GRAND RAPIDS — As the West Michigan region continues to grow, many people wonder where it could be headed in the next decade.
At least one national site selector believes Grand Rapids’ current growth path appears poised for further acceleration.
Paige Webster, the president of Phoenix-based consulting firm Webster Global Site Selectors, says Grand Rapids is on track to “be kind of the next Austin.”
Webster offered the assessment late last month during a panel discussion hosted by The Right Place Inc., which brought in site selectors from Michigan and around the country for a daylong tour of the region.
Local economic developers relish the comparison to a high-growth metropolitan region like Austin, with its cluster of technology companies, strong higher education system and high quality of life status. Austin ranks as the fourth-largest municipality in Texas with nearly 1 million people in the city limits, an increase of almost 20 percent over the last decade.
While Austin-like population growth might be a bit of a stretch in Grand Rapids, economic development sources say that even if the West Michigan region continues on its current pace of high-single-digit growth, issues like housing and transportation will only become more exacerbated without regional planning.
“Austin in many ways has become the new darling example for the U.S. in terms of overall growth,” said Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing and communications for The Right Place. “That’s something we can take away as a nugget, that municipal leaders and business leaders can start planning now so we aren’t surprised 10 years from now when our population is up another eight or nine percent from what it is now.”
Given those dynamics, Grand Rapids has the right pace with slower growth rather than the meteoric rise Austin and other Sun Belt metropolitan areas have experienced in this ongoing economic cycle, Webster said.
“Be ready, because I think you have a lot of synergy going on here, but as we learned … (Austin) grew too quick,” Webster said. “You want to have steady growth, instead of growth that’s just out of control. I think you could be really on the next level and competing with (them).”
The comparison to Austin comes at an interesting time for Grand Rapids: Last week, Mark Washington — the former assistant city manager of Austin — was sworn in as the new city manager in Grand Rapids.
For his part, Washington said the comparisons to his former home make sense in many ways.
“There are a lot of similarities in terms of the growth in the community,” Washington told reporters on his second day as Grand Rapids City Manager, after being questioned about what best practices he might bring from his time in Austin.
“I think what we want to do is make sure that we’re very deliberate and intentional about smart growth,” Washington said. “By smart, I mean anticipating the unanticipated consequences that come along with growth in terms of transit issues, mobility issues. There’s also public safety issues that occur as part of growth. What we learned in Austin is that we didn’t plan for all of that, we reacted to it. I think Grand Rapids is in a unique position to be more deliberate in planning for the growth that’s about to occur.”
While local government officials often focus on that planning within their individual borders, economic developers say they’re forced to take a regional approach to the issues.
“I don’t know if we’re planning enough for regional growth at a regional scale, not just city growth at a city scale,” Mroz said.
Mroz envisions building on The Right Place’s services to focus more on regional collaboration in both rural and urban municipalities.
“Creating additional opportunities for municipal leaders to get together and have those conversations, I think, is going to be important,” Mroz said.
A long way to go
Grand Rapids still has a long way to go before approaching Austin’s population, which has more than 900,000 people in the city proper and more than 2 million in the metropolitan area.
By comparison, the city of Grand Rapids’ population hovers just below 200,000 people and the metro area — consisting of Barry, Kent, Montcalm and Ottawa counties — stands at just over 1 million, according to 2017 Census estimates.
Population growth in West Michigan has been slow and steady coming out of the Great Recession. Between 2010 and 2016, Kent County grew at a rate of 6.3 percent while Ottawa County grew by 7.2 percent, according to Census figures.
By comparison, Travis County — where Austin is located in central Texas — increased its population by nearly 17 percent over the same time period.
While it’s unclear whether Grand Rapids will come close to matching the pace of growth of a city like Austin, other national site selectors continue to heap praise on the region, saying that it outpaced their expectations.
“Overall, I’d say my expectations were exceeded on every level, from your airport, to the ability to get into town, to collaboration,” Chad Redfern, a senior associate at Atlanta-based consulting firm Mohr Partners Inc., said of his time in the area during the site selector panel discussion. “We have a lot of cities and governments that say they collaborate as a community, and you can tell they really don’t. But you can see in your community, your CEOs and your companies and The Right Place fly right together.”