Curiosity leads to post that spurs area projects

October 27, 2008
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It’s a cliché, but one that clearly applies in this case. If “well-rounded person” was listed in the dictionary, a photo of Kara Wood would sit alongside the definition.

Wood is the economic development director for the city of Grand Rapids. Since she arrived here in September 2007, she has helped dozens of business owners and developers capture tax breaks to create jobs.

But Wood is also a tap dancer, a tax preparer, a seasoned bicyclist who craves the outdoor life — and someone who hasn’t been able to sell her home.

Wood was born in Lansing, but was raised in Bancroft, a small village about 40 miles east of the state capital. When City Manager Kurt Kimball hired her last year, Wood was working for the Lansing Economic Development Corp. and lived in Lansing. Well, she still lives there and has become uncommonly familiar with all the cracks, potholes and detours that I-96 has offered during the past 13 months.

“I actually own a home in Lansing and have had it for sale for just over a year. I’ve decided to pull it off the market and rent it so I can move to Grand Rapids. So I’ve felt all the effects of that (housing market) turmoil personally,” she said with a slight laugh.

In between her demanding job and necessary fill-ups at the gas station, Wood does her best to give back to the community. She is a volunteer with the Kent County Tax Credit Coalition, a nonprofit that prepares returns for low- and moderate-income people at no charge. Wood said the coalition’s big push this year was to make sure those receiving Social Security had filed a 1040 so they could collect their economic stimulus checks.

“I used to do tax preparation in Lansing. I’ve done that since I was a student at MSU. When I transitioned here, I made sure to find that entity here to get involved,” she said.

She added that she worked with residents on the city’s northwest side the past tax season.

“That was a program at MSU through our accounting classes. They encouraged students to participate, and it became a passion that continued through my career. It was a way to give back to the community and use my experience and expertise.”

Michigan State University is where Wood earned her undergraduate degree in business administration. Later, she got her master’s degree in public administration from Western Michigan University.

She not only developed an interest in tax preparation at MSU; it’s also where her curiosity about economic development matters unfolded.

As a Spartan, she applied with the civil service office and got a position with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in the community development block grant department, which taught her how federal funds were administered at the state level and distributed to local governments. Making CBDG trips to those smaller communities stirred her interest in government.

“I learned the importance of those resources in each of these small communities. From CBDG, I grew within MEDC to a few different roles. You’ll get a kick out of this: I actually administered the Renaissance Zone program at the state for a while,” she said with a laugh. 

“I also worked with the SmartZone legislation for the local development finance authority. Then I worked for the community assistance piece at MEDC. So I got to know a lot of different areas of economic development and have enjoyed every aspect of it.”

It’s probably fair to write that the city has enjoyed every aspect of her performance so far and has appreciated her know-how in a highly complex and extremely competitive field.

“She has worked quietly, but creatively and efficiently in getting to ‘Yes’ on some major projects since she has been here. Kara understands well the new economy and the young and creative class that is our future,” said Kimball. “We are fortunate to have her leading our economic development team.”

In return, Wood said it has been “wonderful” working for Kimball, who is stepping down from his longtime post at the end of this year.

“He is a visionary. He is very trustworthy, very experienced. I’ve really enjoyed working with him.”

Wood also enjoys her time away from work. She is a devoted bicyclist who has pedaled the DALMAC (Dick Allen Lansing to Mackinaw bicycle tour), a four-day, 324-mile trek from Lansing to Mackinaw that promotes road sharing among bikes and autos. She also likes to camp when she isn’t rooting for her beloved Spartans, reads the latest nonfiction releases whenever she can, and loves to tap dance.

She said one of her all-time biggest “kicks” came last month when she took the Rosa Parks Circle stage with the world-famous Rockettes, at a Downtown Alliance promotion of the group’s upcoming visit to the Van Andel Arena in November.

“I was thrilled to go see them and have my picture taken with them because that would have been a dream job for me had I been the right height. It was fun, but (dancing with the Rockettes) was definitely more work than I expected,” she said.

Wood is about to begin her 14th month on the ninth floor of City Hall as director of her department. After spending so much of her life living and working in her hometown, has her move here been everything she thought it would be?

“Absolutely — and more,” she said with an even bigger and longer laugh than the last one.

“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a lot of challenges, but I’ve also gotten a lot of satisfaction from the challenges that have been put in front of me.

“I like to help developers execute on their visions and plans. But I also have the ability to be creative, myself, in trying to help accomplish development goals within the city, and then ultimately being able to see a final product that benefits all citizens in a community and in the region. That’s pretty remarkable.”

As for her immediate future, Wood said she and her small staff will continue to work on legislation that makes development incentives easier to apply for and understand, more sustainable, and more business-friendly in terms of keeping up with the speed of business.

“But then I would also add that, within the next year, I would hope that, on a regional level, we’re all making efforts to get down the same path in the future together rather than as one city. I spend a lot of time in other communities in meetings regarding these types of things.

“I think working as a region is critical to the success in the area for the future, especially in this type of economy.”

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