Bureau Chief Leaves Impressed With City

February 29, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — He is living proof that novelist Thomas Wolfe was wrong when he wrote you can’t go home again. He can, and in his case, it’ll be for the third time.

Convention and Visitors Bureau President Steve Wilson will soon be making the 115-mile, eastward journey back to his hometown, Flint, and then will move into the executive director’s chair at the Ruth Mott Foundation in a few weeks.

“It will be the third time I’ve done it,” he said of going home. “The first time was right after I graduated from college. Then early in my career I went back to run the convention and visitors bureau, and now this time.”

In 1993, Wilson took the reverse route he will soon be taking on I-96 and I-69 when he came here to run the local CVB. Back then, the bureau had an annual budget of $400,000 and a staff of seven. That budget today is $4.2 million, a tenfold increase, and the bureau has 25 staffers who regularly tout the benefits of holding business meetings at DeVos Place and taking vacations along Michigan’s West Coast.

Those growth numbers clearly indicate that the local hospitality industry has grown significantly under Wilson’s 15-year tenure. But he wasn’t ready or willing to take all of the credit for that. Wilson said a key factor as to why the industry has grown is that the business community is very cohesive and very willing to form partnerships with the public sector to make the city more alluring and accommodating to convention delegates and tourists.

Wilson said he became aware of that cooperation, which he felt was somewhat unique to the city, on the first day he reported to work here back in January of 1993. A group called Grand Vision had just then revealed its plans for a new downtown arena and an expanded Grand Center, the city’s convention center at the time.

“They talked about how they were going to put this public-private partnership together, and 15 years later, here are these wonderful facilities that are doing very well when compared to other facilities all around the country. From the financial perspective, both are breaking all of the odds in the industry, so it’s really proven that here our community really works very well together,” he said.

“While we have a lot of the same challenges, the same issues that other cities have around the state and around the Great Lakes region, we have a way of managing those issues, those challenges. We can come up with solutions to them. While everything isn’t perfect, we’ve really demonstrated some success here.”

As for his role, Wilson said being in Grand Rapids proved to him that one person can make a difference because there is an air of “openness” running through the city that allows someone to do just that. Wilson said he feels like he has made a difference during his tenure here, and West Michigan Whitecaps CEO Lew Chamberlin wholeheartedly agrees.

Chamberlin has been a CVB board member for almost all of Wilson’s stay at the bureau, having joined the panel just a year after Wilson became president. So he probably has had as close a view of the gains the bureau has made than perhaps anyone else has over the past 14 years.

Chamberlin is also one of the bureau’s representatives on the seven-member Convention and Arena Authority, which is financially responsible for the operation of DeVos Place. He also chairs the CAA’s Operations Committee, the group that receives monthly updates on the bureau’s efforts to book meetings at the convention center. And when Chamberlin learned that Wilson was leaving his post, he had nothing but high praise for the Flint native.

“What a great job you’ve done,” he recently told Wilson. “The growth you’ve achieved with the CVB has been tremendous. You’ve done a tremendous job.”

Chamberlin indicated that because of Wilson’s leadership and because of the people that Wilson has placed around him, he said the CVB board doesn’t have to run out tomorrow to find a suitable replacement.

“We’re not going to rush it to get it done because we’ve got such good people in place,” he said.

Chamberlin referred to two individuals that CVB Board Chair Kathleen Ponitz said the bureau’s executive committee recently named as interim leaders. Ponitz said George Helmstead was promoted to executive vice president, Janet Korn was made vice president, and together they will direct operations until a new president is hired. Helmstead had been vice president of sales for the past seven years. Korn has been with the bureau since 1995, most recently as its marketing director.

“I am very happy for Steve as he moves into his new role. We are extremely proud of our CVB and the vital role it plays in developing the West Michigan economy,” said Ponitz.

“I don’t think we can replace Steve Wilson,” she added. “We’ve officially made George and Janet the go-to people. The board is onboard and we have a (search) process.”

While going home can be a gratifying experience, as it likely will be for Wilson, he knows all too well that leaving a place that has rewardingly and warmly substituted for home can often be a difficult trip to make.

When the Business Journal asked Wilson what made him the proudest during the past decade and a half, he didn’t talk about any potential legacy that he might be leaving behind or any a major accomplishment.

In fact, he didn’t saying anything at all at first. Instead his eyes began to moisten and an emotional lump clearly implanted itself in his throat. Wilson then looked up and pointed to Helmstead and Korn, who were standing across the room, and said in a voice that was barely audible, “Those two people, my whole team. We went up against San Antonio, Texas, for a January convention, and we won.”

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