the city.

Guy Bazzani, owner of Bazzani Associates, asked the board members not to restrict their economic development attention to downtown only, but to include the city's neighborhoods in their plans. He added commissioners need to ensure that all city departments — like planning, zoning and traffic safety — are working together toward the same goal.

"We have to make sure that everyone is collaborating," said Bazzani. "Grant-writing assistance is also important."

A short list of the task force recommendations urges the city to:

  • Apply its energy and fiscal support to key emerging business clusters, such as health sciences, higher education and robotics.
  • Create a climate that will breed success in the new economy through the city's key strengths, such as sustainable business, and work legislatively to support that development.
  • Cooperate with regional and community partners to develop a trained and skilled work force.
  • Demonstrate innovation and entrepreneurship by applying "local first" purchasing policies and by supporting diversity among suppliers.
  • Cultivate downtown as a regional center for West Michigan
  • Support the creation of city neighborhoods as vibrant residential, commercial and industrial sectors.

"What we have here is a road map," said Heartwell to commissioners. "Find the pieces that are most energizing to you and let's invest our own intellectual capital in this."    

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