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Inside Track: Hoffius touts value of ‘fresh eyes’ in community planning process
Dirk Hoffius had a vision for the Grand River and downtown that took 20 years to come to fruition.
This year Dirk Hoffius was honored with the Community Foundation Philanthropy Award from the Council of Michigan Foundations. The award acknowledges a living individual or couple for service as both volunteer trustee and donor to help grow community philanthropy in Michigan on behalf of one or more community foundations.
To understand why Hoffius is a superb choice for this honor, one only needs to look at the list of nonprofit organizations he currently is involved with and then realize he’s been doing this type of work since 1969.
“He has had a tremendous impact on this foundation as well as in the community,” said Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.
He said his community involvement began just after he returned to Grand Rapids to start his career at Varnum law firm. He saw that the West Michigan Environmental Action Council was putting together a citizens’ committee focused on the Grand River.
“I was kind of horrified by what urban renewal had done,” he said. “It had torn down lots of old buildings and cleared out anything that was unusual and brought in this modern city plaza, and people came in at eight and left at five, and I was one of them.”
He noted that the area along the river then was nothing like it is today — nor was downtown.
“You have to remember what the city looked like then,” he said. “Hard concrete edges along the river and no pedestrian considerations. … There were few hotels, no residents, few restaurants or bars or entertainment.”
So he volunteered to be on the citizens’ council. When it came down to choosing a chair, it was decided the person needed to be a Grand Rapids resident. The only two Grand Rapids residents on the council were Hoffius and Fred Meijer.
“Fred said, ‘I can’t do it, I don’t have time.’ I said, ‘I just got here, I can’t do it.’”
But Hoffius took on the role of chair, and the group set about creating a set of priorities, which it then presented to the Grand Rapids City Commission.
“We issued a position paper that said the river and downtown had to have multi-use development, high-rise apartments, preserve historic buildings, create a green area and soft edge to the river, provide for pedestrian access along the river, improve the Civic Center, find a home for the Civic Theatre and, of course, improve parking in appropriate locations,” he said.
Unfortunately, the millage that was supposed to fund the proposed changes didn’t pass, but the vision didn’t die.
“I remember talking to Joe Grassie, who was the city manager at that time. … Joe said, ‘Dirk, don’t worry, the planning commission, the city, the community — this is the direction. It is going to happen — it’s just not going to happen as fast without the millage,’ and that has kind of been a sign of Grand Rapids.”
Sure enough, Hoffius said, in 1992 — more than 20 years later — the downtown landscape began to really change with the formation of Grand Action. He is extremely pleased with what downtown looks like today, particularly with the river access for pedestrians.
Following his work with the citizens’ council, Hoffius joined the Planned Parenthood board, where he ended up serving as chair. Then, the Fountain Street Church board invited him to join.
“And from there, it’s like one thing after another,” he said.
He noted that he never does anything he isn’t passionate about and for that reason he has turned down several requests to serve.
He also noted that each of the boards and committees he’s joined have presented new and intriguing challenges.
He said that while he was on the Planned Parenthood board, he was involved in two different searches for an executive director. He learned about strategic planning while on that board and also while involved with Kendall College of Art and Design’s board.
While on the GRCF board, he learned another valuable lesson.
“One of the things that became obvious was the need to change the board. … The Community Foundation cannot change without changing the board,” he recalls realizing at the time.
“If you are constantly reminding each other of how simple it was 10 years ago or if you look back with dreamy eyes, maybe it’s time to bring on new members who only see what is today and look to the future as an opportunity.
“That is one of my core beliefs. You can reach a point where it’s time to move on and go to something else, where you’ll look at that with fresh eyes.”
Hoffius said nothing he has done has been part of any master plan but instead has occurred naturally. He highlights that with a story of how he came to be asked to serve on the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Foundation board.
He said it started with his wife, Vicki, saying she wanted to install a new sprinkler system in their garden, to which he suggested the garden should undergo a full redesign, as well, and hired Stephen Rosselet to take on the task.
Upon hearing about the plans for Meijer Gardens, Hoffius helped get Rosselet a meeting with the planners and subsequently he was hired to design one of the indoor gardens. He also suggested to a client,Clare Jarecki, who had included a donation to a garden club in his estate plan, that he consider Meijer Gardens. That gift became the Grace Jarecki Seasonal Display Greenhouse, in honor of Jarecki’s wife.
It’s no surprise that he was asked to join the Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Foundation, given how much he’d already done for the Gardens.
When asked how valuable public-private partnerships have been to Grand Rapids, Hoffius said, “It’s huge. I often comment that our whole community has been riding on the coattails of some great philanthropists — philanthropists who seem to feel that they, too, are riding on the coattails of the community.”
He said he has heard the complaints about so and so’s name appearing on another building, but he said it takes someone putting their name on the building in order for the rest of the community to put their names on the bricks outside and walls inside.
“Look at what Peter Wege did for the (Grand Rapids Art Museum),” he said. “He made that happen, but then go inside and look at all the other names of the people who supported it or were part of it.”
He sees the success of Grand Rapids as a true partnership and looks forward to what is to come.
“If we all do what we can do, based on what our interests are and what our careers and families allow us to do, together we will all make this community so much better — and we have,” he said. “The proof is in the community that we have, and we keep working on it. It’s a wonderful opportunity for all of us.”