Economic Development, Nonprofits, and Travel & Tourism

No heirs apparent for Grand Action 2.0

As co-chairs retire, committee waits for next generation of leaders to emerge with a new focus for Grand Rapids.

September 15, 2017
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DeVos Place
While Van Andel Arena upped the city’s entertainment profile, it was the DeVos Place Convention Center that revved the economic engine. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

The thing about vision is, it can dim over time. And the retiring co-chairs of Grand Action Committee are waiting for younger eyes to take over with a fresh plan for the city.

On Friday, Grand Action co-chairs Dick DeVos, David Frey and John Canepa collectively announced they would retire effective Dec. 31, putting their 25-year endeavor in the rear-view mirror, for now.

Responsible for planning, fundraising for and developing the 21-year-old Van Andel Arena, the work of the committee became the catalyst for a quarter-century of economic revitalization in the city center that has rippled throughout the region and state. There’s barely a landmark downtown they didn’t help create with their money, time, planning and deal-making.

But Canepa is 87. Frey is 76. DeVos is 61. They say it’s time for a new wave of business leaders or philanthropists, or both, to step into their shoes.

“I think you’ll see with Grand Action stepping off the stage, retiring, I think by creating a vacuum or a void, it will need to be filled,” Frey said. “So let’s see who fills the vacuum ... and what their passion is.”

Frey has ideas about who those young leaders could be, but he said it’s not for him to make that call.

“Some of the names I see have the skills and capacity and pride of place to do what needs to be done down the road, but they need to make up their own mind in the context of their own professional and personal lives,” he said.

Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place economic development agency and a longtime member of the Grand Action executive committee, said the group has accomplished what they set out to do 25 years ago: transforming Grand Rapids into a “cool city” that attracts tourists and residents — and investors and developers — to power its growth.

“Our vision was about how do we go about revitalizing a good, but could-be-great Upper Midwest (city)?,” she said. “And Grand Action was the convener and catalyst. Everything that came after was catalyzed by the Grand Action vision.

“Clearly, what needs to happen is a group of leaders must emerge who has our vision for what must happen the next 20 years.”

She said she doesn’t know what “Grand Action 2.0” will look like, but she understands why Canepa, Frey and DeVos feel it’s time to step back.

“Twenty-five years is a long time,” she said. “It is certainly understandable. We’ve all served for many, many years.

“We know you also have to make room for the next generation, and there’s talent in this community that is passionate about this community. This, we all hope, will give them an opportunity to emerge and develop a vision.”

Frey said leaders have to know when to cede their positions to successors.

“One of your responsibilities in this world of volunteerism is to make sure others have opportunities to demonstrate their skills and passions, so we have to make sure everyone has the chance to put their oar in the water,” he said.

Meanwhile, DeVos said Grand Action will retain its incorporated status and carry on with existing commitments.

“We intend to leave the infrastructure from Grand Action; it would remain in place,” he said. “We would remain incorporated, Grand Action would still have a continuing role to play with regard to, we are the fiduciary for the Gerald Ford airport project, and Grand Action, as an entity, will continue to exist.”

He said whoever takes over will need to “reactivate” Grand Action to get new projects going — but it’s not off the table that the co-chairs could play an advisory role in that transition, even though they are “breaking up the band.”

“We (as) individuals, David, myself and John to the extent he’s able and interested, we’re not leaving the community,” he said. “We’ll lend our voices to debate and dialogue.”

Frey and DeVos said they believe they have “strong leadership teams” in place with ongoing projects but didn’t share specifics.

Klohs declined to comment about the fate of additional downtown development ideas Grand Action published in its Destination Asset Study released in December — the $40-million soccer stadium, $20-million, 12-to-20 field sports complex and 500-room hotel adjacent to or near DeVos Place.

But she also said a hiatus for Grand Action does not mean a hiatus for the city.

“You cannot stop development, but what do we want it to look like?” she said. “Twenty-five years ago, we had a relatively simply canvas: the city needed core revitalization. How can we bring people downtown? How can we sustain interest? It happened.

“(This) week, the city will be filled with people for ArtPrize, which exists because of what came before. Also the conventions — the airport would never have expanded to what it is today if there weren’t so many people coming to town for conventions.

“The growth we have experienced goes across many layers: urban center and the region at large where a lot of successful companies are operating that have created thousands of jobs. What do we want to be known for 10 to 15 years from now? For that, I believe you need a Grand Action-type organization that has its arms around that.”

Frey said he is confident that will happen in a city of “profound philanthropy” like Grand Rapids.

“The future of Grand Rapids is more than bright,” he said. “It’s pretty close to being spectacular.”

— Business Journal staff writer Jesse O’Brien contributed to this report.

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