Newsmaker Winners A Select Club

January 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — The winners of the Grand Rapids Business Journal’s Newsmaker of the Year Award do not belong to an exclusive club, as it grows a bit larger each year.

But the past winners make up the core of Grand Rapids’ business community, and this year’s honoree will take its place among some of the most storied names in the area’s recent history.

Inside today’s Focus section are profiles of this year’s 10 finalists. They represent a huge cross-section of the community, from medical to manufacturing to technology. Their efforts are noteworthy in that their contributions to this community are vitally important and ongoing.

This year’s winner will be announced at a special luncheon of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. As in the past, representatives from the 10 finalists will attend the event, and the winner’s identity will be kept secret until Publisher John Zwarensteyn and Editor Carole Valade make the announcement during the luncheon.

The event is set for noon on Monday, Jan. 16, in the Ambassador Ballroom of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Reservations are $27 each and can be made by calling the Economic Club at 454-1883 before 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

If history is any indication, this year’s winner will add significantly to the community and take a leadership position that will be crucial for the next several years.

The Business Journal’s first Newsmaker winner earned the award in 1992. Few would argue the impact that Rich DeVos had on West Michigan, both then and now. The DeVos name can be seen on many of the area’s public buildings to which he provided significant funds, seeding the beginning of the downtown renaissance. The firm he founded with lifelong friend Jay Van Andel, Amway Corp. (now Alticor), remains one of the world’s major players in the direct-selling business.

The next year’s winner also represented one of the area’s corporate icons, but Steelcase CEO Jerry Myers would leave his post within 18 months after receiving the Business Journal’s top honor.

After recognizing a pair of the area’s largest employers, the Newsmaker Award in 1994 went to a duo that technically up to that point had zero employees. Lew Chamberlin and Denny Baxter, after years of beating the bushes, brought professional minor league baseball here in the form of the West Michigan Whitecaps. Chamberlin and Baxter would soon put a team on the field, and thus would begin West Michigan’s love affair with the home nine. The Caps would eventually bring Class A titles to the community and, a few years after debuting, would form an affiliation with the Detroit Tigers.

The 1995 winners trumped Baxter and Chamberlin by one, when the trio of John Canepa, Dick DeVos and David Frey, known collectively as the Grand Action Committee, helped bring the Van Andel Arena to Grand Rapids. The venue’s “ripple effect” would be felt far and wide for years to come, as big-name acts made stops in heretofore unknown Grand Rapids, and entrepreneurs built dining and entertainment facilities that were part of downtown’s revival.

The trio also was responsible for promoting the construction of the DeVos Place convention center, the new Kent County Courthouse and countless other projects that needed a little moving and shaking from the private sector.

Another threesome was honored in 1996. This one included Grand Rapids City Manager Kurt Kimball, Right Place President Birgit Klohs and then-Gov. John Engler. While they didn’t win for one specific project, their overall impact as partners in economic development in West Michigan placed them at the top of the heap that year.

Kimball and Klohs embraced Engler’s Renaissance Zones as a valuable economic tool in attracting more business and industry to previously dilapidated areas of the city. Grand Rapids was cited as the city to model in the rest of the state. They also worked hard throughout the year to make city government more proactive than reactive to business owners.

It also marked the first time the city had partnered with private concerns (The Right Place Inc.) in creating the Urban Redevelopment Council, intending to retain current and attract new business to the city.

A sign of things to come occurred in 1997 when the first health-related winner was honored.

The birth of Spectrum Health, through the marriage of the former Blodgett and Butterworth hospitals, took center stage at that time and has been making news ever since. Now the area’s largest employer, Spectrum is an entrenched part of the emerging health care scene in West Michigan and has attracted plenty of medical talent locally.

The emphasis returned to the sports world in 1998 when the West Michigan Grand Prix and its driving forces, Sam Cummings and Dan DeVos, made downtown rumble.

But the noise would be short-lived because WMGP was unable to attract a title sponsor, and by 2000 the race that held so much national promise was out of financial gas.

In 1999, the theme of saving gas brought the Newsmaker Award to three people who immersed themselves in parking and transportation. Ted Perez, George Heartwell and David Cassard earned the honor for their work to cure the region’s “growth issue” of parking and mass transit.

In 2000, the region’s main life sciences player, the Van Andel Research Institute, made its presence felt with breakthrough work in the cancer research and biomed fields. At the time, CEO David Van Andel said the best was yet to come. Time may be proving that prediction true, as the VAI once again is a finalist this year for its $120 million to $150 million addition to its Grand Rapids headquarters.

The award went public again in 2001, with then-Kent County Board of Commissioners Chairman Pat Malone and Kent County Administrator Daryl Delabbio accepting the honor for the yeoman’s effort put forth by county officials in making Kent a better place to live and work, ranging from parkland preservation to the new courthouse to health plans for those who couldn’t afford them.

In 2002, the Newsmaker Award for the first time went to an entity outside the “core” coverage area when a partnership between Siemens Corp. and Grand Valley State University earned credit for developing an alternative-energy business park in Muskegon.

The honor came right back to downtown Grand Rapids the next year, however, when the $212 million DeVos Place convention center earned plaudits for national significance along with its local development impetus.

Last year, a pair of medical-related projects took home the top honors. Saint Mary’s Lacks Cancer Center and the Meijer Heart Center at Spectrum Health earned top honors as much for the ways they would deliver treatment as for their stunning new facilities.

Who will win this year’s award? Well, the people attending this year’s Econ Club luncheon will be the first to know. But the odds are good that the winner will make a significant economic impact in West Michigan, as have all previous winners.    

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