Economic Development, Government, and Small Business & Startups

GR Forward employs several outreach methods

Organization is gathering citizen input on downtown’s future.

November 14, 2014
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The future of Grand Rapids is housed at 50 Louis St. NW.

Since October, GR Forward has inhabited the former Lee & Birch space, encouraging visitors to drop in and share their ideas for what would make Grand Rapids a truly great city in which to live and work.

“We want to hear what is top-of-mind,” said Kris Larson, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. president and CEO.

Events already held in the space have drawn more than 100 visitors, but most days when the doors are open, between 10 and 15 people wander in to share their thoughts. The space was supposed to close Nov. 21, but is now likely to remain open into December.

GR Forward, which is a product of the city of Grand Rapids and DGRI, is focused on creating a plan for the city’s future using resident input to prioritize projects and resources.

The plan is being funded by DGRI, the city of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Parking Commission, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Dyer-Ives Foundation, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Frey Foundation and Wege Foundation.

Visitors to the GR Forward space, which is open 3-7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, will find several activity stations to help facilitate idea generation.

One station is a video presentation that serves as an “existing conditions” update to get everyone up-to-speed on where the community currently sits.

The presentation sets the stage for the activities by posing four main questions: How do we maximize our most valuable asset, the Grand River? How do we achieve a critical mass of 10,000 to 12,000 residents downtown to generate the retail development we want? How do we attract and retain talent? How do we make sure we are connected?

The activity stations seek suggestions on what types of activities and entertainment options residents want downtown, their preferred method of transportation and how that method could be improved, and people’s general feelings about various elements that make up downtown.

“I think the real value is seeing how the community has responded and is voting,” Larson said.

In addition to the GR Forward open house space, a schedule of more than 40 meetings has been announced between now and May. These meetings seek to solicit resident input in more convenient and comfortable settings. Several of the meetings will be held in community locations such as schools or churches around town.

There are two types of meetings residents may attend. The first is a miniseries of three meetings targeted toward people who live in neighborhoods along the river and/or near downtown. Several miniseries are planned in coordination with neighborhood associations. The second is a regional meeting targeted toward city residents at large. One regional meeting will be held in each of the following regions: northeast, northwest and southeast.

The meetings will inform residents of the work completed so far and will feature activities that stimulate conversation and collect ideas about how Grand Rapids should develop.

“In a bigger group, we’ll have interactive polling so people can use their smartphone to vote on things,” Larson said.

There will also be a speaker series focused on specific topics beginning in December.

“It will be more targeted with conversations around specific topics,” Larson said. “After our speaker series events, we will break into roundtables and we will have facilitated round-table discussions. You are going to be ideally sitting at a table with eight or nine people you don’t know, and we are going to be facilitating a conversation. Part of the value in that is hearing what others think about issues.”

People also can contribute via the GR Forward website,, which is set up to solicit the same type of feedback sought in the meetings and at the GR Forward venue.

Larson said GR Forward is using several outreach methods to garner the most input it can from the community.

“The purpose of using these different techniques is to create as much opportunity for people to attend and to participate,” he said.

Larson said GR Forward has designed meetings specifically to solicit feedback from the business community.

“Rick Baker and his entire board of directors from the (Grand Rapids Area Chamber) are having their board meeting at our open house space and having a specific session facilitated by the economist on our team,” he said.

“We have a survey going out to employers and employees to talk about downtown as a place to work.”

Larson said the business community is also represented on GR Forward steering committees, which are guiding the project.

Once the project is completed, the city and DGRI will develop a blueprint to guide future decision-making based on the feedback.

“It’s closer to ‘Voices and Visions’ than something like a master plan,” Larson said, referring to a downtown plan that was adopted more than 20 years ago.

“It’s meant to be action oriented. We want to be able to align our resources through projects to help get us there.

“Honestly, I think the greatest benefactor is the private sector because they get clarity and predictability about investment, where it’s going to occur, when, what,” he said. “Individuals can align their investments in downtown to help to benefit from the public side.”

More information is online at GR Forward is also on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram under the username GRFWD.

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