In wrapping up her first “whirlwind” year as mayor of Grand Rapids, Rosalynn Bliss aims to build off of the work she started as she looks ahead to 2017. In the new year, Bliss hopes to move the needle on initiatives related to affordable housing and addressing long-standing racial disparities in the city. Additionally, the mayor believes that 2017 will be the year where visible work commences on restoring the rapids to the Grand River.
Would it be accurate to say your focus as mayor seems to be on the mixing of social issues and economic development?
Yes, I think economic opportunity is the key to equity. It’s about empowerment, access to opportunity, access to resources and breaking down barriers, and then addressing structural and systemic racism. That’s more complicated, but if we’re going to get where we want to be and be more a diverse and inclusive community where we don’t have the racial disparities that exist today, we have to do that.
You’re also doing a lot of work around different and more affordable types of housing. How’s that shaping up in 2017?
We formed a housing advisory committee. They’ve had two meetings so far and they’ll be coming forward with some recommendations around the affordable housing trust fund and some recommendations around zoning and how it could be done differently. And (there’s) the work we’ve done to implement the GR Forward plan. We’ve accomplished quite a bit and we still have quite a bit to accomplish. I feel like we’re on a good track as well.
What would be your ideal outcome with the affordable housing work?
I would like to come up with a plan to utilize the funds in a way that has the greatest impact. I want to be thoughtful about how we do that and my belief is we won’t address the affordable housing crisis with one solution. It’s got to be a multitude of solutions in order to have impact. So we need rental property owners, developers, nonprofit organizations, banks all around the table to have a positive impact. I really believe we need a multi-faceted approach. That’s why I was so deliberate in the housing advisory committee, to make sure there was representation from different sectors. Then everyone can think about how they can be part of the solution.
At what point does the conversation shift from trying to make housing cost less to addressing wages for people?
That’s part of the problem. It’s wages and access to good-paying jobs. Those are so critical to solving this problem. If you look at housing and wages, you have to recognize that the city can only do so much. We only have so much authority. Can we encourage people? Absolutely. Can we look at ways to incentivize and look at our own procurement to make sure we’re utilizing locally-owned businesses? We’re actually doing that right now. We’re looking at our own procurement. We can hire more people here. We have this Grow Your Own initiative.
What’s that all about?
We hope to fill a lot of the openings that we have in the city with people who live in the city. But we can’t force private companies to pay a certain wage. In fact, there’s state laws that prohibit us.
Many cities around the country have sought to move the minimum wage to $15 per hour. I know the state prohibits it, but hypothetically, would you support an initiative like that?
I think I’d have to go out and talk to people, and the people that would be most dramatically impacted, the small business owners. I would absolutely have the conversation with people in our community about it. … But honestly, I just haven’t put time and energy into it because under state law, we’re preempted from even doing that.
City-owned riverfront properties like 201 Market Ave. SW have been discussed as a site for private development. Will the city be off that site in the next year?
I think it will take longer to move off of. But what I would say in my crystal ball is that it will be up for sale in 2017.
Where do you see the city going next year with its transportation and mobility initiatives?
Josh Naramore (manager of Mobile GR) is really leading the way and transforming that department. I think you’ll see a lot more mobility options, but also looking at how we use technology to get in front of that.
The city launched a $100,000 study to consider how best to implement bike share as one of those mobility options. What’s the return on investment for that, especially given the winter weather we get in Grand Rapids?
I would challenge you that other cities in the Midwest, they have them. Minneapolis, Ann Arbor — they have bike shares and they are used even in the winter. Obviously, not as much, but they get used, especially if the bike lanes and streets are cleared. I think that’s part of the commitment. We need to make sure bike lanes are clear of snow. But great cities are places where you have multiple modes of transportation and where individuals can live, even if they don’t have a car.
If the mayor needed to attend an event in the East Hills neighborhood in December, do you you think you would get on a bike at City Hall and ride over there?
(Laughs.) I don’t know, that’s a good question. It would depend on what I have next. Depending on what I have through the day, I’ll often walk from City Hall to my next meeting and walk back. It depends on where things are, and in December, it depends on the weather. But, when I go to other cities and they have (bike share), I always use it. I rarely rent a car and I always use public transit. Even if we wind up doing bike share, it won’t just be for residents, it will be for visitors.
Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes.