Wanted Deep Throat

March 1, 2006
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If your first exposure to the mystery "Massive Riverfront Project Afoot" in downtown Grand Rapids wasn't in the Business Journal, blame the U.S. Postal Service for taking its Presidents Day siesta when it should have been delivering the scoop.

The front page story quickly became the talk of the town — a bombshell that didn't involve layoffs. Every news organization in the city ran a follow-up last week (you're welcome!).

It's become the most popular topic on the Urban Planet forum ever, with over 600 posts by press time Friday. At times, the discussion was worse for productivity than sports scores and porn surfing combined, with upwards of 50 people browsing the thread.

This is even more impressive considering that when the development hobbyists realized that the Internet is a media outlet, they shut down the discussion for fear of driving up property price tags. They reopened it the next morning, after the local daily got its version in print on Tuesday.

Since then, staffers have been inundated with tips from people who know or know someone who knows what it is — mostly conflicting accounts. Even so, somewhere out there is the leak waiting to happen. And if you're reading this, Mr. Anonymous, the number is 459-4545.

If it comes to it, we've got a pair of interns packed and ready to spend some time behind bars to protect your identity. Speaking of which, the Press Club of Grand Rapids is hosting a forum on News Source Protection this afternoon.

  • Here are some of the suggestions concerning the mystery project.

    — A Toyota version of the RenaissanceCenter

    — An automotive research and design center.

    — A "TechVillage" centered on sustainable design and renewable energy.

    — An evangelical Christian version of Vatican City

    — A Trump tower and casino.

    — A shuttle to China through the Earth's core, to more directly export jobs (OK, we made that one up.).

    — Furniture design Hall of Fame.

    — New corporate headquarters of any one to three of the following: Alticor, Haworth, Perrigo, Google, Wolverine World Wide, Sears/Kmart, Toyota, Dow, Pfizer, and the United Nations, to name a few.

    — A Wal-Mart.

    — Kmart. (Oops. That was last year's rumor-turned-front-page daily story.)

    — Industrialist C. Montgomery Burns is building a device to block out the sun.

    — A complete relocation of New Orleans' French Quarter, brick by brick.

    — A retail complex with a Hard Rock Café.

  • Landslide winner in the Business Journal's online (www.grbj.com) survey last week, "Would you come downtown to spend time at a large shopping center/entertainment complex?" Yes: 93. No: 11.

  • It appears that shady dealings between top lawmakers and heavily funded lobbyists have come home to roost in West Michigan … again.

This time, there is no mention of Jack Abramhoff or Indian casinos, but the name of one local company has surfaced in the investigation of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and the potential influence a staff member's husband may have had on  "earmarks" of federal funds.

Zeeland-based Gentex Corp. got $11.2 million of those appropriations in the past four years, according to a report in USA Today. The report details $300,000 Gentex paid to lobbyists over the span of several years.

In the last five years, Specter has inserted 13 earmarks (worth $48.7 million) into spending bills that have directly benefited clients of Michael Herson, a lobbyist with American Defense International. His wife, Vickie Siegel Herson, is one of Specter's top aides. Specter denies that the seemingly cozy relationship had any influence on his decisions. And, unseemly as the whole affair may appear, no one has suggested that Gentex or five other Herson clients have made any legal or ethical missteps.

As for Specter and Herson, seen in the scope of a $2.77 trillion budget, what's $49 million between friends?

  • Though President George W. Bush stopped in Auburn Hills during his two-day trip to promote new energy sources, he did not make it over to the west side of the state.

But don't worry, West Michigan, The Rapid and the Michigan Alternative and RenewableEnergyCenter in Muskegon got some recognition, even if it was from the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Policy and International Affairs, Karen Harbert (say that three times fast).

Harbert also stopped by Steelcase's Wood Plant in GainesTownship for a tour accompanied by Kentwood Mayor Richard Root

  • Speaking of Steelcase, the company won a Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence for its City of Industry plant in California. Had the Grand Rapids furniture maker won the award a year ago, it would have been honored as a hometown hero. But instead of
    DeVos Place
    , this year's ceremony is in Covington, Ky.

  • In its 11 years, Hanon McKendry has been one of the region's most successful firms at the Ad Club of West Michigan's annual ADDY Awards (see story, page B2). It was interesting that founder Bill McKendry had little to say about the success, other than that he hopes for a stable top three showing each year, but a lot to say about his clients and competition.

"I think this was a break-out year for Grey Matter Group," he said. "They're really doing some great stuff. I thought there were a lot of great entries this year, and I thought the judges were a little harsh — too many Silvers, as opposed to Gold. We're seeing some great things from the competition, and that will only help us and the region."

Grey Matter Group's Rick Devon agreed it was "a break-out year." Only three years ago, the 15-year veteran was a freelancer with a handful of employees. Now, his eight-employee (and interviewing for a creative director) firm has a new partner, John Sawyer, a strong client base and a bunch of ADDY hardware.

"It's a nice surprise," Devon said. "It's great to see how far we've come. As a freelancer, we were getting low budget, quick turnaround stuff. We've worked hard to create opportunities."    

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