Economic Development

DeVos identifies culture as area's 'secret sauce'

The best way to grow a city is from the center out.

September 13, 2013
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DeVos identifies culture as area's 'secret sauce'
Dick DeVos has filled many roles over the last 30 years, but almost all of them have had a common theme: making his hometown a better place. Photo by Michael Buck

Dick DeVos has been busy for the last 30 years.

He accomplished more in that timeframe than most business leaders dream of doing, serving as president of The Windquest Group, president of Amway Corp., president and CEO of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, founder of the Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan, founder of West Michigan Aviation Academy, co-chairman of the Grand Action Committee, and, as Republican candidate for Michigan governor, waging the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in the state’s history in 2006.

But he isn’t done. His energy remains focused on the development of Grand Rapids — and with it, the success of West Michigan.

“The thing that’s stood out to me the most and that I’ve been the most personally involved with has been the evolution of downtown, of our core city,” DeVos said.

“It was sort of my theory, back at the beginning of what was called Grand Vision, which then became Grand Action … that cities grew best when they grew from the center out. The best way for a community to grow was to have a strong center and then grow from strength from the center.”

That strong center was developed by his father, Richard DeVos, he said, who co-founded Amway with Jay Van Andel in 1959. It was the legacy of those two business titans that led the way — no small feat for what was, at the time, a generally undeveloped, medium-sized town, DeVos said.

The two Amway cofounders were the ones who first began to lay the foundation for the city’s infrastructural “bones” of growth, he said.

“The big steps, first of all, were the investment and the leadership of my father and Mr. Van Andel to bring a hotel downtown and really start that process,” he said. “And the last 30 years, to me, has been the story of the strengthening of the core, which has given us the energy for the community to grow.”

The infrastructure continued to grow with the Van Andel Arena, which served as the “showhorse,” and DeVos Place, the “workhorse,” he said with a smile. Now that Downtown Market is ready for business, the infrastructure seems to have no more immediate need, he said. Now the focus needs to be on the “soft tissue” growth.

This is where the projects of his son, Rick DeVos — ArtPrize and Start Garden — come in, DeVos said, adding he is “very proud” of his son’s work, especially in developing West Michigan’s entrepreneurial culture.

“We have enormous diversity of industry fueled by entrepreneurship, where new ideas are being created,” he said. “All the work that has been done for the last 30 years has positioned Grand Rapids beautifully, because now we have the vitality, the diversity in our community to be able to be attractive.”

It’s that same thing he hopes will happen to Detroit as it struggles to find its footing after being declared bankrupt this year. If Detroit is being viewed as yesterday, he said, then Grand Rapids is being viewed as tomorrow.

The faster a city grows, the better — but only as long as that energy doesn’t dissipate too fast and spread out from the core, DeVos said.

“If you look at Detroit today … when you fly over it, it’s pretty interesting how horizontal Detroit is and how quickly the energy got dissipated across very large pieces of land,” he said. “That’s causing enormous difficulty for the community, as you’re finding all these empty spaces between a weak downtown that’s trying to revitalize itself and a relatively strong suburban ring around the outside.”

In contrast, Grand Rapids is emerging slowly from a strong downtown base, he said, and in the next 20 years is likely to be recognized as the most dynamic city in Michigan.

There are three steps, however, that Grand Rapids needs to start taking, DeVos said.

The city still faces a lack of downtown residential and office retail, he said, calling it something that must be “private sector led.” He said he doesn’t expect to see big box retail downtown in the next 20 years but certainly expects much-needed specialty retail.

“There needs to be greater opportunity for more and more people of all varieties to be able to live downtown, rental and owning opportunities in the city,” he said. “I’m really welcoming of discussions to see new projects springing up for apartments and condos, whichever way people (and developers) want to go.”

The second step regards education, he said. Parents don’t want to live in a city where they don’t want to send their kids to public schools, he said. DeVos recommends developing more charter and alternative schools, offering more choices for parents and providing a competitive push for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“Families are not confident that they can live in the city and get a great education,” he said. “Until we fix that, our near-end neighborhoods will continue to struggle and be unstable, as young people, maybe, move in, get married, then move out. That’s a sequence that’s very destabilizing to our near-end neighborhoods.”

The third step is local government, DeVos said, calling for more government consolidation and cooperation.

“We still have too many units of government operating completely independently — duplicative services, overlapping rules, regulations, complexity, for those people that want to come, invest and expand in our community,” he said.

When it comes to taking these steps, Grand Action’s role might be limited. DeVos said that, with the exception of Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place, Grand Action was project-based without an agenda.

Currently, Grand Action is finishing up Downtown Market development but has no plans for what’s next, DeVos said, torn about whether or not it was time to put the organization to rest.

“I’ve always said that, sort of like Regional Air Alliance, every organization should probably close down at some point, just because it’s a good idea,” he laughed. “I think Grand Action as a form, as a vehicle, probably lives on, but it has to be much more than the people involved. … It can’t continue with its current players because that would just limit its life, but the idea will live on.”

Of all the lessons DeVos has learned in the last 30 years about building a community, there is one he hopes will never be forgotten. It is the culture — and always has been: a hardworking, generous culture, he said. And to DeVos, that makes all the difference.

“My father once said that in some communities the way you get in is by the clubs you join, and the way you break into this community is by giving,” he said. “That’s the unique culture of this community, and while we get larger, and inevitably we will, I hope that never ever changes.”

“That’s the secret sauce of what’s going on in this town. It’s not the numbers. It’s that culture that defines us.”

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