Sustainability Incentives Deserve Support

February 13, 2006
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Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell last month listed several initiatives to be addressed in the first half of this year aimed at assisting the area’s economic diversification and growth. Heartwell’s objectives are aimed at the technology and life sciences industries, as well as sustainable business practices. The latter is the first to draw unanimity from his fellows on the city commission.

Their first act was agreement for the principle of green building practices, but the next step is likely to prove more difficult. Heartwell is piecing together the heart of potential state legislation that would allow communities to provide “incentives” similar to the tax abatements given in the past for manufacturing plant expansion and projected job growth. Those incentives have seen the politically motivated wrath of some commission members, but we can hope that Heartwell’s progressive package will have the same unanimity as the “talk.”

Grand Rapids has the potential to provide a statewide model through the legislature, and favor from both sides of the aisle. The diversity of the economy is obviously essential in this manufacturing state, and assisting its prominence should be of urgency both at home and across Michigan

Heartwell’s start with sustainability is shrewd. Few would argue in opposition to environmentally sound practices. It is also fitting that the possibility for the proposed state and local incentives is initiated by Grand Rapids, which boasts more Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings per capita than any other city in the country. The Grand Rapids area legacy pre-dates the mid-’80s when Herman Miller first planned what is now a LEED-certified building, and whose corporate employees in fact helped write those national guidelines as a result. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council created the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum in 1994, the oldest and largest such organization in the country. AquinasCollege now offers the nation’s only Bachelor of Science degree in sustainable business.

Heartwell has traveled with the local business leaders of this industry worldwide, most recently to Tokyo where he and Aquinas staff were invited to give seminars on sustainable business practices. Aquinas program director Matt Tueth last year told the Business Journal that Grand Rapids can distinguish itself in the global market with such practices.

With that level of experience in this community, Heartwell is right to stare business in the eye and assert consideration of LEED-certified building. Robert Grooters Development Co.’s second tower plan for condominiums at Bridgewater, for instance, might still include such consideration.

The good news for business is that Heartwell also proceeds with the intent of reward, not the hammer of rambunctious city requirements.

The enabling legislation for tax incentives should be the top priority of a unanimous city commission and the mayor. A healthy, diversified — and sustained — economy awaits the seed.    

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