Guest Column

West Michigan has four strategic advantages

July 5, 2013
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Earlier this year, I was asked to participate in the Governor’s Economic Summit in Detroit, a gathering of business, academic and philanthropic leaders from around the state to focus on the key strategic advantages, weaknesses and opportunities for our cities and state. I was asked to help facilitate the data-gathering process for the Western or Region 4 market area.

Recently, I was discussing the takeaways from the conference and what, in particular, our city and region has going for it that is seldom articulated uniformly. Those of you who know me will not be disappointed to learn there will be no focus on the negative here: I truly love this place. It is always good to recognize threats and weaknesses, but I believe in constantly focusing on what is working and relentlessly pursuing decisions that are in line with and enhance the vision and culture. One pound of positive action is worth 10 pounds of intention or 100 pounds of complaining.

After more than 20 years of participating in the revitalization of this great city and its near neighborhoods, I think I have come to know it. While this does not necessarily represent the conclusions of all who participated in the Region 4 discussions, nor would I call it comprehensive, I will distill its characteristics to four key strategic advantages: accessibility; culture of caring (philanthropy); natural environment and built infrastructure (place); local employers and trust.

When I say accessibility, I mean it two ways. In the most obvious sense, we are an incredibly accessible city and region — the “vehicularly mobile” (and, increasingly, using public transit) can get anywhere in 20-30 minutes, from lakeshore to central city and several municipalities in between. This is a characteristic not enjoyed by larger cities, and we should articulate it more often. From my vocational perspective, as a professional “environment provider,” it gives us an interesting advantage as we can accommodate a potential customer in one of our buildings in the Central Business District who relies on daily mobility to conduct business.

The second type of accessibility is personal or influential accessibility: The CEOs and “movers and shakers” are remarkably accessible and available. If there is an idea hatched by John Q. Public and it has the best interests of the city as a potential outcome, chances are good he will get a phone call or face time with a key community leader. This trait is further enhanced by the former, more physical characteristic: Despite diverse, local geography (or municipality), most everyone considers himself a Grand Rapidian.

Our city’s revitalization has been anchored by philanthropy. As a student of U.S. cities’ urban revitalization over the past 20-plus years, I see more similarities than differences. One thing is always present, however: the presence of a “true believer” willing to take big personal risk to buy and control the renovation or construction of key physical anchors in the community. This may be a businessperson, philanthropist or combination. Think Tony Goldman in 1960s and ’70s Soho, Jim Williams in 1980s and ’90s Savannah, or, more recently, Dan Gilbert in Detroit.

Here, this was driven by a few families with extraordinary vision. This has now magnificently multiplied, but there is no denying the origins. The business and philanthropic investments are far too numerous to list. The thing that transcends the physical, however is the encouragement and cultivation of what Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel have referred to as the “culture of caring” — the notion that not everyone can give at the same level or in the same way, but everyone needs to participate. Well, here we do — we all “own it” and it shows. We were recently named one of the most philanthropic cities per capita in the nation. Caring enough about the place you call home that you will always ante up is a big deal. It truly does “take a city,” and we get that around here — public and private. I would add that our collective largesse over the past 20 years (with exceptions, of course) has had a unified secondary or tertiary purpose: Regardless of primary mission, the unwritten rule of collective community effort X, Y or Z has been that it must contribute to the revitalization of the city or further enhance our common “place.” This leads me to point three.

We have one helluva place: We’ve got a clean, vibrant city bristling with culture, nightlife, activities and beer. We have cool architecture, historic and new. We’ve got vibrant and improving neighborhoods and awesome events — and it is all 30 minutes or so from one of the greatest natural resources in the world! Fifteen years ago, folks used to call this Bland Rapids. That moniker is obsolete today. This has been fueled by the relentless pursuit of creating a 24-hour city. Believe it or not, 20 years ago, people thought it was crazy to contemplate residential development downtown. Why would someone want to live there?

In 1994, Andres Duany, Jeff Speck and Elizabeth Platter-Zyberk published “Suburban Nation,” a book on the ills of contemporary planning and zoning, which, in the words of Duany, was like eating an “unscrambled omelet.” Back then, I had a stack of the books in my office to hand out to folks who visited us in the newly emerging entertainment district. We even had Duany come and speak here. I’m happy to say that past is prologue and we are now in “late-stage adoption” — it’s all coming to pass, that stuff we dreamed about back then. People live here. People are taking ownership. We have pride in our city. The “city builder” movement has a very active group of local zealots. Nationally, what was considered New Urbanism is now demographic inversion: The work force of today and tomorrow wants to be in a diverse and dynamic environment and employers are noticing. In GR, we have the added bonus of still being extraordinarily affordable, but the world is beginning to take notice. A little annual event called ArtPrize has changed all that.

Finally, we have local employers with global reach who understand the value of the collective good and the value of having a community worth coming to. They are either family owned or still family influenced. They get the fact that it is easier to attract talent to their organizations if their HQ is in a place worth living in. They are engaged in keeping it that way and in constantly redefining how they can improve the region because they are house proud, individually and collectively. They intrinsically understand that, although their primary purpose is to provide goods or services for remuneration, it is incumbent upon them to be good neighbors and stewards — and their efforts are collaborative and meaningful.

There is a common thread to all this and it is culture. People talk about it, but we’ve got it. Are we perfect? No, but who is? One thing is certain: We will keep our collective feet standing on the gas until we fix what ails us today and what might crop up tomorrow, and we will do it together. Moreover, we trust each other and rely on one another to park whatever disagreements we might have and hold up our end of the stick when it comes time. A look in the eye and a handshake means everything around here, and that is a powerful thing. 

I am a most fortunate man to live in my favorite city on the planet (and the home of the 2013 Calder Cup champions!).

Sam Cummings is the managing partner of CWD Real Estate Investment in Grand Rapids.

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