Economic Development, Nonprofits, and Travel & Tourism

Dick DeVos: 'Mission accomplished'

September 15, 2017
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Dick DeVos
Dick DeVos. Courtesy Windquest Group

For Dick DeVos, the Grand Action retrospective starts with a clear, concise two-word phrase.

“Mission accomplished,” said the former Amway CEO and co-architect of the nonprofit that changed the course of Grand Rapids 25 years ago.

Formed in 1992 to bring the dream of Van Andel Arena to realization, the scope of what was once the Grand Vision Committee broadened even beyond what DeVos and his cohorts, David Frey and John Canepa, could have imagined.

“We set out to inform and assist in creating a conversation about the (Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority), the arena and that has led us to a few other exciting projects,” DeVos said. “We’ve been able to contribute to downtown vitality even more than we originally set out to do, and now after 25 years or so, it’s a lot longer than we originally thought we were setting out for.”

With Grand Action sunsetting its operations following the retirement of its three founders effective Dec. 31, DeVos reflected on several of the projects spearheaded by the economic motor that saw Grand Rapids foster more than $3.5 billion in downtown development during its lifetime.

It might not come as a surprise, but for DeVos, the organization’s principal projects were its most influential on the city’s growth.

“I don’t think there’s any question the biggest economic ripple has been DeVos Place — and we said that right from the beginning that it was the economic engine,” DeVos said. “That doesn’t diminish the importance of the arena and what it brought to the community in terms of energy and vitality to the downtown area, but DeVos Place has been great for people who live here.”

To that end, Van Andel Arena was Grand Action’s first undertaking and DeVos said the completion of that project reinvigorated a downtown area that, prior to its development, essentially ended south of Fulton Street. He also touched on the importance of later projects, like Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s Secchia Center, the Civic Theatre and Downtown Market.

“It’s the arena that has been the place that’s added energy and I think DeVos Place has added economic vitality,” he said. “And you have to look up the hill to MSU, and in that case I think we’ve helped to bring intellectual vitality to the community with these talented students leading to researchers coming in to reinforce the work at Spectrum Health, the Van Andel Institute and more at MSU.

“The Civic Theatre and Downtown Market added unique flavors, as well.”

While the projects themselves are an impressive lasting mark to leave on Grand Rapids, DeVos also stressed the importance of the infrastructure left behind in Grand Action’s wake. The organization largely is responsible for fostering the unique relationship between public and private sectors that played a massive role in Grand Rapids’ development.

DeVos credits the Grand Action Committee’s extensive work with city leaders as well as state and federal legislators for moving those projects across the finish line.

“I think we make a very compelling case for dollars and many of us, even though we may be considered fiscal conservatives, have said if the federal government was looking to invest in a community, we can’t think of a better one than Grand Rapids, where we can stretch a dollar and get every impact out of it,” he said.

As to whoever picks up the torch, and should Grand Action be a part of those conversations — as the organization will maintain its nonprofit status and continue to passively manage its foundation — DeVos said the groundwork has been laid to continue the story’s success.

“What Grand Action was doing will now be supplemented in many new and creative ways that wouldn’t have been available to us 25 years ago,” he said. “Every organization has had a need to exist and what has occasionally happened in our society is that organizations have hung around longer than their effectiveness did. And we never wanted Grand Action to exist just to be self-perpetuating; we started with a purpose.”

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