GRAND RAPIDS — In her third State of the City address on Thursday evening, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss presented the city as being open for business, but acknowledged it also needed to address various economic disparities.
The city’s slow population growth in recent years has been coupled with significant housing shortages. It’s also exposed major challenges with existing housing stock and issues related to police-community relations, which were just some of the few areas Bliss discussed in her roughly 50-minute talk.
Bliss said she believes that with economic growth comes a duty to address the challenges that are also presenting themselves.
“I believe Grand Rapids can be a great investment for developers while remaining a place where working-class families, fixed-income seniors and those struggling for a better life can find a place to call home,” Bliss said.
As one way to address some of the disparities, Bliss called on the city’s business community to further support her “Mayor’s 100” program. The policy item calls on companies to offer internships to area youth who have completed the city’s leadership programs.
The city in turn — through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — pays 50 percent of the youth’s hourly salary for between 150 and 240 hours of work. So far, the program has partnered with 65 employers, including Cascade Engineering Inc., Spectrum Health and Rockford Construction Co. Inc.
“This program is working, but we have more ground to cover,” Bliss said, calling on more companies to join the initiative. “This initiative is called Mayor’s 100 for a reason. We believe that 100 is a meaningful metric of high community support to strive for and allows us to reach even more Grand Rapids students.”
Bliss also spoke at length on the issue of safe housing, particularly homes with lead-based paint.
That’s because Grand Rapids, particularly the 49507 zip code in the southeast part of the city, has experienced a 40-percent increase in child lead poisoning over the last two years, according to a November 2017 report from the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan that was based on data from Kent County.
In her address, Bliss called for action on the issue.
“Despite the efforts of so many, significant work remains,” the mayor said. “It is time for the city to work more closely with our partners to aggressively test for lead, examine our housing code, increase screening for lead hazards before occupancy and accelerate remediation.”
Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based economic development organization The Right Place Inc., introduced Bliss ahead of her speech.
Klohs noted the city of Grand Rapids has been a partner of The Right Place since its inception in the late 1980s. However, the two organizations have recently started more direct collaboration, such as the recent unsuccessful bid for Amazon.com Inc.’s proposed second headquarters.
“Economic development is a team sport and the city of Grand Rapids has been a critical member of that team for over three decades,” Klohs said. “Mayor Bliss’ commitment to our city and its economic success is reflected in her work and that all Grand Rapidians should share in the success that in the success the city is enjoying.”
The State of the City address was held at the city’s former water treatment facility, which has been renovated by Grand Rapids-based real estate firm DeVries Companies Inc. and turned into the Clearwater Place Event Center on North Monroe Avenue. Bliss touted the building redevelopment as an example of the kinds of projects being undertaken all over the city.
“I remember walking through this building 12 years ago during renovations and seeing firsthand the challenges of redeveloping a beautiful old building versus building a new one,” Bliss said. “It is difficult to put beautiful architecture and a rich history on a balance sheet. Yet, we are a community that has a number of developers who do just that — preserve some of our gems as they build the next generation of landmarks. This building and its owners are a testament to that.”