GRAND RAPIDS — Steve Heacock admits to having a level of discomfort about being the focus of the Grand Rapids Whitewater project.
Heacock left his job as a senior vice president with Spectrum Health to take the position of president and CEO with the nonprofit organization earlier this month. He said everything he has done in his career has prepared him for this new role.
“I was a CPA for a while and a lawyer for long time,” he said.
But Heacock also has been a part of some of the city’s most ambitious projects, including Millennium Park, the Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place Convention Center and Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. He has served as a volunteer on the boards and committees that made these projects happen, alongside major players and power brokers in the city.
These volunteer opportunities combined with his legal background have given him a unique skill set that includes the ability to engage and lead organizations through the numbers while also giving them a deeper understanding of the environment in which they are working.
“It is a skill that is going to be very useful in this endeavor,” Heacock said of Grand Rapids Whitewater, a $44 million project that will reintroduce the rapids into the Grand River through the city’s downtown. “The softer side of that is my ability to accelerate and get people to work with each other to achieve a common goal.”
Through his experiences with the other major projects, Heacock said he has learned how to sew together commonality among diverse viewpoints.
“It helps to know people and to be known by them and to have a headstart in having a reputation and some sense of achieving other projects that are not dissimilar,” he said.
Like Heacock, Mark Wallace took a circuitous route before arriving in the position of president and CEO of the $50 million Detroit RiverFront Conservancy in 2014. Before joining the organization, he spent a decade teaching English and economics at Detroit-area high schools, followed by a lengthier career as a successful real estate developer.
That career began on the Detroit riverfront in 2004 when he served as an assistant project manager for Hines Interests LP supporting the first major portion of what was at the time the newly established RiverWalk. Wallace later served as a director with Hines, working on major projects including Chicago’s massive River Point development, a 50-story tower on the Chicago River with a 1.5-acre public park.
He also headed up leasing at the Renaissance Center, recruiting numerous tenants including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, reportedly one of the largest leases in Detroit in the past decade.
Unlike his counterpart in Grand Rapids, Wallace’s role involved the oversight of continued development and permanent stewardship of a major project already in progress.
“I’m really keenly interested in processes and bringing talent together from different parts of our community. That has served our mission well,” Wallace said. “Certain leaders look at a problem and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ I will say, ‘Who are the right people in the room to address these challenges?’ A project like the waterfront will have the fingerprints of various leadership on it, but it will be successful when people come to enjoy it and call it their own.”
Wallace called the Grand Rapids Whitewater an incredible project, one that the whole state is watching. His words of advice to Heacock include involving the community in every step of the process and talking about why these changes are being made.
“There are environmental, economic and special reasons to make that change,” Wallace said. “Grand Rapids has a great opportunity to speak to each one of those opportunities and to message that project in each one of those areas.”
The reintroduction of the rapids is expected to generate additional economic development, particularly within the hospitality sector with the emergence of new places to eat, drink and take in views of the redeveloped Grand River. Much of this future development will occur similar to what happened with the Van Andel Arena, Heacock said.
“It will happen naturally, much like the arena where we didn’t plan on how many restaurants would go in,” he said. “We will draw people from a four-hour circle around Grand Rapids and get a number of people here to use it. I think businesses will be built around it in hospitality and even beyond.”
Still, Heacock expects Grand Rapids Whitewater will be transformational for the community in many other ways, including serving as a signature gathering place and giving children an opportunity to enjoy outdoor adventures near where they live.
According to Wallace, it’s important to talk about how these projects can increase human interaction. He said waterfronts have the potential to fundamentally change feelings of isolation that so many people are experiencing.
“Your riverfront is typically the oldest part of any community. These places matter to a community for generations,” he said. “The economic impact and environmental impact are very clear. But it’s about getting people out of their houses and bringing families and kids together, which speaks to the health of the community going forward.
“The Detroit RiverFront has become a place where everyone comes together and everyone feels proud of their community. Kids can feel safe and interact with nature to build memories that lift them out of their neighborhoods where their lives may be difficult.”
The Detroit RiverFront has worked to maintain its appeal by giving people reasons to come back through the hosting of musical events that include the availability of food and beverages, he added.
What will eventually happen along the banks of the Grand River once the whitewater project takes shape remains a work in progress that will develop over time, Heacock said.
His immediate concerns are focused on securing the necessary state and federal permits to continue moving the project forward.
“Luckily, I don’t personally have to design how the river is going to flow,” Heacock said. “It is a steep learning curve in that I have to understand what people are saying and know where problems are and how to resolve them.
“This work is more about relationships and the ability to facilitate, and those are universal and transferable skills. Honestly, it wouldn’t be fun if there wasn’t a lot to learn.”
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