Will a bigger government bring more business here

April 9, 2011
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The One Kent Coalition has said the primary focus of its proposed consolidation of Kent County and the city of Grand Rapids into a new metropolitan government is to improve economic activity here. The group of 21 private individuals and former public officials believe that being able to promote and market Grand Rapids as a metro area with a population of more than 600,000 would lure more companies and draw more hospitality business here.

That premise may turn out to be true. But the organizations that have promoted the area for decades already have based their sales efforts on even larger regional numbers than the county’s population, which the One Kent plan would transfer to the city for marketing purposes once a new metro government is in place. At a presentation made to county commissioners in February, One Kent said that population transfer would turn Grand Rapids into the nation’s 24th largest metro area.

In past years, however, efforts made by The Right Place Inc. have included Ottawa, Allegan and Muskegon counties and have promoted a regional population of 1 million. In addition, Experience Grand Rapids hasn’t limited its sales activity exclusively to the county population, and has included the West Michigan shoreline in its tourism campaign.

“We haven’t had a lot of time to chat about this (proposal) as an organization. But I’ll tell you this from a meeting planner’s standpoint: For whatever reasons, (they) sometimes look at communities first and how big are they. I’d like to think they would base (their decisions) on convention infrastructure, but sometimes it’s based on the population of a metropolitan area,” said Doug Small, Experience GR president.

Small thought there might be some advantage to being “larger” when it comes to drawing conventions here, as some meeting planners look at population figures. Others, he said, make their choices on the quality of a site’s hospitality infrastructure: its convention center and nearby hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues and airport. 

“From a leisure traveler’s perspective, I really see no advantage (to the proposal). I don’t see a disadvantage. I just don’t see it as a gain for us. We’re already selling it that way. Our mission is Kent County; our mission is not Grand Rapids,” said Small.

“So, if that’s our mission, our mission will not change any. What may change is the perception of us being a larger metropolitan area, if you will, and that might have some bearing,” he added. “But it won’t change our mission at all.”

Experience GR Executive Vice President George Helmstead, who heads the organization’s sales team, echoed Small’s comments. “We sell the whole destination as a destination for Grand Rapids, for all of Kent County, and then Michigan’s West Coast. So when we look at an area, we look at the whole area. We sell the whole area. We market the whole area. So it wouldn’t, externally, be a big difference for us, either,” he said.

Helmstead said that Experience GR recently topped a bigger city — Milwaukee — for a convention booking largely because of the city’s infrastructure. Helmstead said seven more site inspections from meeting planners are on his team’s calendar. The organization has booked 9,000 more room nights this year than for the same period last year. Small said hotel room revenue rose by double digits for the fifth consecutive month.

The Right Place Inc. President and CEO Birgit Klohs declined to comment when asked whether the One Kent consolidation proposal would help the organization’s economic development efforts. The Right Place worked with the Michigan Economic Development Corp and the economic development office in Grand Rapids to lock in 152 new jobs and $2.1 million in capital investment last month from Atomic Object, a software firm, and from Knape & Vogt, a hardware manufacturer.

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