Saints and Sinners emerged amid a very topsy-turvy 2008

December 29, 2008
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Wow, how time really does pass us by. We join much of the rest of the civilized world in pontificating on the ups and downs, good and bad, and above all, the Saints and Sinners of 2008 — a fondly memorable year for some, a forgettable nightmare for others.

Here’s a sample of this year’s “nominees”:

We found these folks to represent the Saints this time around:

  • Manager Kurt Kimball for graciously serving the city of Grand Rapids for 22 years and for having to deal with Grand Rapids mayors and city commissioners for so, so, so long. His retirement is well deserved.

  • The Convention and Arena Authority for chilling the wine good enough last month for a second Wine & Food Festival next November.

  • Kent County Commission Chair Roger Morgan for leading the county through a financial minefield this year and getting some key buildings projects, like the Human Services Complex, going.

  • Fred Keller for ramping up production of the innovative Swift Wind Turbine in 2008, even as the price of petroleum was threatening to push all energy costs through the roof. The Swift is designed for homes can be mounted on the roof, which saves the expense of a tower. Keller, the CEO of Cascade Engineering, suddenly found his company in the front ranks of a new American war for independence from foreign oil.

  • The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, who shelled out $5 million for the defunct Great Lakes Downs racetrack in Fruitport Township, plus more for several other parcels of adjoining land, in the hopes of someday soon giving that property a run for its money again. This time Lady Luck would be working the slots and tables, instead of betting on the nags.

  • Alliance for Health, for scoring a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to examine racial inequities in the health care system.

  • Spectrum Health, for making diversity a core institutional value and putting its corporate training where its money is.

  • The elderly of Ottawa County, who will have more options for nursing home care after the Michigan Department of Community Health approved more beds for the first time in decades.
  • Spectrum Health, for leading state hospitals on transparency in health care costs by adding an average insurance payment look-up to its Web site. Not a perfect solution, but better than the deafening silence offered by most other health care institutions and doctors.

  • Metro Health, for rattling cages at Spectrum Health by netting an eye-catching partnership with the University of Michigan for cancer radiation therapy.

  • West Michigan cancer patients, who have three brand-new treatment centers for radiation and chemotherapy, one nearly new center and a refurbished one. Now we just have to pay for them.

  • Muskegon County, which closes out 2008 with a single, financially healthier hospital and a new center for cancer treatment.

  • Kent County children, for getting medical homes, thanks to the Early Childhood Children’s Commission and financial support from local foundations.

There remain some bright spots among the down office furniture industry. Smaller, more niche, companies have stayed relatively strong amid the chaos. Nucraft and StelterPartners have been able to make a name for themselves by specializing in certain areas. When you think “education,” you should also think “StelterPartners.” If executive offices are on your mind, Nucraft should be also. The industry has also taken advantage of hot markets such as hospitality, education and the G.R. favorite — health care. Nurture by Steelcase continually rings in awards for its innovative approach to health care. Speaking of innovation, Details, another Steelcase company, unveiled its Walkstation (in short, a treadmill with an adjustable desk) earlier this year.

Herman Miller gets a big tip of the hat for its revolutionary Embody chair, which has a proven track record for improving health by sitting down.

Design West Michigan brings together all types of designers and design students in the West Michigan region to promote design as an economic building block for the area. Led by John Berry, the group has brought in speakers from across the country and garnered national attention.

There’s something to be said about the adage, “Plan your work and work your plan.” Through hard work and a devoted staff, The Right Place Inc. continues to attract new companies to the area as well as help those who start here stay here. The organization has also helped inventors bring their products to market this year through the InnovationWorks program.

More and more of the Web savvy are finding ways to start credible companies, such as Mighty in the Midwest, a digital creative company specializing in Web sites, motion graphics and TV spots.

Those we would categorize among the Sinners this year:

  • Mayor George Heartwell for originally dissing City Manager Kurt Kimball’s selection of Kevin Belk for Grand Rapids Police Chief because Belk, who is white, wasn’t ethnic enough for Heartwell, who thought a black police chief would “help restore racial harmony” in the city. A little business advice, George: The best candidate should always get the job, regardless of race. Also, a dig goes to Heartwell for suggesting that Kimball’s replacement be paid more from the start than the 22-year veteran earned at the end.

  • The Arena Football League for “suspending” the 2009 season when the league and the Grand Rapids Rampage were both on a roll.
  • The 800-pound-gorilla also known as the Michigan Business Tax, contrived under duress by the Michigan Legislature to do all sorts of backroom favors for individual companies and certain industries while also raising plenty of dough to pull the state government back from the edge of bankruptcy. Some viable businesses saw their tax bill go up 600 percent while the auto industries — remember them? — saw their tax bill go down. Go figure.

  • Meijer Inc., Spartan Stores Inc. and every other store that sells milk, for making a big deal out of introducing “hormone-free milk,” but failing to explain to consumers that their milk never had any hormones in it in the first place.

  • Retail health care clinics, a concept tried out in West Michigan by Advantage Health, Physicians Organization of West Michigan and Metro Health. They turned out to be DOA.

  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which watched the Legislature close up shop this month without a final decision on the ill-fated bills for individual insurance reform. The Blues spent millions on lobbyists, PR and advertising on the issue.

  • Attorney General Mike Cox, who started out in 2007 by blowing the whistle on consumer-unfriendly aspects of the Blues bills and ended 2008 with an unbecoming, self-aggrandizing press release congratulating himself for opposing the legislation.

  • Local hospitals, for ordering up millions in new imaging equipment and setting charges at hundreds of dollars above the actual costs of running it.

  • Michigan voters, for letting sick people smoke pot but not allowing them to acquire it.

  • The state of Michigan for its arguably free-spending approach to “economic development.” The state subsidy for movies shot in the state has been roundly condemned by some of the more-traditional tax-paying sectors.  Up to 42 percent of the cost of filming in-state may be rebated to some producers, possibly entailing total payments in excess of $100 million from the state treasury in the first couple of years. The law signed last April by Gov. Jennifer Granholm does not put a cap on the total amount of subsidies Michigan taxpayers could end up paying for.

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