Economic Development and Real Estate

Forget travel: Grand Rapids is a top destination for business development

March 31, 2014
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Startup Weekend launches downtown
Startup Weekend attendees team up at The Factory in downtown Grand Rapids to launch startups over a 54-hour period. Photo via instagram.com

Last December, the popular and off-the-beaten-track travel website Lonely Planet ranked Grand Rapids and Lake Michigan’s Gold Coast at the top of its “Top 10 US travel destinations for 2014.”

This hasn’t been the first time a major media source has shone a spotlight on Grand Rapids. A while back, Forbes rated our city among the country’s top 15 “emerging downtowns,” and before that, we were ranked as the No. 1 place to raise a family. Last year, we were crowned Beer City, USA. The AARP has ranked us among the top 5 U.S. retirement destinations — and the list goes on.

So, the country is coming to know Grand Rapids as a powerhouse for entertainment, art, craft brewing and quality of life. But what about our klout as a business incubator? It’s much less talked about, but if you scratch beneath the layer of tourism and housing prices, West Michigan’s arguably most notable achievements are found in business development.

Exceptional local and state support

We are blessed here in West Michigan to be backed by legislators who “just get it” (in the words of our director of development). Whether it’s through state incentives that are routinely updated to stay relevant to the market, the bounty of small business loan programs or community grant initiatives, it’s clear that our legislators are keen on keeping business development strong. This is even more true at a hyperlocal level, with city organizations like our own DDA (now DGRI) routinely collaborating with businesses and developers to create and grow our community’s assets.

Entrepreneurship is in the water

Grand Rapids is a city that was forged by pioneers in the not-so-distant past, and this tradition of entrepreneurship has continued to thrive. This can be seen at a high level in the plethora of local private ventures that have skyrocketed over the past half century, but it can also be seen on an extremely granular level. Tech startups, food innovators and co-working spaces where inventors and entrepreneurs can grow their craft have come to dominate Grand Rapids’ small business market. Our local culture not only encourages, but expects problem solving through entrepreneurship. Passing on a “steady job” for the opportunity to kick start a smart new venture isn’t unusual — it’s the norm.

A spirit of collaboration

Just as our legislators and city leaders lean in to the business community, it’s commonplace for local business leaders to collaborate with one another. Competitors routinely reach across the aisle to meet common goals. Local foundations and community-oriented nonprofits work hard to promote and support local businesses that show a vested interest in the community, and most businesses are eager to reciprocate.

Industry diversity

Born out of the industrial revolution as a manufacturing powerhouse, Grand Rapids has been uniquely good at marrying its historic capabilities with new industries and market trends, and this has propelled us into a sustainable future. While manufacturing and furniture are still strong in West Michigan, their presence is balanced and enhanced by emerging tech, green, creative and, of course, beverage industries. Our culture of entrepreneurship has ensured our eggs are distributed among a variety of baskets, which allow both new and old industries to flourish.

Easy access to decision makers

As a “little big city" Grand Rapids is the perfect environment for making those critical connections that can make or break a venture. Startups don’t need to search far to find investors and other CEOs who are willing to explore new ideas. Setting up a meeting with a decision maker is often as simple as a phone call and a well articulated, honest pitch or attending the right party. Here, our “West Michigan nice” attitude combines with that culture of entrepreneurial open-mindedness to create the perfect petri dish for relationship building. It’s commonplace for these relationships to often spill over into mentorships, which keeps feeding the cycle of collaboration, innovation and growth.

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