As the top city official in Michigan’s second-largest city, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss is hopeful to continue the momentum heading into 2019. Bliss, who is entering the last year of her first term in office, says encouraging collaboration to tackle complex community issues remains one of her top concerns.
What are your top priorities of 2019?
My hope is that next year we will receive our permit for our river restoration project. That’s really a key component of moving forward, and so we’re hopeful to have the permits approved and to be in the water next year by the end of the year. Also, we recently had our police chief announce his retirement. Next year, a big issue is going to be identifying and hiring a new police chief. That’s a key role in our community, like every community. We’ll have several affordable housing projects that will break ground next year, which is very good considering that continues to be a core issue that we’re wrestling with. And, next year, we’ll start accepting applications for medical marijuana, so I predict that we’ll have one or more medical marijuana facilities opening next year in the city.
You have been one of the first municipal leaders in the region to announce you will not opt out of allowing recreational marijuana business. Are you preparing for growth from the passage of Proposal 1?
I personally don’t anticipate that anything is going to happen, because the state has a good twelve months to formulate the rules and regulations related to recreational marijuana. I personally have no intent to opt out. We’ll see the ordinance that we put in place for medical marijuana facilities as being the foundation for whatever we decide to do with allowing recreational marijuana facilities.
My hope is that by the end of next year, we’ll have had some time to assess the rules that we put in place and we’ll assess what’s working well and what’s not. I’m always willing to go back and amend decisions I make if I realize that we missed something or that maybe we went too far. Next year will be a learning experience for us as we have facilities open up and then we’ll use that information as we look to allowing recreational marijuana facilities in the city.
How is the city approaching economic development?
Economic development continues to be a priority in the city, but we don’t do that alone. I see us needing to continue to have strong relationships and then really look to what are the needs of the businesses to make sure that the city is a business-friendly city. I want to make sure that when there are problems, we are able to address them quickly, whether it’s through the planning department to get approval for building something to our design center to the fire department that goes in and does inspection for fire safety, to the license people get from the clerk’s office. One of my priorities is that when there’s a problem, we come alongside a business and walk with them to resolve that problem. A really strong commitment to customer service is key.
As MiBiz reported in April, you were awarded by the U.S. Conference of Mayors for your focus on small business investment. Are you hoping to continue that work?
We’ve invested a lot of time in supporting Corridor Improvement Districts throughout the city and our Small Business Districts, and those local resources are able to have a huge impact on those neighborhood business districts. We need to continue to support that work because we know that small businesses are really at the heart of our local economy. We want them to be successful because the neighborhood business district has a direct impact on the vibrancy of neighborhoods.
Where will the city be making investments?
Infrastructure is a big one. Our commitment as a city is to making sure that we are investing in infrastructure, which we fortunately are able to do with the income tax extension. We have funds that we’re putting toward infrastructure every year, but it really requires us to partner with the state to make sure that we’re getting funds from the state and the federal government to come back and build the infrastructure that we know is critical for businesses to be successful.
Any other challenges or opportunities?
I consistently hear that our buses don’t run during times that allow second- and third-shift workers to use transit. What we’ve heard loud and clear from businesses is that their employees need access and ways to get to work. We have to make sure that we’re constantly looking at public transit and making sure that public transit is getting people from where they live to where they need to work. And we have some struggles with that.
People seem to be talking about and coming together around taking action on community-wide issues. As a leader of the city, how are you putting energy into creating buy in for collaboration?
I think one of the wonderful things about our city, and I believe it’s been built into our DNA really over several generations, is a commitment to collaboration. We’ve seen the success when we work together around a common issue, whether it is something very physical like building an arena or a convention center or more complex issues. Especially in the work that we’re seeing around workforce development and talent attraction, collaboration I think is key. I don’t think it happens in other cities as well or even as effectively as it happens here. We’re going to see a lot of the fruits of that labor and that commitment to collaboration.
What do you think is something that could happen in the next year that maybe people aren’t really paying attention to yet?
I think there is a lot of excellent work being done around racial equity in our community. I think in organizations, leaders of companies, nonprofit foundations, the city, the county, there’s a real commitment to taking concrete action steps to address issues related to racial equity and to reduce the disparities that we see in our city, especially in several of our neighborhoods. It’s a very complex issue, and it takes all of us working together to truly drive change, but I’m very, very hopeful that we’re going to start to see some significant reductions in disparities next year and the year after.
You’re coming into the last year of your first four-year term as mayor. At this time next year, what do you think that you’ll be looking at to measure your success?
I hope I look back and I see a community that is stronger, that is more connected, that is more equitable and inclusive, and that is economically strong. And I hope I see more cranes in the air.
Interview conducted and condensed by Jessica Young.