Grand Rapids, Michigan, is currently one of the hottest cities in the Midwest. It has garnered praise from national media as one of the best job markets for professionals in the country and has almost completely bucked the trend of Midwestern cities, actually growing amid a region that has experienced sharp population declines over the last few decades.
But the city’s future didn’t always look so bright. Grand Rapids had started as a logging and lumber-producing town in the 1830s. As the years went on, the city’s burgeoning furniture-manufacturing industry began to take off. By the late 1800s, Grand Rapids had earned its nickname of Furniture City, producing much of the furniture for the entire United States. Grand Rapids was also the point of shipment for much of the lumber that built the great westward expansion of the United States and finally helped to close the frontier.
But Michigan’s timber supply dwindled throughout the first part of the 20th century. Still, Grand Rapids was able to almost effortlessly transition from furniture manufacturing to a town primarily focused on supplying the parts and materials used for final auto assembly by the Big Three auto manufacturers of Detroit. This role as an automotive production and logistics hub would serve Grand Rapids well, leading to the period of its greatest growth between roughly 1920 and 1980.
Throughout the 1980s, however, Grand Rapids found that its fate was tied uncomfortably to that of Detroit, Flint and other automotive centers throughout the Midwest. By the mid-1980s, the city was showing the same initial signs of potential terminal decay that had been witnessed in Flint and Detroit throughout the 1960s. It was becoming increasingly clear that strong action would need to be taken to save the city from the same fate that befell other Midwestern rust belt towns.
That’s when local entrepreneur and business leader Dick DeVos stepped in. The inveterate businessman saw that in order to save his hometown, decisive actions would have to be taken. He convened a group of the area’s top business leaders, which he named the Grand Action Committee. The organization had a simple goal. It would form a pact to make strategic investments that would form a critical mass of economic activity. Once enough economic activity had begun to happen, it would set off a positive-feedback loop of accreting more talent and investment to the region.
DeVos quickly ponied up tens of millions of dollars of his personal fortune for the cause. He directly invested in such projects as the DeVos Place Convention Center, the Van Andel Arena and the Medical Mile. All of these projects have proven to be huge boons for the Downtown area economy, bringing billions of extra dollars in commerce to the area yearly.
The Medical Mile, in particular, has been a great attractor of some of the top medical talent in the country. The investment dollars have followed by the billions, with facilities like the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital becoming world-renowned specialty institutions and employing some of the best specialists in the world.
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