Economic Development, Government, and Sustainability

Mayor cites business involvement in annual address

Companies have joined him in trying to make the future better for city’s youth.

January 26, 2013
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The plight of the city’s young people topped Mayor George Heartwell’s 10th State of the City address Saturday at DeVos Place, and he credited a lengthy list of local businesses for making his Mayor’s 50 program a success last year.

Heartwell cited Cascade Engineering, Express Employment Professionals, SMG, Mindscape, Terryberry, Vi-Chem, Warner Norcross and Judd, Compucraft, Dematic and others, including the YMCA and public library, for offering high school and college students paid work experiences through his initiative.

“We need more people like Herb Fitzron, human resources director at Dematic, a global company, to step up to the plate for young people who would otherwise not likely ever have such an experience,” he said.

“We are looking for businesses who have not been involved with teens to follow Dematic’s example. Sign up as a Mayor’s 50 business or donate to support the program,” he added. “Every person, every entity, every business can take action for our children. Together we can be part of the solution to improve children’s lives and sustain a brighter future for us all.”

No sooner had the mayor made that plea, when a local lender stepped forward — this time for the city’s Upward Bound program, in which Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College prepare high schoolers for the rigors of college. Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping President Jim Zawacki accepted the mayor’s challenge last year to help raise funds for the effort, and then last Saturday, Mercantile Bank Chairman and CEO Michael Price committed $100,000 to Upward Bound.

Price has consistently said that Mercantile supports communities that have supported the bank.

“For those of you who are ready to respond to the challenge, a special account has been established at the Student Advancement Foundation to receive your gifts. One hundred percent of the proceeds of your contribution will go directly to the Upward Bound programs at GVSU and GRCC,” said Heartwell.

The mayor then described how a relatively new program called Collective Impact, designed to involve the community in helping young children succeed in school, has made giant strides. That effort made its debut at last year’s State of the City address when then-Kent County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Steensma joined Heartwell at the podium.

Heartwell said the program’s shared strategy and shared metrics have been established. “Watch for the launch of the Collective Impact initiative this year. It has the potential to transform the delivery of all community services to our children,” he said.

The mayor next honored a pair of city commissioners — James White and Elias Lumpkins — as Champions of Diversity. He called White a “consummate educator” and referred to Lumpkins as such a lover of history and reading that he began his career as an elementary school teacher.

On the economic front, Heartwell praised the city’s five-year turnaround plan led by City Manager Greg Sundstrom for creating a multitude of transformation plans that are changing the way the city delivers its services, while reducing its costs. An income tax increase voters approved a few years ago is largely funding that effort; it is updated twice a month at the Commission of the Whole meeting.

“We just passed the halfway point on our five-year transformation plan. In less than two-and-one-half years, the city income tax rate will be lowered and city revenues will fall by $9 million each year. The good news is that we are about halfway to our financial goals. We are beginning to see the return on our investments,” he said.

As an example, the mayor pointed out the city’s sewer and water rates fell the past two years because of the efficiencies of the departments over that period. He added that in the next fiscal year 92 percent of city departments will meet their financial goals. Fire and police, which consume two-thirds of the city’s general budget, will reveal new cost-savings this summer that won’t reduce service levels.

“Over the next two years, the city will continue our sharp focus on transforming city operations to become financially sustainable after the city income tax reverts to its previous rate,” he said.

On the environmental scene, an area in which the mayor is especially proud of the city’s accomplishments, Heartwell said the city will use a grant from the EPA to study a large-scale solar installation at the Butterworth Landfill after having installed similar but smaller systems on other city properties.

“That site is ideally suited for this type of development, and this study will determine if a project can be financially feasible and at what scale,” he said.

In a prelude to his address, the mayor called the city astounding, the pride of the state, a center of innovation and a model for the nation for its risk-taking and ensuing results.

But what about 10 years ago? How did he see the city then?

“We do have a long history, mostly in business, of innovation, risk-taking and modeling for others. But it’s a fairly new phenomenon for government, I’d say. Government has always billed itself and prided itself on stability, consistency, predictability, being risk averse. So it’s a relatively new phenomenon for government to be risk taking,” the mayor told the Business Journal. “And we really follow the model of business in this community that has been doing that for decades.”

Have the last 10 years gone by quickly?

“They have for me. To think this is my 10th State of the City address is pretty astounding,” he said and then began laughing. “And when I’m still such a young man, you know.”

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