Grand Rapids, Michigan, is currently one of the most sought-after destinations in the Midwest in which to live, work and play. The city has established itself as a major hub for entertainment, dining and diverse industries. Grand Rapids has one of the more modern-looking skylines, dotted with glass-wall structures and ultra-modern high-rises that bustle with activity both economic and recreational. It is one of the only cities in the Midwest that has been undergoing a genuine construction boom over the last decade.
But things were not always looking so optimistic for the city. Grand Rapids had long been a major center of manufacturing. This was true to such an extent that the city was still primarily reliant on manufacturing right up until the 1970s. Grand Rapids had started out in the 1830s as a trading post, and it quickly grew into a center for lumber, receiving the bounty of Michigan’s vast logging industry by river and by rail.
Throughout the 19th century, Grand Rapids not only became one of the top lumber producers in the country, it also used all of that wood to build the furniture that would fill the millions of new buildings that were constructed throughout America’s great cities and the West during the late 1800s. It was lumber from Grand Rapids that helped build the many towns that marked the closing of the Western frontier, and it was Grand Rapids furniture that filled many of the buildings and homes that said lumber built.
But the Michigan logging industry eventually began to decline as the state’s supply of quality timber dwindled. Grand Rapids would go on to redefine itself as a major automotive manufacturing center. The city’s automotive industries didn’t actually produce the cars themselves. Instead, they acted as critical hubs in the supply chain, providing key parts for the big automakers of Detroit.
As the Detroit auto industry began its sharp decline in the 1980s, however, Grand Rapids found itself facing many of the same problems that cities like Flint and Detroit had faced earlier. The city’s leaders knew that something needed to be done, or Grand Rapids would likely begin spiraling towards the same slow and inexorable death that befell other rust-belt industrial towns.
Dick DeVos was one of Grand Rapids’ most prominent business leaders. He was determined no to let his hometown experience the same fate as Battle Creek, Detroit and Flint. As a consequence, he founded the Grand Action Committee, a group of the city’s top business leaders, who were dedicated to taking concrete actions to prevent the Downtown area from falling into urban blight.
DeVos himself was instrumental in the effort. He infused tens of millions of dollars of his own money into projects throughout the Downtown area. Facilities like the DeVos Place Convention Center created massive amounts of additional economic activity for the city’s urban core. DeVos was also instrumental in the creation of the Van Andel Arena and the Medical Mile, both projects that would bring tens of billions of dollars in economic activity to the city.
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