Monday, January 24, 2011
Looking Backwards: Grand Rapids in 2026
(I found this remarkable document while walking in downtown Grand Rapids near the statue of Lucius Lyon at the intersection of Lyon Street and Monroe Avenue. I have posted here the document unaltered.-PB)
As we celebrate the past two centuries since Grand Rapids’ founding in 1826, it is helpful that we take a moment to reflect on the enormous changes that occurred in Grand Rapids in the past twenty five years. Indeed, some might say that the changes from 2011 to 2026 were as monumental as all the changes that occurred in the 175 years prior. But, then as editors of the Grand Rapids Press, we should let our readers decide.
We all remember the dire situation that Michigan found itself twenty five years ago. A decade of economic decline between 2001 and 2011 which was brought about by the changing of state’s economy from one of manufacturing to one of services, education, and health care, made Michigan the laughing stock of the United States. Indeed, the Wolverine state was the only one in the union which lost population between 2000 and 2010, a truly humbling statistic. While Governor Granholm tried to promote the necessary changes that would improve the state’s tax structure, the constant battling between the Republicans and Democrats limited the state’s ability to respond to a dreadful economic climate. Indeed, efforts by Republicans in the Michigan legislature to repeal the Single Business Tax without developing a mechanism to replace revenues led to a poorly designed replacement tax (the Michigan Business Tax) that caused a great deal of uncertainty in the business community of the state.
With the election of Rick Snyder as Governor in 2010 and large Republican majorities in the State House and Senate, the Republicans were poised to govern. Since the readers know what happened next, we will not go into detail. However, the overhauling of Michigan between 2011 and 2017 was truly a bipartisan achievement. Snyder forged a governing majority with Democrats on some issues (increasing funding for the MTF to improve Michigan’s long-depleted infrastructure and to developing a ten-year plan to reduce the costs of local public sector pensions) and with Republicans on others (repealing Public Act 312 which mandated binding arbitration for Michigan’s public sector workers, ruthlessly promoting governmental consolidating, and developing a new business tax system), causing anger among the Republican base. Republican activists were happy with the new 6% corporate income tax, but were angered by the sales tax being expanded to cover all services (despite being lowered to 5%) as well as the state income tax being stabilized at 4%. At the same time many Democrats base voters were angered at the taxation of retired citizens’ income, and with strong Democratic turnout in 2012, the Democrats retook control of the State House, and held a 5 to 2 majority on the Supreme Court. This resulted in Snyder working closely with Democrats in the State House, which confirmed the worst fears among Republican Tea Party activists. Activists were successful in getting a recall of Snyder put on the ballot in 2013, but failed to boot him from office in November 2013. Snyder quickly announced that he was running as a Democrat in 2014, and his coattails led to the Democrats taking over the State Senate in November 2014. Snyder’s partnership with the Democrats, while never warm, resulted in a productive second term. Democrat Dan Kildee succeeded Snyder in 2018, and is in the last year of his second term. We will soon see whether US Senator Buzz Thomas or Representative Justin Amash will test the waters on a gubernatorial bid.
The structural changes in Michigan’s government aided Grand Rapids’ spectacular recovery during the same time period. With the removal of PA 312, city officials from Grand Rapids City, East Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, Grandville, Walker, and Grand Rapids Township decided to consolidate their fire, police, planning, regulatory, and sanitation services, as these services would thus be delivered much more cost-effectively. While they grumbled at first, the public sector workers forged a union contract that changed their pension system by participating in social security and gradually transforming to defined contributions (such as 401(k)) that were met with a generous employer match of 3 to 1. The communities agreed to consolidate their essential public services in 2012, and following the success of this decision, they moved to consolidate into one unit of government after three years of discussion. This decision was motivated in part by the incentives provided by the state, which had promised to return statutory revenue sharing funding to 1998 levels for the next ten years after a consolidation. The six communities, each which had lost more than 40% of their statutory revenue between 1998 and 2010, saw the promise of an additional $40 million in funding from the state each year for next decade as one too good to pass up. The consolidation vote was put on the ballot in November 2015, and was passed in all six communities, although narrowly in Grandville and Grand Rapids Township. What enabled the passage of the measure was the assurance that school district boundaries would remain untouched for ten years, and that Grand Rapids and Walker’s income tax would be eliminated. The combined communities had a population of 376,000 at the time of consolidation, which rose to 391,000 by the 2020 Census.
While opponents of the consolidation had warned about how citizens in the smaller suburbs would lose their autonomy after the annexation, these fears were unrealized. In fact, localism flourished, as the new city charter called for the establishment of community governing boards, which were created for each of the city’s 13 police precincts and council districts. Citizens were nominated by their fellow residents to serve on these advisory committees, which worked closely with city government and staff. Likewise, a reformed city government had an active council of 13 commissioners, each which served 29,000 residents and provided greater representation than had previously existed. David LaGrand was elected as the first full-time Mayor in 2017, and worked well with the non-partisan council, which had a nominal Republican-lean. At the same time, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce (headed by Richard DeVos III) and The Right Place were more effectively able to promote Grand Rapids as an attractive place to do business following the consolidation, and the city’s delegation of 4 State Representatives and State Senator Brandon Dillon were crucial in securing additional state leverage and infrastructure spending after years of deferred maintenance.
Residents’ fears of consolidation were also soothed by the key role that the region’s business community played in promoting the consolidation. An anonymous group of donors (although many believe that the DeVos, Frey, Meijier, and Van Andel Families were the leading funders) offered to pay for the equivalent cost of in-state tuition at the University of Michigan for any student who attended a public or private school in Grand Rapids if consolidation was approved. Apparently, this was done to ensure the elimination of the income tax, as well as the replacement of a use-based zoning code with a form-based zoning code that allowed for more business flexibility in the new city. At the same time, wealthy donors Peter Secchia and Hank Meijer promised to provide $75 million in matching funds to create a new park system for the city provided that the consolidation vote passed. The new park system was similar to the one proposed by Harlow Bartholomew in 1909, and also enabled the Millennium Park system to expanded to a new greenbelt that preserved natural corridors along the Grand and Thornapple Rivers, and also created a new park system that was connected by parkways and bike trails. With this vast infusion of funds a new zoo was created in Johnson Park, while the existing John Ball Park Zoo was converted into a migratory bird center and popular arboretum.
Emboldened by the success of Grand Rapids’ consolidation, Kent County officials also reorganized their government. In a successful charter commission measure passed in November 2019, voters elected Stan Ponstein as their first County Executive, approved the consolidation of Grand Rapids’ library system into the Kent Intermediate Library System, adopted a countywide master planning process, and created a countywide sales tax of 1%. The reorganized county government soon enacted strict transparency standards for future road building projects, and increased building permit costs to reflect the true cost of greenfield developments. The county also used half of the sales tax increase to build a countywide park system that also helped revitalize the stalled Purchase Development Right program. Ponstein was crucial in getting a County Land Bank Program created that sought to combat property abandonment within portions of Grand Rapids and other communities throughout the county. The county government also worked to expand the Grand Rapids Community College system, creating a branch campus in the former Studio 28 complex in Wyoming that opened in 2021, and is currently examining whether to open additional campuses.
So as we celebrate Grand Rapids’ past two hundred years, we argue that the decisions made in the past twenty five years will help position the city for the next two hundred years. This transformation was a close collaboration between business leaders, public officials, and citizens that allowed for a greater Grand Rapids to truly emerge. And, after all, isn’t this what Lucius Lyon and Louis Campau would have thought back in 1826?