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Published in Economic Development
A conceptual plan released by Grand Action 2.0 in February 2021 for a waterfront “gateway” project along the Grand River in Grand Rapids is one of 12 potentially transformational projects recently named by business and economic development leaders. A conceptual plan released by Grand Action 2.0 in February 2021 for a waterfront “gateway” project along the Grand River in Grand Rapids is one of 12 potentially transformational projects recently named by business and economic development leaders. COURTESY RENDERING

Advocates seek minority voices, opportunity with 12 ‘transformational’ projects

BY Sunday, March 13, 2022 06:53pm

Regional business and economic development leaders recently announced a list of 12 “transformational” projects that could reshape Kent County’s ability to attract visitors, new residents and employers.

However, minority business advocates hope the projects — which also could seek public funding through a windfall of federal pandemic relief and infrastructure dollars — represent the entirety of the community and business sector rather than a familiar cast of developers and local leaders.

In particular, leaders of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (WMHCC) and Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses want to see minority contractors engaged in any future development process that unfolds.

“My hope and what we are working on at the WMHCC is to prepare and incorporate minority owned businesses to participate in all those projects,” WMHCC President and CEO Guillermo Cisneros said in an email, adding that the projects are “incredible” and will “no doubt … bring economic vitality to our region.”

“Through construction work, cleaning services and many other services, we can incorporate many small businesses of color in this development,” he added. “This will bring financial benefits not just to the businesses of color but to the community as they employ others from the neighborhoods. Also, it is important that organizations of color like the WMHCC and others are at the table. 

“The only way we will be able to integrate communities of color in the development of the City is if our voices and perspectives are heard and are taken into consideration when decisions are being made.”

The Right Place Inc., Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., Experience Grand Rapids and the city of Grand Rapids partnered to develop the list, which includes several major projects around the county. That includes relocating the downtown U.S. Postal Service facility along the Grand River, creating a 5-mile recreational trail corridor, building a Grand River waterfront gateway and amphitheater, and expanding the Michigan State University Innovation Center campus. The list also includes new training centers at Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College, a new air control tower at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, and a countywide affordable housing plan.

Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses CEO Jamiel Robinson was more critical of the list, saying it doesn’t represent the entire community’s interests or his members’ priorities.

“Looking at those 12 projects, we don’t really see a lot of benefit added, particularly for the African American community,” Robinson said. “Those 12 projects don’t necessarily align with our priorities that we have for creating economic equity and justice here in Grand Rapids and West Michigan.”

Robinson listed as transformational projects the planned expansion of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, the Kent County Sustainable Business Park, the Grand Rapids Public Museum expansion, and the growing Grand Rapids Media Initiative and Film Incubator geared toward minority media producers. He is also promoting the potential formation of a citywide community asset transition fund modeled off of a similar program in Minnesota that would invest directly in housing and businesses.

“We need more projects owned by African Americans and the Latinx community,” Robinson said. “We have to look at how we’re investing in those communities, and not this trickle down approach like a lot of these transformational projects.”

Attracting investment

The Right Place President and CEO Randy Thelen stressed that the list “was never intended as final,” and represents a starting point that’s meant to attract potential state and federal funding.

“The intent was: How do we capture the imagination of the Legislature to invest in community development projects? The region has a robust pipeline of opportunity,” Thelen said. “As we have seen in the past, if you invest in placemaking, the community sees a tremendous increase in quality of life and a tremendous ROI on the investment. Certainly, the understanding is that we have opportunities throughout the community well beyond that list.”

Thelen added that The Right Place is working with several diverse groups to land funding through the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Revitalization and Placemaking (RAP) incentive program that’s funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

“We recognize that this list does not represent all aspects of the region or all aspects of the community,” Thelen said. “But we also think that garnering the big attention on the need for these types of investments is already opening more opportunities for grants across the community.”

Others in the community credited The Right Place for making concerted efforts to be more inclusive. Cisneros noted The Right Place’s October 2021 hiring of TaRita Johnson as the organization’s senior vice president of talent and diversity.

Kent County Commissioner Robert Womack said the organizations behind the list “have my full support.”

“In my mind, I think it’s going to touch all aspects and all walks of life, no matter the race, color or gender identification — it will touch everyone,” Womack said. “But do we have a plan that’s creative enough for everyone to feel involved? And can we get to that point without having a little more community conversation? The Right Place has done a great job of engaging the leadership of all communities, but I do believe we can have a few more breakout sessions at this time.”

Angling for federal funds

Meanwhile, the 12-project list also serves as a starting point as local leaders pursue a share of federal COVID-19 relief and infrastructure funding for economic development. The city of Grand Rapids as well as Kent County will have a combined hundreds of millions of dollars to distribute in the community.

“Right now, the governor and legislature are actively working through how to allocate $10 billion worth of stimulus money flowing through the state. We think 5 percent, or $500 million, is warranted for these kinds of long-lasting projects throughout the region,” Thelen said.

City and county officials also will play a key role in how their shares are distributed. Kent County has contracted with national consulting firm Guidehouse to assist in vetting projects seeking federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, said Kent County Administrator Al Vanderberg.

Vandenberg expects a public process will likely unfold over the next few months that will prioritize project investments. 

He called the 12-project list “phenomenal” and “well thought out and well done.” He also noted the county’s own priorities involving affordable housing development and building out broadband internet infrastructure.

Vandenberg added that inclusion will be a “constant focus” as funds are distributed, and is required in some instances under federal law.

However, Robinson remains skeptical, particularly at the city level.

“The city of Grand Rapids is squandering a once in a generation funding (opportunity) that could be used to advance its touted racial equity goals as far as closing the income and wealth gap in our city and focusing more on shared prosperity. These things are truly transformational for its residents,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with a clarified quote from Jamiel Robinson about the city of Grand Rapids. 

Read 1476 times Last modified on Monday, 14 March 2022 15:52
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