Location, Location, Location

August 25, 2006
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KENTWOOD — Although it’s not a necessity, Kentwood Mayor Richard Root hopes that if a business in his community partners with the public sector through a tax abatement or similar assistance, it has the courtesy to put Kentwood on its business card.

“It’s certainly not a necessity to locate in Kentwood,” he said. “It’d be the right thing to do, but we still know you’re here, either way.”

Of the nine companies that received abatements in the first half of this year, many of them new to Kentwood, six honored that sentiment. The other firms, along with dozens of the region’s more recognizable companies, chose to identify themselves with Grand Rapids instead.

This year, Intertek ETL Entela, Ranir DCP and Corium International all received assistance from Kentwood, while branding themselves as Grand Rapids companies. (A handful of legitimate Grand Rapids firms also received assistance to relocate.) Other notable Kentwood companies claiming G.R. roots include Lake Michigan Credit Union, National Heritage Academies, Fox Motor Group, Lighthouse Insurance Group and MC Sports, to name a few.

Spartan Stores names itself a Grand Rapids-based company, but with its headquarters on 76th Street in Byron Center, it is barely located in Kent County. Gordon Food Service Inc., at 333 50th St. SW in Wyoming, isn’t much closer, but it also cites Grand Rapids. Down the street, at a company that should know better, United Parcel Service christened its regional hub at 5757 Clyde Park Ave. SW with a Grand Rapids address.

Meijer Inc. lists its Walker headquarters as a Grand Rapids address.

Much of the blame falls squarely on the U.S. Postal Service. Many of the region’s inner ring municipalities are served by the Grand Rapids post office. The Cascade Charter Township office actually carries a Grand Rapids address; it and Grand Rapids Charter Township are the only inner-ring municipalities to do so.

In other cases, the post office often advises companies to use a Grand Rapids address. In many of the written and computer references used by mailers and businesses, ZIP codes in the cities of Kentwood, Wyoming, Grandville and Walker are identified as Grand Rapids.

“It’s a perpetual issue,” said Kentwood City Commissioner Sharon Brinks. “The post office once told us our city office had to be addressed as Grand Rapids. No.”

Brinks believes that many Kentwood businesses are not aware they can identify themselves with a Kentwood address. After all, everyone that should know seems to say otherwise. Even the bulk mailing program she uses in her law office identifies her ZIP code as Grand Rapids.

“But many of them just want to be identified with Grand Rapids,” she said. “It’s a battle suburban communities will always face.”

“It’s just name recognition,” agreed Kentwood Economic Development Director Lisa Golder. “The companies they do business with might not be familiar with Kentwood, but they’ll be familiar with Grand Rapids.”

Grand Valley State University marketing professor Ben Rudolf said this is common practice in the business world. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT college entrance exam, only has a post office box in Princeton, N.J., he noted, but wants to be associated with the university there. And there is no Twin Lakes, Nev.; Citibank convinced the city of Las Vegas to create a separate postal entity so that the bank’s bill processing center would not be associated with “Sin City.” On a larger scale, California ice cream-maker Häagen-Dazs is very much a domestic brand, although all of its branding efforts associate it with Old World Europe.

An example of a local company that does identify itself with its home municipality is Amway parent company Alticor Inc., which happily promotes its location in Ada, Rudolf noted, projecting an image rife with patriotism and small-town values.

“A location can add prestige,” he said. “It can add credibility. Internationally, it’s called country of origin. And it works both ways. Some areas are known for certain products, or maybe they’re from an area that has a negative reputation.

“Other times companies just want to be associated with the larger city.”

This was the case for 10-year-old Kentwood tooling firm Lasers Unlimited Inc., which until recently identified itself as a Grand Rapids company.

“Coming out of Detroit 10 years ago, people weren’t really familiar with Kentwood,” said Tom Verburg, operations manager. “We wanted to be thought of as part of Grand Rapids.”

Upon receiving approval for one of the state’s tax-free Tool & Die Recovery Zones from the city, the company agreed to commissioners’ request to change its letterhead.

“We’re not isolationists because we’re proud of our businesses,” Brinks said. “This doesn’t mean we don’t want to work with other communities in the region, but we think it’s a good idea for companies to identify themselves with the city they are partnered with.”

Brinks cited another example in which an abatement-hopeful firm presented the commission with a list of its community efforts — every item was in Grand Rapids.

Public relations firm Lambert Edwards & Associates represents several companies that identify themselves with Grand Rapids that are not located there. The practice is a necessity for larger companies, said Jeff Lambert, managing partner, when outer ring communities have virtually no national or international recognition. And he sees communities actively doing so, too, with many promoting themselves to businesses as a “bedroom community of Grand Rapids.”

“It starts with how you identify where you live,” he said. “If you’re talking to someone from outside the area, you’re going to say Grand Rapids, even if you don’t actually live in the city.”

From a larger, regional perspective, the concern against doing so worries him.

“We all should do everything we can to build the image of Grand Rapids,” he said. “A lot of communities are having trouble with recruiting because of a lack of recognition of the resources available here. If we build up the image of Grand Rapids as a region, all the communities will benefit.”

Local and national representatives of U.S. Postal Service were not able to comment for this article.    

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