From the outside looking in
Transplanted city leaders bring fresh ideas, perspective to growing Grand Rapids.
As an invoice for nearly $850,000 crossed Kris Larson’s desk, he saw an opportunity.
It was 2012, early in Larson’s new position as director of the Downtown Development Authority, and the invoice was for the repainting of the city’s “Blue Bridge.”
He felt the total made for some very expensive paint, as he’d never signed for anything more than $10,000. After spending his first several months on the job meeting and listening to the city’s stakeholders, Larson felt like it was the perfect time to show why having an outsider come into a key position in Grand Rapids was a good move.
He asked, “Why blue?” and helped invigorate a community discussion about the color and use of the bridge and helped inform the public of the Grand Rapids-Indiana Railroad Bridge and the fact it had only been blue since the 1970s, when a paint job was halted following the application of the blue primer coat.
The residents of Grand Rapids ultimately decided to keep the bridge blue, but it also provided the idea to install color-changing LED lights, and Larson felt he accomplished a major task.
“That was an opportunity to demonstrate a way to have a conversation about the community over a very simple decision,” said Larson, who came to Grand Rapids following stints as a city planner in Long Beach, California, and his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s now president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.
“One of the hardest things as a newcomer to a city is to demonstrate a capacity.”
Larson is one of several community leaders who came to Grand Rapids with minimal knowledge of the community before accepting their jobs. To take a job in Grand Rapids without knowing much beforehand is a tough proposition, as so much of the city’s progress the past 30 years or more has been led by passionate homegrown talent and money.
Others in leadership positions in Grand Rapids held by “outsiders” include Grand Rapids Art Museum CEO Dana Friis-Hansen, ArtPrize Executive Director Christian Gaines, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Baker, Experience Grand Rapids President and CEO Doug Small and newly announced Gerald R. Ford International Airport President and CEO Jim Gill.
Much of Grand Rapids’ past has been dictated by homegrown business leaders, and professionals have long viewed it as a stepping stone to larger cities. For many years, the city was in the midst of an exodus of students and young professionals.
Change is happening, and CWD Real Estate Investment Managing Partner Sam Cummings — a homegrown real estate investor — sees that as a positive.
“Our ability to attract talent, it’s importing capital and that capital is not simply money, it’s intellectual and it’s perspective,” Cummings said. “That’s fantastic, as long as we are true to who we are and don’t lose sight, you’re always pivoting and tweaking the plan, but make sure you don’t forget who you are.”
Larson’s route of talking to community leaders and listening before speaking up was a similar route Small took when he was hired to lead the Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau, now Experience Grand Rapids, and an echo of Cummings’ thoughts.
Small acknowledged it’s tough to break in for people coming into the community, whether new to the area or as a young professional. So much groundwork was laid by a group of business people to dictate where the city was headed, and while the past is important, new ideas are needed, Small said.
He took the approach to look, listen and learn, before now being one of many prominent voices in leading Grand Rapids to its future.
“You have to respect what’s been done, which is easy, because it’s been done very smart,” Small said. “Respect it, but don’t be afraid to take it to the right when everyone else is going left. The only way to fail is not respecting what’s been done and how.”
Small was on the committee to hire Baker for a position the chamber originally wanted to hire from within the community.
Baker, who had been CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce for 17 years, came to Grand Rapids for an interview, and like Small and Larson, almost immediately fell in love with the community.
Despite visiting in the heart of a snowy winter, Baker said the vibe of downtown Grand Rapids was special, and each person he spoke with, even baristas, waiters and front desk employees, all loved the community.
“That was a huge piece,” he said. “They were all solid ambassadors with positive and upbeat attitudes. In my work, or Doug’s, we’re selling the community. I can spend all day with someone pitching the community, but one interaction with a person can undo all of that work.”
While the city and its assets and attributes made them fall in love with it, they also saw opportunities to improve the city with, as Larson said, “fresh eyes without the weight of politics and history,” as well as an opportunity to make a difference.
In Larson’s career, he’s heard many people ask about his desire to work in places like New York City and San Francisco. Unlike Small and Baker, Larson is in a position to butt heads with the people who have built Grand Rapids into what is — and admits it has happened. Even so, he led Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. in the development of GR Forward, the city-approved master plan for the future of downtown development.
“In those cities, most of it is done, you don’t need to work to inspire design or any number of things,” Larson said. “In Grand Rapids, there’s an opportunity to help build the city to what it can be.”
Larson said there are physical limitations to how large Grand Rapids can become in the future, but it has a good jump on many other Midwestern cities, as it’s had a diversified economy which helped it from becoming a dying Rust Belt community. He said the philanthropic endeavors in Grand Rapids are a unique way to develop a community, as most efforts are led by either the public or private sector.
The close-knit community of movers and shakers in Grand Rapids can be intimidating, but Baker said there’s a definitive culture in Grand Rapids consisting of a rare win-win mentality.
“A lot of communities, it’s always win-lose, I don’t want to help you because then you might be ahead of me,’” Baker said. “In Grand Rapids, it’s, ‘What can we do to help you be successful?’ There’s a desire here to bring people up and help the whole city be successful, not hold them down.”
Small said while having outsider perspective is great for a city’s future development, he also said it’s important to continue to look inward for home-grown talent, a task restaurateur Johnny Brann Jr. has taken on. A board member for The Economic Club of Grand Rapids, Brann helped set up a meeting in November to help bridge the gap between millennials and older professionals of the Econ Club, hoping to capitalize and inspire young professionals to understand the win-win mentality.
“I was hoping to make that conversation in the community,” Brann said. “No matter who you are, people are willing to work with you in Grand Rapids, as long as you have a value to provide and doors can be opened.
“Current community and business leaders can’t just say they want the new generation to step up, they have to be accessible and help open doors.”
Cummings said both established professionals who have taken leadership roles in Grand Rapids and professionals settling into roles at some of the region’s largest employers are able to move the needle in West Michigan, something most can’t do if they move to Chicago, San Francisco or New York City.
“We are a participant city as opposed to a passenger city,” Cummings said. “You can make a difference here. It’s so accessible in almost every sense of the word. If you go to New York or San Francisco, you go there because of what those cities are, where here, because of scale, you can participate and raise your hand and almost immediately make a difference.”
With the city’s past still firmly in mind, most leaders in the community — homegrown or imported — see a bright future in Grand Rapids, but Larson said change must not be feared.
“Change is inevitable,” he said. “But there are elements here that transcend the physical landscape, and those are what we need to protect. Grand Rapids has a deep level of civic pride and a love for this city I have not seen anywhere else. It’s where we’re most wealthy as a community, and it’s infectious for imports like me. You learn to love this city.”