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.


Lucius Lyon

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?

Monday, January 3, 2011

2010 Book List and Awards

Robert Jones

A happy 2011 to all the readers of this blog! I promise that 2011 will be a year of continued blogging with a slight change in direction. As many of you know, I began my new position as Redistricting Coordinator at the City of Dallas earlier this past year, where I will be guiding the redistricting of the city’s fourteen city council districts. Per the conditions of my employment with the City of Dallas (as with all city employees), I will have limited involvement in Texas politics beyond voting. After some thought I have decided that it is probably best that I refrain from blogging about anything related to redistricting and politics in Dallas and Texas until the 2011 redistricting cycle is complete in early 2012. Don’t worry Michigan political junkies; I will continue to write about politics in Michigan, and on larger urban politics and planning issues facing the Midwest.

Before I close the door on 2010, I went through my day planner and created a list of books I read over the past year (the entire list is below). I read 88 books, and 22 of these were fiction. I have no idea how many pages this amounted to, but the three Caro books alone amounted to 3,000 pages. I don’t think it is any surprise to anyone that the bulk of my reading is in history and US politics, but I also did a fair bit of fiction reading this year, which is a jump compared to 2008 and 2009. I doubt that this reading list surpasses the amount I read while in graduate school in 2002 and 2006-2008, but I must say taking public transportation to work does help.

In terms of the best work of fiction and nonfiction I read in 2010, I would say that Updike’s Rabbit pentalogy (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and Rabbit Remembered) was excellent not only as a work of fiction, but as a social history of the United States. Harold "Rabbit" Angstrom’s world of 1960 is so different from the United States of 1999, and yet the character largely lives in a fictionalized version of Reading Pennsylvania experiencing the enormous transformation of American life over forty years. As far as nonfiction, I would select Diane Ravitch’s, Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch has been involved in national education policy over the past forty years, and this book is both a helpful introduction to some of the drastic changes in policy that have occurred, as well as Ravitch’s admission that testing is not solving this nation’s educational woes. Ravitch rightfully comes back to need for raising curriculum standards, a direction that the Obama Administration is taking with the Promise Neighborhood program. Incidentally, my second favorite work of nonfiction was Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes, which looks at Geoffrey Canada’s work with the Harlem Children’s Zone. The Harlem Children’s Zone is a systematic approach to addressing poverty that seeks to change an entire neighborhood. Conservatives love Canada for his innovative use of charter schools and the Harlem Children’s Zone’s rigorous academic standards, while liberals love the program because of the cradle to college approach and the large amounts of additional funding per student. I’m sure that Rabbit Angstrom’s great grandchildren would benefit from having a Promise Neighborhood program, whether in Harlem or in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Andrews, Busted
Ballard, Michigan’s Economic Future
Ballard, Vicksburg
Bartlett, The New American Economy
Bauman, Public Housing, Race and Renewal
Bickerstaff, Lines in the Sand
Billick, More Than a Game
Birnbaum, Showdown at Gucci Gulch
Black, Waterloo
Browne & VerBurg, Michigan Politics and Government: Facing Change in a Complex State
Brownsworth, Lost to the West
Burns & Kotlikoff, The Coming Generational Storm
Campbell, Gone to Texas
Caro, Master of the Senate (Volume III of LBJ Series)
Caro, The Path to Power (Volume I of LBJ Series)
Caro, The Power Broker
Carr, Hollowing Out the Middle
Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign
Davis, When March Went Mad
Didion, Slouching to Bethlehem
Doctorow, The March
Fairbanks, For the City as a Whole
Fine, Fire in the Model City
Frazen, The Corrections
Frazen, Freedom
Freman, There Goes the Hood
Gallagher, Reimagining Detroit
Gerber, Get Out the Vote (2nd Edition)
Graff, The Dallas Myth
Grann, The Lost City of Z
Gregorrio, A Visible Darkness
Gregorrio, Critique of Criminal Reason
Gregorrio, Days of Atonement
Halberstam, The Best and Brightest
Hanlon, Once the American Dream
Hanson, Civil Culture and Urban Change: Governing Dallas
Harris, Conspirata
Harris, Imperium
Hastings, Winston’s War
Herwig, The Marne
Holt, By One Vote
Howe, What Hath God Wrought?
Iwogwski, Remains of the Day
Jackson, Moses Revisited
Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically
Jamison, Mint Condition
Karr, Cherry
Karr, The Lairs Club
Knowles, Imagining Philadelphia
Kotkin, Next Hundred Million
Lemann, The Promised Land
Luckas, Common Ground
Mahler, The Bronx is Burning
Mak, Brief History of Amsterdam
Mak, In Europe
Mantel, Wolf Hall
McDermott, Charming Billy
Owen, Green Metropolis
Pears, Instance of the Fingerpost
Pears, Stone’s Fall
Phillips, White Metropolis
Plokhy, The Price of Peace
Practicing Texas Politics
Ravitch, Death and Life of the American School System
Roach, Stiff
Rybczynski, City Living
Schrager, The Blueprint
Schutze, The Accommodation
Seabold, The Lovely Bones
Shea, Back to the Front
Shea, Fields of Blood
Shea, The Campaign Craft
Silbey, Party Over Section
Stabler, The Politics of Change in Michigan
Steinbeck, East of Eden
Taylor, Waiting on a Train
Tough, Whatever it Takes
Tuchmann, Guns of August
Updike, Rabbit at Rest
Updike, Rabbit is Rich
Updike, Rabbit Redux
Updike, Rabbit Remembered
Updike, Rabbit Run
Vidal, Julian
Weiser, The Great Tax Wars
Wilson, In Our Times
Winder, Germania
Yarbough, Race & Redistricting