A community of participants not passengers

October 2, 2011
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Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce members late last week hosted a group of 30 CEOs from the Detroit Regional Chamber, offering tours of ArtPrize and GRid70.

The most important aspect of the day, however, was the exchange of discussion between East and West business leaders and what one regional culture could share with the other. While one of the top priorities coming from the annual Detroit Chamber Mackinac policy conference is to create greater east-west relationships and opportunities, it is insignificant except for the pleasantries unless some real action results.

Detroit is rich for its Fortune 500 companies and for its art and cultural treasures. Its public sector leadership, however — represented by the likes of Kwame Kilpatrick and a lingering legacy of like-minded individuals — envelopes like smog all that is good and impairs the potential for change. Cutting through that smog has required all of Mayor Dave Bing’s energy — and vast stores of humility.

Grand Rapids’ top executives shared with their Michigan peers the making of partnerships for public/private projects, but in that process, they noted two essential values that provided the foundation for every action in the last 50 years: a mutual trust between the public and private sectors, and the philanthropic anchor of every major project.

On the eve of the Detroit-Grand Rapids exchange was a minor example of the latter — although no single thing is ever minor in that it is a building block for more. The executive lions of Grand Rapids gathered with more than 560 people at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Amway donated all food and beverage to help capture 100 percent of the event’s net revenues for the announced charity. The recipient of more than $302,000 was Heart of West Michigan United Way’s Schools of Hope program, which provides more than 600 Grand Rapids Public Schools students in 19 locations with 22,000 tutoring sessions during and after school.

Another point to note in that beneficence is business leaders’ long involvement and investment in education issues and student achievement. As Grand Action co-chair David Frey noted last week, the ingredients to make a city great include a strong school system and leaders who care about the community enough to invest in it.

Commercial real estate developer Sam Cummings wanted to emphasize to the Detroit delegation that mutual trust is part of the culture in West Michigan — and “it’s critical.” He also emphasized that individuals with divergent interests all have one common goal: philanthropy. Amway co-founder Rich DeVos gave a candid example of that during the hotel’s anniversary celebration. It’s never made a profit, he said, but has stimulated dozens of other projects, from the Van Andel Arena and Van Andel Institute to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

As Cummings noted: This is a community of participants, not passengers.

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