White Whine

February 14, 2003
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The new DeVos Place convention center is now clearly defined by construction workers but the greatest excitement is in the number of conventions now booked, as the late fall opening is anticipated. Grand Action covered its financial commitments for private financing (with thanks to the Kent County Board of Commissioners), but the fundraising in this town may never end.

“Oh, you had to know we would sell bricks for the riverside walkway,” said Grand Action Executive Director Jon Nunn, recalling the community’s enthusiasm for the brick-buying extravaganza when Van Andel Arena opened. The brick sale date has not been announced, but the group of business leaders forming Grand Action are already taking collections for the restoration of the Welsh Auditorium, promised to become a posh paradise for any event seating 4,000 of one’s closest friends. That means convention goers would have space to spread out; the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce could continue building its annual meeting attendance; and Peter Secchia could invite President George W. Bush’s entire cabinet to his birthday party (and he probably will, given anticipated completion dates for both the Welsh and Bush’s term of office).

  • Ah, but another battle line has been drawn in the downtown, pitting the brew-skis against the wine-ers. No one wants to bust any balloons, but the issue of traffic flow along Monroe Avenue and especially along Michigan Street is brewing with the intensity of a blizzard. Current traffic backups before and after performances at DeVos Hall are used as an example of the looming traffic trauma, which would be multiplied by the conventioneers. It’s Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong’s problem, and apparently not one about which he welcomes discussion.

In fact, convention center problems not withstanding, DeVos Hall patrons have been snarling all year about the lack of traffic control. And then there are the whiners: The Van gets all the traffic cops and all the attention but ticket holders on both ends of the real downtown pay the ticket surcharges. Lest patrons north and south throw down their cups (and one must observe that the Van cups are bigger than the DeVos cups), city commissioners may have to get a grip on the issue. How bad is it? One recent Symphony patron waited through 16 traffic lights to navigate the vehicular mass, and arrived just in time … for intermission.

  • Somebody’s got to do it, though it may not be Mary.

Recall that GRMAYOR’s appointment parade was halted by the lone female city commissioner, who noted the mayor had not re-nominated nor suggested any new women for city advisory board positions. While commissioners ponder such a misdeed, the Local Officers Compensation Commission meeting looms, without the reappointment of Mary Alice Williams. GRBJ is told that Commish Rick Tormala will assist Lynn Rabaut in her quest to find women in Grand Rapids. (An aside: Rabaut is said to be considering a run for GRMAYOR’s office, though some say there’s been no rush to embrace such a move this term.)

What really stirs this pot, however, is city comptroller Stan Milanowski, whose ever-vigilant stand on spending has raised more than one hair on the mayor’s neck. In fact, the mayor is said to prefer to be off with Milanowski’s head than be told city land purchase prices should be guided by property assessments. Stan the Man has suffered for pay along GRMAYOR’s way, and though there is little that business leaders can say, they tire of poor Stan’s mistreatment.

  • Through the looking glass: The Grand Rapids Public Schools closing roster changes daily — and as we write — but adding West Leonard to the last list is all the West Siders will take. Believing that the school was added only to create the appearance of equitable closings across all neighborhood lines, growing increasingly frustrated that school leaders still have not discussed decentralizing for the “decentralized” model, and anxious to provide proof of how well it can work, the activists are ready to secede. Serious.

One-time board member, business owner and political strategist Ed Kettle notes the group can open a West Side charter school through GRPS, and run all Union High School-related facilities in such a manner.

Given the renaissance occurring in the West Grand neighborhood and increasing property values, members of the wider business community are watching with interest, especially considering this month’s Standard & Poor’s report on GRPS. It must be noted that the performance period measured by S&P was the 2001-2002 school year, before the B&B administration — Bert (Bleke) and Ben (Emdin). The report summary reads: “The district’s below-average student results, as measured by the district’s MEAP passing rate, may not only increase the community’s proportion of under-educated students, but may also place the prospective labor pool created by the district at a competitive disadvantage.”

West Siders are increasingly likely to use the advantages inherent in the area to try to build an oasis in the vast district. Such would provide an area of the city that would draw the urban professionals who desire urban living but are wanting for “good schools.” They suggest such a model would help B&B over the paradigm hurdle needed to rebuild GRPS, and eventually be recreated in each city neighborhood.

In any case, it would certainly seem the city could become more proactive in assisting the schools rather than see its investments deflated by the ongoing school issues. The Business Journal is told that the Downtown Development Authority’s taxation of the schools is an issue that will be revisited.

  • More white whine: Word is that Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Brown has been invited to debate casinos, any time, with well-known GR Native American activist Levi Rickert, who is left wanting for a date. Rickert, who has assisted the Gun Lake band in its continuing pursuit of a tribe casino in Wayland, believes the crux of the issue is that white men want casinos, too, and are loathe to provide a giveaway to Native Americans. How might Rickert believe such a thing? Blue Chip Casinos, a privately held partnership with game tables in Michigan City, Ind., is a full-fledged GR chamber member, paying the way of opposition to the Gun Lake Indians.

Never mind that the Wayland Chamber supports the Indian casino, never mind that well-used national marketing statistics clearly show differentiation between conventioneers and casino travelers, and never mind that the Florida Seminoles (the real ones) have not closed one casino despite a recent Supreme Court decision in Gov. Jeb Bush’s favor, a case often cited by GRACC in its vigilant battle to save Wayland (and the real downtown/GR).          

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