Economic Development and Government

Consultants urge city to improve equity for better competition

There is ‘limited alignment’ between thinking about equity and implementing it in practices, policies and incentives.

March 24, 2017
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Following a weeklong visit from representatives from the Rose Center for Public Leadership, city officials were debriefed on how Grand Rapids can improve its equity.

Grand Rapids was one of four cities selected for the 2017 Daniel Rose Fellowship program, which invites the mayors of those cities to receive technical assistance on a local land-use challenge. Mayor Rosalynn Bliss selected city Economic Development Director Kara Wood, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. President and CEO Kris Larson and Mobile GR Manager Josh Naramore to make up the Grand Rapids contingent of Rose Fellows. All were on hand at City Hall on March 23 to listen to the visiting fellows’ recommendations for the city moving forward.

In framing the discussion, Washington D.C.-based developer and consultant Calvin Gladney, who co-chaired the panel, said if Grand Rapids wants to continue to compete with major cities in terms of bringing jobs, talent and residents to the city, the issue of equity must be addressed. Millennials in particular are drawn to cities that have demonstrated diverse populations and efforts in equity.

“This city, in its attempt to compete, must find a way to be more equitable in order to make sure that millennials say, ‘This is one of the places that we want to be,’” Gladney said.

The panel, which included subject matter experts and city officials from the other three cities in this year’s class — Washington D.C.; San Jose, California; and Anchorage, Alaska — concluded that while Grand Rapids had identified equity as an area of importance, there still is much work to be done. Co-chair Antonio Fiol-Silva, an architect from Philadelphia, said the city has not clearly defined what equity means in Grand Rapids, and that there is a “limited alignment” between thinking about equity and implementing it in practices, policies and incentives.

“When we say align, right now there are several kinds of misalignments — and it’s a misalignment of everybody in the city talking about equity at different levels and having different thoughts, and then there are policies that are going in a different way,” Fiol-Silva said.

To correct those misalignments, the city must increase its engagement efforts with citizens, he continued. Other ways in which the city can improve its equity is by using economic development incentives to support strategy, tweaking transportation and mobility options to better support the community and putting a focus on workforce development.

The visiting fellows left the Grand Rapids team with three “homework” items to ponder before their next meeting. Those include identifying three equity priorities to focus on, coming up with examples of how the city already has aligned policy with practice in five implementation areas, and a request to implement equitable practices in an ongoing city request-for-proposal process.

Specifically, the panel asked the city to look at ways in which it can implement equitable practices during the process of securing developers for the vacant 18-acre property at 201 Market, which the city issued an RFP for last month.

“Think about and come up with some tangible ideas of how you can embed some of these principles and practices when it comes to equity into this current solicitation,” Gladney said. “Let’s not wait until the next five RFPs that might come out next year, or the next deal, the next transaction. There’s one on the street now, we want you to think specifically about some ideas of how you can do equitable things.”

Grand Rapids will continue to participate in the yearlong program, which began this past fall, receiving feedback on how best to move forward, while also providing advice and analysis for the other three cities.

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