Living in Michigan, it seems like we have been hit with the national economic downturn the hardest and the longest. The once lively, manufacturing hubs of Detroit, Flint, Pontiac and Grand Rapids fell into disarray decades ago; long before “recession” became a national buzz word. While the world’s eyes, ears, TV’s and Blackberrys were tuned in to the downfall of Detroit, Grand Rapids slowly and meticulously staged a comeback.
The Grand Rapids skyline is only a snapshot of the city’s success. There’s the sprawling Grand Valley State University Campus, the new billion dollar medical complex, the Meijer Gardens, the DeVos Convention Center, the Van Andel Institute, and the list continues. The once shady downtown area is now bustling with restaurants, clubs, and fashionable condos. What in the world happened?
Rewind back to the early 1990’s and Grand Rapids was facing the same bleak future as Detroit and Flint. The once thriving furniture and auto-parts companies that fueled the city’s growth for almost 30 decades closed, and the town had no other large employers to turn to. In the face of so many obstacles, it would have been easy to give up on a town so dependent on failing industries, but a group of determined philanthropists did not. They formed a redevelopment group called Grand Action. Through the generous giving of resident philanthropists, the careful research and leadership of Grand Action in partnership with local officials, they revitalized the Grand Rapids downtown area with new tourist attractions.
But perhaps the biggest gift that Grand Action has given to the city is the jobs: no longer is the city dependent on the dwindling manufacturing companies. Yes, the auto parts factories are still empty and of course Grand Rapids is still victim to the rise in unemployment that the nation has undergone. But thanks to the newly donated medical complex and the new GVSU satellite campus, the city has been able to secure its citizens steady and growing employment in health care and education; a formula that has also kept Ann Arbor afloat in these tough economic times.
But the real question is: Will this formula work for Detroit? Can a group of philanthropists turn Detroit around? If it took Grand Rapids two decades of reinvention to get to this stage, how long will it take Detroit?