Winds Of Change Create Progress

February 25, 2008
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Economic analysts earn their keep when times are difficult. They spend hours on research and reports with the intention of documenting flaws and challenges. They also map the way to frequently sensible — but often difficult to execute — solutions. It’s comforting to note that despite this area’s economic hiccups, there are shining examples of forward-thinking progress.

A recent study from think-tank Michigan Future Inc. sounds a warning. Much of the response to the organization’s findings has focused on the well-stated emphasis on this state’s continued reliance on the troubled domestic auto industry, and suggested methods to move away from that model. The report suggests placing a priority on finding a path to return Michigan to high prosperity in the flattening world economy.

Some of the study’s findings can be disheartening, but they are not surprising. The seven-county West Michigan area trails the state and nation in the concentration of college graduates, the single most important predicator of economic prosperity, according to Michigan Future. West Michigan also is low on the list of per capita income and the proportion of jobs that require higher education.

“The reason why you have low per capita income is 40 percent of your wages are from higher-education industries. That is abysmally low. That’s where all the paying jobs are.” So says Michigan Future Executive Director Lou Glazer.

As emphasized in the report, Glazer has been among the advocates of helping this state’s largest metropolitan areas — particularly Detroit and Grand Rapids — move toward the successful economic model other larger cities have experienced. It’s essential these cities not only have the highest proportion of households with incomes of $75,000 or more, but also the smallest proportion of households with incomes under $25,000. The study says the state’s big cities must become the “main drivers of a prosperous Michigan.”

Glazer, in commenting a few weeks ago regarding the Business Journal’s list of Newsmaker of the Year nominees, was high on projects that boosted the downtown’s vibrancy and potential as a jobs-attractor, particularly the city of Grand Rapids’ decision to expand the boundaries of the Downtown Development Authority. City commissioners last week cemented their approval of the expansion plan, which adds 371 acres to the panel’s boundary and broadens the board’s reach to 676 acres in the central business district.

There are two schools of thought behind what leads to long-term economic growth. One is that good jobs must be available in an area in order to recruit talented individuals. The other says the talent must come first; that having talented individuals in an area will lead to the creation of good jobs, and economic growth will follow. Expanding the DDA district could very well lead to having more places for the highly sought-after creative class to live, and a vibrant downtown. A continued remaking of an expanded downtown certainly could deliver jobs and economic growth — not just to the district, but also to the larger region.

“We are creating economic vitality and, therefore, creating a stronger tax base,” said Mayor George Heartwell, also a DDA member. “When downtown Grand Rapids is strong and vital, the impact of that is property values and surrounding communities are stronger. If downtown fails, then that has a rippling effect into our neighboring cities and townships.”

Improving the attractiveness and livability of downtown with a focused approach to such issues as sustainable business and green development puts Grand Rapids firmly on the track suggested by Michigan Future.

Green GR is an update to the city’s 2002 Master Plan and Parks and Recreation Plan. Its purpose is to determine whether the city has enough parks, playgrounds and green spaces to support a strong quality of life. If not, the program will determine new areas of green space. These are essential investments in the future that will attract and retain jobs and talent to the area.

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