GR named most sustainable mid-sized city

May 17, 2010
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Grand Rapids has some new national hardware to document its ascending progress as a sustainable community.

Grand Rapids beat out mid-sized city finalists Davenport, Iowa, and Hoover, Ala., in the competition for the 2010 Siemens Sustainable Community Awards, underwritten by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center and Siemens Corp.

The award winners were announced Thursday night at a dinner in Houston attended by Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jeanne Englehart, and Eric VanDellen, Amway Corp. environmental quality manager and member of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum who also has been active in the Grand Rapids chamber’s environmental affairs efforts.

The Siemens Sustainable Community Awards winners were announced and presented at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership’s National Conference on Corporate Community Investment at the JW Marriott Houston.

Nine communities across the country were selected as finalists for the third annual awards. The finalists were selected based on their outstanding efforts to achieve complementary economic, environmental and social goals, as well as to improve the overall quality of life within their communities.

“This shows that we have a great mid-sized community that has done some incredible things around sustainability,” Englehart said in an interview with the Business Journal prior to traveling to Houston. “It is another example, from the chamber’s perspective, that this was something we could wholeheartedly embrace. It signifies that public and private partnerships have borne fruit. West Michigan doesn’t do a great job bragging to others outside of our area. With so much bad news these days, this is a real great news story.

“Grand Rapids is just an incredible city,” Englehart said. “To receive an award of this kind from an organization like Seimens, when you see what other international companies that are involved as sponsors, it elevates the Grand Rapids community to another national platform to say what we are doing is very unique for a mid-sized city.”

Heartwell told the Business Journal such national recognition further validates the quality of life and economic opportunities to be found in West Michigan. “We’re so pleased to be able to give Birgit Klohs and The Right Place one more quiver in her arrow to attract business to Grand Rapids and to the West Michigan region. What we’ve come to understand as being most important is attracting and retaining talent — young, educated, creative people. This recognition shows that what we’re doing in this regard can’t be overstated.”

Both Englehart and Heartwell pointed to the triple-bottom-line progress being shown in the area of sustainability and its benefits to business growth and success.

“It begins as part of municipal planning — focusing on the economy, the environment and social equity,” said Heartwell, who in 2005 pledged that more than 20 percent of the city’s power would come from renewable sources by 2008. Grand Rapids was successful in reducing energy consumption by more than 10 percent through the use of technology like LED lighting and conservation. Since hitting the target before 2008, the city is now committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.

“We’ve done such things as making a regional investment in transit and have seen paybacks for the community and for business with The Rapid and its phenomenal growth in ridership the past eight years. On the economic side, there have been investments in health care, and the way we have built that sector and city’s role in that has been providing and making investment in infrastructure that supports that work. We’ve provided incentives for building development and redevelopment with such programs as the Smart Zones.

“In the area of social equity, I would point to the progress of the Grand Rapids Public Schools and pursuing city-schools partnerships. The afterschool program was helped when the city applied and received more than $30 million in federal and foundation grants to provide after school programming for 47 schools.”

Englehart said an extensive research and materials compilation effort went in to assembling the Grand Rapids’ application, as the chamber teamed with the city, The Right Place and others to put together its package.

“We had to prove it,” she said. “It was a huge project. There is a lot of documentation and statistics to validate what we were saying — things like national leadership in LEED building, being No. 4 in the nation. Grand Rapids has its roots in manufacturing, and there has been a huge interest in redevelopment of brownfield property. This has led to significant investment by businesses that have diversified our economy. There’s been something like 275 acres of reclaimed property and over a billion dollars in investment.”

“This (award) is huge for us — the city of Grand Rapids and this whole region,” Heartwell said. “It’s an affirmation that the work we’ve been doing the past six years or more is on target. For the U.S. Chamber to give us this award is significant. We’ve been doing the work. We’ve been measuring and reporting so we are able to document the progress that we’re making in our city and the region on a very clear set of sustainability indicators. We’ve been collecting the data, and reporting it out.”

Heartwell added: “It’s a reflection of the investment that business has made in sustainability, and that government has been a part of.”

The award winners were kept confidential until Thursday evening, but the accolades for all of the nominees were flowing well before the announcement.

“Despite — or perhaps because of — the tough economic conditions we’ve been enduring, more communities across the country embraced public-private partnerships as a core strategy for promoting sustainable community development,” said BCLC Senior Vice President and Executive Director Stephen Jordan. “All of the finalists for the awards made important contributions to their hometowns this year.”

“These communities have shown that, even in tough economic times, they can remain focused on ensuring a strong and sustainable future,” said Jim Whaley, vice president, Corporate Communications and Marketing, Siemens Corp.

“Siemens is proud to be associated with these outstanding and forward-thinking municipalities, and we look forward to continued work with many communities across the U.S. to help create a sustainable future through cutting-edge innovation."

Englehart emphasized the “payoff” for the recognition could come in the form of how others change their perception of Grand Rapids and Michigan.

“It shows companies that are here now or those that are thinking about coming here that this is a community that looks forward, not back. We know Michigan has had its share of issues and so has Grand Rapids. But this shows we are more progressive and have become the absolute shining star in the state of Michigan.

Englehart was excited to hear that a video of the award winners was scheduled to be shown in New York City’s Times Square.

“This really gives us a place on the national stage,” she said.

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