Economic Development, Government, Higher Education, and Human Resources

Mayor calls for teamwork

In third State of the City address, Bliss details progress of 2017, challenges for 2018.

February 16, 2018
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The positive developments in Grand Rapids last year happened because of community partnerships, according to Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. She said teamwork will be even more essential heading into a challenging 2018.

In her third State of the City address, held Feb. 15 at Clearwater Place Event Center, Bliss touted a number of victories last year for economic and workforce development; community building; investment in youths, neighborhoods and parks; and progress toward affordable housing, racial equity and public safety.

“A big part of our city’s history is success through collaboration,” Bliss said. “We are a city that works because we work together. And that spirit is in the air tonight.”

She listed several successes that happened in 2017, including:

  • Completion and opening of the $88.1-million Michigan State University Grand Rapids Research Center on Medical Mile

  • Addition of 700 new apartments

  • More than 150 new startup businesses contributing to community

  • Launch of OurCity Academy to educate residents on the history of Grand Rapids, the workings of city government and how they can get involved

  • Moving 1,000 Grand Rapids Public Schools students into the college pipeline via the To College Through College (T2C) Studio

  • Hiring 24 local young people to work in 14 city departments to grow the next generation of public servants

  • Kicking off the “Mayor’s 100” partnership in which businesses can be reimbursed 50 percent of hourly wage costs for six months if they hire youths who complete the city’s leadership program

  • A $3.2-million investment in improvements to 15 city parks

  • Continued economic development partnerships with the Latino Talent Initiative, Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

  • Approval of five affordable housing recommendations as part of the Housing NOW! package of 11 proposals

  • Training of more than 160 city employees on addressing structural racism via the Racial Equity Here initiative, as well as the launch of the Grand Rapids Racial Equity Initiative in October

  • Creation of the Police Policy and Procedure Review Task Force to examine policies and procedures and police officer training to address implicit bias in police-community relations

Bliss acknowledged many of those accomplishments also fall under the city’s biggest challenges for 2018:

  • Ongoing talent shortage as the city experiences a “renaissance” — and the need for workforce development to address that skills gap

  • Addressing youth unemployment, especially for those held back by barriers

  • Racial inequity, particularly in housing, employment and government services

  • Cost of housing for low- and moderate-income residents, including working-class residents and fixed-income seniors

  • Need to boost access to economic development opportunities by making the city more business-friendly and inclusive

  • Public safety issues, as the city experienced a number of critical incidents with youths last year that shone a light on poor community-police relations. A 2017 traffic study also found black drivers were twice as likely to be stopped by police in Grand Rapids as nonblack drivers, and Hispanic drivers also experienced discrimination.

  • Forty percent increase in lead-poisoned children in 49507 ZIP code over the past two years, caused by lead paint in older homes

  • Shortage of parking as downtown core grows and demand for monthly parking permits tightens

Bliss noted growth can be a double-edged sword.

“(In 2017), we witnessed signs of continued renaissance across our city, with cranes and construction dominating downtown and rapid home sales in our neighborhoods. … More people call Grand Rapids home tonight than they did when we gathered a year ago. More people have jobs that allow them to provide for their families and future. We have one of the nation’s strongest real estate markets, with our regional economy declared one of the fastest growing in the U.S. We are a city of opportunity with a talented and engaged workforce,” she said.

“Where once the challenge was to find a job, we are now facing the challenge of finding people with the skills needed to fill jobs.”

She said the previously mentioned T2C Studio and another new initiative are geared toward helping close the talent gap by creating more equitable opportunities.

“We are actively promoting strategies to grow talent in our city. We refer to this effort as Grow Our Own,” Bliss said.

“We know we continue to have racial disparities in employment and there are barriers to opportunity. Our black and Latino residents are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white residents. If we do not intentionally invest in young people of color within our city, both our long-term economic prosperity and their long-term economic prosperity is in jeopardy.”

She called on the community to join the Mayor’s 100 partnership.

So far, we have partnered with 65 businesses on this exciting venture. The list includes Cascade Engineering, Seyferth PR, Rockford Construction and Malamiah Juice Bar, just to name a few,” she said.

Besides the Housing NOW! plan, addressing the city’s affordable housing problem will continue to include leveraging Community Development Block Grant funds “to support the maintenance, repair and improvement of more than 500 owner- and renter-occupied housing units,” enrolling more people in the city’s new eviction prevention pilot program and raising awareness of the city’s amended property tax forgiveness policies, Bliss said.

The mayor said the parking shortage has been called “a good problem to have” in the short term because it indicates growth, but the city is looking to its partnerships with the private sector to increase supply. She cited the planned Studio Park movie theater development south of Fulton Street as one example.

“Instead of taking on tens of millions of dollars in debt to build a new garage, the city partnered with the developer to build a privately owned parking structure that delivers more than 900 spaces. The city will minimize our need to invest public dollars and support the private investment by leasing 300 new spaces for downtown employees,” she said.

“The city deployed a similar strategy to partner with Spectrum Industries to deliver another 290 public spaces downtown.”

One strategy for easing the strain is by reducing demand, Bliss said. She pointed to employers adopting “parking cash-out” programs as a “creative solution.”

“Parking cash out (is) where employees are free to use (an allowance) as they deem fit for their needs. They can rent a parking spot, ride the bus or a bike or share a ride. The result is fewer cars on our roads, less demand for parking and more money in employees’ pocket,” she said.

The city also plans in 2018 to partner with AARP to become an “age-friendly city,” which will entail creating a communitywide action plan to measure current challenges and set goals for change.

Bliss announced the 2018 Mayor’s Book of the Year is “Where We Live: Communities for All Ages,” which fits with the age-friendly city plan.

The mayor closed her address by again calling for community collaboration in keeping with the “giftedness and potential” she sees in the city every day.

“When we see a need, we come together to better understand the problem and find solutions. We are willing to be honest with ourselves about the ways we fall short of our own standards and where we need to grow. We are not afraid to admit that we can — and we should — do better because ordinary is not good enough for us,” Bliss said.

“What we need is honest and sustained collaboration. We need everyone at the table working together to find solutions. We need to listen to one another, even when it is uncomfortable.

“And we must always remember that we are tied together with a shared vision for our community: safe neighborhoods, rewarding jobs, successful businesses, strong schools, well-maintained parks, cultural opportunities, a vibrant downtown and a city where we feel connected — and where we feel we belong.”

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