City Put Best Face Forward

January 8, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Though Mayor George Heartwell said he is unsure of the economic impact that the funeral of President Gerald R. Ford had on the community, he knows that it has given the city and its employees and residents a new source of pride.

“I’m so proud of Grand Rapids and how the city handled this; performed, really,” he said. “It just came off without a hitch.”

City officials and many others knew for many years this would eventually become the final resting place of the 38th president, but Heartwell said knowing and doing are very different.

“We knew that we would be in the spotlight for the whole nation to see, for the world to see for that matter. We wanted to make sure that Grand Rapids looked good, and it did,” he said.

The one aspect that Heartwell said could not have been planned was the outpouring of affection from citizens.

“I don’t know how to estimate the positive impact that it has for Grand Rapids and West Michigan, whether it’s for tourism, whether it’s for image, but I have a sense that it’s given us some visibility that’s going to be very important for us,” he said.

The Military District of Washington, D.C.,  does reimburse some costs of the ceremonies and preparations, Heartwell said, but that amount has not yet been determined. Heartwell said it is his understanding that out-of-pocket costs such as new fencing and barricades will be covered, but the overtime and extra hours worked by personnel will not.

Still, that has not deterred the city from doing its duty, Heartwell said.

“This is our contribution. We are somehow privileged to be one of the very few cities that have buried presidents, and that’s remarkable enough in itself, and we don’t resent the costs,” he said.

Janet Korn, vice president of marketing for the Grand Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the bureau will not know until February how the funeral impacted the city economically through hotel and restaurant use. But she also believed community pride would be something that would carry over for the region.

“I think that the true impact comes from the celebration and remembrance of Gerald Ford’s contributions to the United States. And what was most celebrated was his integrity and his character and his compassion, which are attributes which are so positive to have really been sprung from his Midwestern Grand Rapids, Michigan, upbringing,” she said. “I think our community did an outstanding job of welcoming home our president and graciously accommodating the events over the last several days.”

Korn said people may not have associated Ford with Grand Rapids before if they are not from the area, but they do now.

“Potentially, they hadn’t really glued Gerald Ford together with Grand Rapids,” she said.

The renewed sense of connection will affect the area favorably as Grand Rapids is continued to be touted as a place to visit, live and work, Korn said.

She said different media contacts already have requested more information on the area, some inquiring about the on-going construction in the downtown area and the many cranes that are in use.

“There’s a lot happening here, so there’s an opportunity for media to realize that there are future stories here,” she said.

While the visitors learned more about Grand Rapids, Korn said, residents were reminded why they do live and work here.

“What I was really moved by (the day of the funeral) was how proud I was to be a Grand Rapidian,” she said. “It was a great coming together as a community to show our respect for our president. I know I was warmed by the outpouring of community support and I know that the Ford family was affected that way. Sometimes you have to be reminded of the goodness to really take things to the next level.”

Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc., said she does not want to use the funeral as a marketing tool for the city. She is pleased, however, with the way Grand Rapids showed the values that Ford was so well known for during the funeral ceremonies.

“The way this community welcomed him home and the way it poured out its care and respect for him spoke volumes about our community,” she said. “To me, that was the impression that was left with dignitaries, visitors and the press that was visiting. It was our community at its best.”

With Grand Rapids being mentioned on the front page of national newspapers and publications, Klohs said, there would certainly be attention paid to the area that cannot be bought. But the most important part of the attention was the way the city presented itself, she added.

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