Wheeler swings for fences at Real Estate Forum

October 20, 2008
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Talk about a diamond in the rough! John Wheeler, CEO of Rockford Companies, almost whizzed one by the Business Journal last week when he pitched his idea of dropping a baseball diamond onto two city-owned parking lots behind Van Andel Arena and have the West Michigan Whitecaps call it home. Wheeler said his group would buy the remaining debt the ’Caps have on its current field of dreams, Fifth Third Ballpark, to entice the successful Class A franchise to move downtown.

“Until I’ve had a conversation with John and understand a lot better where he is coming from, there’s not much I can say other than it’s an interesting idea. But whether it makes sense for us as a business and because we own and operate this facility, whether it’s going to be financially feasible to make that kind of move — those are things that we are going to have to flush out. I really don’t know whether it would work for us or not,” said Lew Chamberlin, CEO and managing partner of the Whitecaps.

Wheeler said the new ballpark could be an outdoor music venue on dates the baseball team is on the road and noted the Convention and Arena Authority is thinking about building such an amphitheater in Millennium Park. Wheeler said he would like the CAA to operate the downtown diamond.

We tried to reach CAA Chairman Steven Heacock to get his reaction but struck out. We even called the bullpen to see if he was warming up, but fanned there, too.

Women’s conference also a hit

Wheeler’s bombshell came during a roundtable held as part of the 22nd annual University of Michigan & Urban Land Institute Real Estate Forum held in West Michigan for the first time. Business Journal staff kept busy blogging on conference activities at grbusinessjournal.blogspot.com. 

The power-packed forum was not the only venue last week in which Grand Rapids was thrust into the spotlight. At the eighth annual Michigan Women’s Business Conference & Expo in Novi, the number of participants who talked about doing business in and around this city was unprecedented by previous year’s standards. Local representation also was seen among the Women’s Business Council Accomplishment Awards 2008 winners. Floriza Genautis, founder and CEO of Management Business Solutions and fresh off being named the Grand Rapids Minority Business Advocate of the Year, was saluted as the top Role Model/Mentor of the Year. GVSU’s Ester Burns was selected as Government Volunteer of the Year, and GRCC’s Mansfield Matthewson was named Government Advocate of the Year.

A sit-down with the president

Michele Van Dyke, president and CEO of Fifth Third Bank West Michigan, and Jim Dunlap, Huntington Bank’s regional group president for West Michigan, were delighted to be among 10 local business leaders who chatted and broke bread with President George Bush Wednesday at the Schnitz East Deli & Coffee Bar in Ada. Over lunch, the president discussed the policy decisions he announced Monday and why he made the decisions he made. 

“The primary purpose of the meeting was to get our reaction to those policy changes, and he wanted to hear from different business leaders, including bankers, what impact we thought they would have on our businesses,” Van Dyke said. 

From the banking side, the policy changes are very positive, Van Dyke said: The direct investment into banks and the attractive offer for capital helps banks effectively manage their balance sheets, which in the long run will probably free up some of the credit and enable banks to start lending again. That, in turn, will help the manufacturers and small business owners who were at the table, she said. 

“There was a general sense that the policies he put in place and those changes were very, very positive for all of us,” Van Dyke said. “There’s obviously concern for the average person who opens his 401(k) statement and sees that his accumulated wealth has declined.  Understandably, the natural reaction is nervousness and anxiety. The president’s message is, ‘Hang in there, don’t panic, it’s going to get better.’”

Dunlap said the president told the group about the struggle he went through relative to his own convictions about government’s role, and how far he had to come for his cabinet to convince him to do the things that are now being done.

“Taking $1 trillion in government money and injecting it into the private sector was not something he ever thought he would have to do as president or would ever even think of agreeing to,” Dunlap noted “He went to great pains to talk about the significant financial collapse that was eminent had the government not acted when it did and to the degree that it did, both in magnitude of dollars and in some ways injecting ownership into private business in the United States.”

The market instability that is created by the perception that the financial markets are in freefall perpetuates a freefall, Dunlap observed. There remains a deep belief that this is a Wall Street and Washington issue — the players that both created and benefited from the mess. His take on Bush’s visit is that the president wanted to get away from the so called “fat cats,” get out to the Midwest and have a conversation with people he feels are being more affected by the situation in an inadvertent way. He wanted everyone to understand that they have his full attention and that he has a full understanding of the situation, Dunlap added.

Power to the people

He certainly would have made Yogi Berra proud. When Phil Power, president and founder of The Center for Michigan, spoke at the Grand Valley Metro Council’s quarterly luncheon last week, it was déjà vu all over again. Power noted that his very first speech after establishing the center came at a, you guessed it, Metro Council quarterly luncheon.

Power’s concern over the state’s future remained as fixed as it was during his first visit here more than 18 months ago, when the state’s economy was better than it is now and likely will be five years from now when, Power predicted, only one domestic automaker will be left standing.

Power turned his attention last week to the upcoming election. He said there are 45 open seats in the state House and that he had talked with all the candidates, not caring what their party label was. He asked each one if they had read the Center’s agenda for Michigan’s future, and 70 percent told him they had. “Half of them were lying to us,” he said.

But he stopped way short of calling them bad people. Power said he has found that newly elected lawmakers go into Lansing wanting to do the right thing and make life better for the state’s residents. But then party leadership punishes them if they “reach across the aisle” to a member of the “opposition.” He  cited one legislator who was sanctioned by his leadership for buying a lawmaker of the other party a lemonade.

“Things don’t have to be that way,” he said. “We have 148 in the Legislature and 35 or 40 (new members) could help change that situation. The decisions we make in the next 10 years will determine our direction for the next 50 years. This is big stuff. It’s work for adults. I need your help.”

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