Grand Rapids. Hot.

NACEDA Executive Director Frank Woodruff toured three Michigan cities and describes them Goldilocks style. His first stop is Grand Rapids, where he met with city officials, toured emerging neighborhoods with a local CDC director, and saw how local investment and local values have made Grand Rapids a hot market by Michigan standards.

September 8, 2016

In mid-June I was able to spend five days in South Central Michigan. I grew up a Midwestern boy. Born in Baraboo, WI, in 19(eh), I’m intimately familiar with rich foods, self-deprecating humor, omnipresent smiles, and cow pastures abutting the downtowns of small cities. But Michigan has its own brand of Midwestern charm and distinct flavors to offer your community development palate. I was able to visit three cities during my visit, and I would describe those cities’ flavors the same way Goldilocks described the porridge during her little B&E with the three bears.

The first stop was Grand Rapids. Hot.

Grand Rapids is on the state’s western side, about 30 miles from Lake Michigan. With a population of 190,000, it is Michigan’s second largest city (Detroit) and one of the few (if not only) growing metro areas in the state. It’s home to Amway and five of the world’s leading office furniture companies.

The city has promise.

Grand Rapids Downtown MarketI was able to talk with two city officials in separate meetings, one from the economic development department, and the other from the community development department. Both made clear their primary strategy for investing city resources was to build locally. The economic development strategy prioritized support for existing local businesses (as opposed to attracting employers from elsewhere) such as the Downtown Market. On downtown’s fringes, the city has high hopes that the local patchwork of small businesses, artisans, and local food sources within the market can drive economic activity in one of downtown’s few underdeveloped zones.

The community development resources (CDBG, HOME, and municipal sources) were prioritized to fund local community organizations, including the city’s community development corporations (CDCs). This locally-driven strategy has benefits for local residents. City officials even described an over-abundance of affordable housing in the downtown area, with the neighborhoods being given priority for affordable development.

Development Sign Locally-focused values extend to the city’s substantial philanthropic sector. The heirs of the Amway fortune (who rival the heirs of Walmart in net worth) and other philanthropists continue to make investments in the city’s development. By the admission of several I spoke with, the growth and success of Grand Rapids wouldn’t be the same without that philanthropic support.

The city has capacity.

Five to six CDCs are active real estate developers in Grand Rapids. John Carman from the Inner City Christian Federation (a CDC located on Grand Rapids’ east side) took time to show us how the organization has accumulated parcels for home development as they become available, an infill-like strategy to buttress neighborhoods before one challenged property turns into ten. The organization sells the properties after development to eligible purchasers, with few exceptions. Driving around East Hills, the strategy had mixed results over the last 10+ years. Most homes were built in a similar style, making visual comparisons easy. Some families clearly thrived as homeowners. Others struggled to keep up with basic maintenance. The organization pairs development with housing counseling and financial empowerment education.

Going forward, ICCF plans to do more townhome style development. Townhomes obviously offer greater density for a neighborhood growing in popularity. And the homeowner’s association model provides a more structured system for regular maintenance and upkeep.

Inner City Christian FederationThe organization’s crown-jewel development, termed 920 Cherry, has been a catalyst for the city’s East Hills neighborhood. Purchased by ICCF in 2005, 920 Cherry was an abandoned orphanage and hospital. ICCF’s faith-driven mission drove a $10m rehab during (and in spite of) the financial crisis. Today the building boasts 31,000 square feet of Gold LEED Certified offices and community spaces.

But unfortunately, Grand Rapids is more the exception than the rule with Michigan cities, and stands in stark contrast to other parts of the state.


“Grand Rapids. Hot.” Is the first of a three-part blog series documenting Frank’s time in Michigan in June 2016. 

Also in the series:
Part 2 - “Flint. Cold.” 
Part 3 - “Lansing. Just About Right.” 

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