Loose Lips

March 20, 2006
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At last week’s Rotary Club meeting, featured in Anne Bond Emrich’s story on page 7, speaker David Van Andel said he couldn’t answer one question.

“I don’t know anything about what they’re doing with those 30 acres,” Van Andel quipped, before turning his attention to Business Journal Publisher and CEO John Zwarensteyn. “Did you sign one of those agreements, John?”

A full month later, with practically no new information made public since the initial break, the mystery project is still captivating West Michigan’s imagination. It’s the coolest thing since “Fire Millen.” How long until the first “I Know What The Mystery Project Is” T-shirts and bumper stickers?

Well, at least one city official is holding his questions for now.

“I don’t want to do anything to impede what’s happening; maybe this is something that’s great for Grand Rapids,” said Second Ward Commissioner Rick Tormala. “But when all this comes to light, the mayor and the city manager better be able to justify their actions.”

By the city charter, Tormala believes commissioners have the right to have the city clerk subpoena the mystery development specifics from the city staff who have signed confidentiality agreements — Mayor George Heartwell, City Manager Kurt Kimball and Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong — but he doesn’t want to interfere with whatever may be happening in the private sector.

Truth be told, Tormala emphasized, he doesn’t even know if Heartwell or the others actually have confidentiality agreements. Everything he knows, he learned from the media. And frankly, this isn’t the first time in recent months the public has been cut out of a controversial deal, Tormala said. He cited the Split Rock V Development LLC, GarfieldPark and adult ordinance negotiations as other high-profile examples where city staff has acted without the authority of its elected officials.

“The public has been cut out of the loop.”

Of particular interest to the mystery development is the apparent promise of the city to relocate its public works, an expensive proposition and deal killer in at least two separate incarnations of proposals for the city’s 19 acres at

201 Market Ave. SW.

One, involving a dot-com entrepreneur that relocated to West Michigan, proposed a tower on opposing banks of the river with a gondola ride stretched between them. Bet you hadn’t heard that one, yet.

The other was a brief discussion between former mayor John Logie and Rockford Construction CEO John Wheeler

“I was open to the idea, but we had to be able to move the city pieces cost-effectively,” Logie said. “You have to understand that when those facilities were put there 45 years ago, the river was an open sewer. No one realized that we had the kind of potential for the development we see along the river now.”

  • Like cutting off your nose to spite your face, state legislators agreed to raise the state’s minimum wage by as much as $2 over the next two years, in an effort to ward off a constitutional amendment that would automatically raise it along with inflation.

Pure and simple, the automatic escalator is a job killer,” said Senate Majority leader Ken Sikkema

By contrast, Republican colleague Bill Huizenga said, “Either they understand the damage they can do to the economy and don’t care, or they just don’t understand.”

Huizenga attempted, and failed, to add a pair of amendments to the legislation last week that would have created exemptions for large factions of the at least 60 percent of minimum wage earners believed not to be supporting families — namely, students.

“Universities are worried about this,” he said. “Small businesses are worried about this. Parents should be worried about this. Who’s going to hire a teenager when you can get an adult for the same price?”

  • No word yet whether city officials have tapped adult entertainment ordinance defense fund maven and Black Hills Citizens for a Better Community President Judy Rose to raise the $100,000 needed to keep fireworks in the Grand Rapids sky on the Fourth of July.

Sure would be nice if all those generous corporate donors cared as much about the 100,000 or so people who come to the city as the six or seven people who care whether or not an exotic dancer wears an extra two-square-inches of clothing.

As Tormala put it, “Really, what is the difference between pasties and G-strings and not having them?”

  • Does this sound familiar?

Laurie Volk, with Zimmerman/Volk Associates of Clinton, N.J., recently presented her ideas for a vital downtown with tremendous housing opportunity. Only this time, she wasn’t talking about Grand Rapids, where Volk pitched the potential for an additional 2,500 new housing units in 2004, but Belding.

Belding’s downtown can support 61 new housing units, which could be single or multifamily dwellings for artists, empty nesters and young couples that want to get away from the traffic congestion of Grand Rapids, Volk said.

The study cost $29,500, split between the city and the state.

Wow, downtown Grand Rapids has traffic congestion? It’s hard to notice it when you can walk the length of it in 20 minutes.

  • A study by the Technical University of Eindhoven in Holland (the one also known as The Netherlands) has discovered that complexity causes 50 percent of product returns. As reported by Reuters, the recent wave of versatile electronics gadgets from MP3 players to Egg McMuffin makers is constantly challenging consumers to figure out how to install and use them.

The average U.S. consumer will struggle for 20 minutes to get a device working, before giving up, the study found.

  • Best mystery development rumor yet.

“Here’s what the mystery development really is. Go back to the original Business Journal story on Feb. 20, and the clue is in the title: ‘Massive Riverfront Project Afoot.’

It’s a foot.”    

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