Grand Rapids, Michigan, has long been the quintessential Midwestern industrial town. The city was founded in the 1830s amid Michigan’s boom in logging. Timber production around the Grand Rapids area was among the highest in the world throughout the 1800s. This directly led to Grand Rapids becoming one of the largest producers of lumber in the world and, eventually, to the city becoming the central hub of furniture manufacturing in the United States.
Just as the area’s furniture industry started its decline, with timber sources around the state becoming depleted, the 1920s saw a surge in local automotive manufacturing as suppliers for Detroit’s automotive industry suddenly found themselves with more orders than they could handle. As Detroit became the country’s main center of automotive manufacturing throughout the middle of the 20th century, Grand Rapids slid effortlessly into its new role as a chief supplier of the parts and materials that Detroit car plants needed.
But the Detroit auto industry began taking a turn for the worse in the 1970s. Expensive union labor and unsustainable pension benefits meant that the Big Three auto manufacturers were having difficulty keeping up with their Japanese competitors. By the 1980s, the automotive industry across Michigan was in steep decline. And the furniture industry that had once defined the city of Grand Rapids was only a fraction of what it had been at the turn of the century.
This led to an increase in urban decay and blight. Entire blocks of the Downtown area stood vacant, many populated with hulking, multi-story factories and warehouses that were tailored to heavy industry and were not easily converted to other uses. At the same time, the city began experiencing intermittent civil unrest and spiking violent crime rates. Combined, all of these things were ominous portents of a Detroit-like future where the productive classes would flee to the suburbs, never to return again.
Through all of this, Dick DeVos, one of the area’s most prominent businessmen, was determined not to let his beloved hometown go down the same one-way road to ruin that had engulfed once-great Michigan manufacturing towns like Detroit and Flint. He called together a group of the city’s top business leaders, an organization which he referred to as the Grand Action Committee.
The Grand Action Committee was to live up to its name. DeVos himself immediately pledged to invest tens of millions of his own dollars into projects that would revitalize the Downtown area. Unlike other cities throughout Michigan, the Grand Action Committee, under DeVos’ action-based leadership, was able to quickly begin investing in slum clearance and conversion of properties that would otherwise have been commercially and residentially useless. In fact, Grand Rapids may be the city with the most industrial-to-residential conversions of former warehouse and factory space anywhere in the United States.
This has proven to be a huge success. The money that DeVos and his peers spent to revitalize the city have led to a renaissance of which other rust-belt cities could only dream. Today, Grand Rapids is consistently ranked as one of the top cities in which to live, work and play out of anywhere in the country.
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