Guest Column

Medical Mile: a vision for change in Grand Rapids

December 29, 2017
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Thirty years ago, Grand Rapids stood at a crossroads — after more than a century as a manufacturing hub for the furniture and the auto industries, the city’s job sectors were changing. Thousands of manufacturing jobs were in decline or moving elsewhere, taking a once vibrant and dynamic economy with them. Our lively, postwar downtown — filled with restaurants, shops and small businesses — slowly was becoming a ghost town. There simply was not enough business to keep them open. Like many industrial cities in the late 20th century, Grand Rapids was a city in need of creative thought leaders who didn’t adhere to the status quo. Some feared we didn’t have what it would take to turn things around. They were wrong.

Fortunately, the city always had been a place where entrepreneurs made their mark, where philanthropy was a way of life and where innovation was a commodity valuable beyond measure. It was those qualities that led to a new economic force in the region — one focused on the health sciences and biomedical research. A pivotal point in our history occurred in 1996 when Van Andel Institute was constructed on a hill overlooking downtown along a stretch of Michigan Street. It was the main corridor in our city, yet it had not seen new economic development in years.

What’s not widely known is that when the institute was just a mere idea, many experts suggested building a biomedical research institute in a region lacking the economic or academic infrastructure was unwise. It was suggested the institute would be more successful in a larger city like Chicago or on the East or West Coast. What these experts failed to understand was the region’s character and propensity to support those bold enough to dream big and confident enough to embrace new ideas.  

Following the building of the institute, philanthropists, nonprofit entities and private-sector enterprises began showing renewed interest in the Michigan Street corridor, building academic institutions, hospitals and businesses. Together with Grand Valley State University, Spectrum Health, Mercy Health, Ferris State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Michigan State University and many others, we have created a powerful source for economic growth, collaboration and continued development in the heart of Grand Rapids.

Just this year, the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center further bolstered the city’s critical mass of scientific talent along Medical Mile. This new facility will bring with it more than 180 new jobs in a variety of fields and more than $28 million in estimated economic impact per year, according to research conducted by the Anderson Economic Group. Since the institute broke ground in 1996, the corridor today known as Medical Mile has spurred more than $3 billion in research, education and health care infrastructure. Our community’s future is no longer uncertain; we are instead moving forward on a decidedly specific path.

The next chapter

As we look forward and continue to build the Medical Mile, increasing the economic vitality and sustainability of our city along the way, we must work to ensure that as we advance in the biomedical research industry, we also advance our city in a collaborative way. Growth is always a good thing for a city the size of Grand Rapids, but change also requires solutions to new problems.

Several years ago, Grand Rapids city commissioners agreed on an expansive corridor plan that assessed potential problems and came up with solutions relating to Medical Mile’s growth. An increased need for housing, easily accessible public transportation, employment and land use were key issues to be resolved. The 2015 Michigan Street Corridor Plan update set guidelines for how the area should develop and address the challenges presented by the increased number of residents, students and professionals who moved to the area. According to the plan’s findings, Medical Mile contains a concentrated core of life science institutions located on 50 acres of land that employs more than 50,000 people. It is an astounding number considering where we were just two decades ago.

This study makes it clear we now find ourselves at a new crossroads in the history of Grand Rapids. We know the naysayers were, in fact, wrong; Grand Rapids did have the creative thought leadership needed to reshape its future and become a force for economic development and a thriving powerhouse in the innovative field of the health sciences. But we must not become complacent.

As leaders in business, philanthropy and academia, we must remember where we are today was not always obvious or logical, but the result of a collaborative entrepreneurial spirit that attracted like minds to a rallying call to create something truly grand and unique.

In the years ahead, we must continue to look for new ways to collaborate, encourage the recruitment of top-tier talent, market our assets and support our shared interest in the development and success of Medical Mile because what was once a forgotten strip of land is now one of the most important areas in our incredible city and the state of Michigan. The time has come for our community to give careful thought to the question: What’s next?

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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