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Who will fill the 2nd Ward seat? Candidates tackle development, diversity & more at debate

Whoever takes the office, the community has made clear the importance of housing affordability, diversity, small businesses, and equality in Grand Rapids' 2nd Ward.
With Rosalyn Bliss taking the office of mayor last month, the city is now seeking to fill her vacant commissioner seat in the 2nd Ward. The ward encompasses the northeast section of the city, with the Grand River and Wealthy Street as its west and southern borders, respectively, and includes such neighborhoods as Eastown, Fulton Heights, Midtown, and Creston.

This past Monday, February 1, the city hosted a town hall meeting of the three leading candidates for the position — Joe Jones, Terrence McGee and Tami VandenBerg — in order to introduce them to the community and allow residents to participate in a moderated discussion about city issues. Topics addressed included diversity, tax incentives, and even the Flint water crisis. City commissioners provided the initial round of questions, and additional questions were accepted from the audience.

One major theme presented both in questions by moderator Zane McMillin and from the audience was the affordability of housing in the ever-developing 2nd Ward and throughout the city. VandenBerg, executive director of Well House, a nonprofit that purchases and rehabs vacant houses for the homeless and owner of The Pyramid Scheme, a downtown bar, first introduced this as one of her three major issues for the ward (the other two being economic opportunity and issues of equity). All three candidates then discussed the complexity of new development replacing existing structures and sometimes relocating residents.

Joe Jones"There's a tremendous amount of tension between developers and residents," said Jones, leader of the Grand Rapids Urban League, an organization that champions economic independence. However, "with that tension, there is opportunity," he added, offering positive relationship building between developers and citizens as a building block of healthy communities. VandenBerg also offered specific solutions, such as trading lessened parking requirements for including lower cost housing units in new builds.

McGee too addressed new developers pushing out current residents, asking, "What happens to the people are there?" and hinted at the importance of maintaining the culture of the neighborhood.

Continuing the discussion of incentives, McMillan asked the candidates to address their opinions on city tax incentives designed to facilitate economic growth.

Terry McgeeMcGee, a retired police officer and consultant for the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association, noted that incentives are generally successful in attracting businesses to the city. However, he is concerned about outside companies setting up shop in the city in order to gain incentives, and then leaving later on. VandenBerg agreed that incentives can be "powerful tools," but that the city needs to be "hyper-strategic" about items such as housing credits. Both VandenBerg and Jones then addressed fairness in distributing incentives, with Jones noting that those in the "urban core" should also have the opportunity to participate in local development and not become marginalized.

This discussion of business incentives led to a question regarding minority-owned businesses and if the candidates believe in investing in programs to assist female and minority entrepreneurs.

Tami VandenBerg"Access to capital is a huge thing," said Vandenberg. Through partnerships with local organizations, she suggested, women and minority business owners could receive assistance in securing the funds necessary to get their ideas off the ground.

Jones highlighted organizations such as GR Forward, which facilitates discussions on the issue of supporting minority business owners, as well as businesses that continue to exhibit neighborhood missions even after they change hands, such as the new ownership of Kingma's Market in Creston.

Safety was also a present theme during the town hall, as McMillin questioned the three candidates about the Flint water crisis, asking if the city of Grand Rapids could be doing more to ensure that such an issue does not arise within our borders.

"What happened in Flint would never happen here," said Jones, arguing that the demographics of Flint (overwhelmingly low income and African American) contributed to the lack of diligence of city officials. McGee also noted that Grand Rapids is well known for its water quality (the city was the first in the country to introduce fluoride). VandenBerg also addressed the need for accurate testing and noted that Flint's issues began with a lack of stable infrastructure. "Investment in infrastructure is huge," she said.

McMillin went on to introduce questions regarding the Grand Rapids Police Department in light of tension between residents and police, as well as the national discussion revolving around the topic. The three candidates were asked about increasing diversity in the GRPD. McGee, who recently retired from a 35-year career as a Grand Rapids police officer, noted that internship programs that introduce high school students can serve as an effective stepping stone to a career in the force.

All three candidates addressed the historically negative relationship between minority populations and the police, with both VandenBerg and Jones citing City Manager Gregory A. Sundstrom's 12 community and police relations recommendations as an effective starting point. Above all, the candidates noted communication and intentionality as vital aspects of improving police relations. "We can continue to be intentional in everything that we do around this issue," said Jones.

Ending on a positive note, McMillin asked the candidates about Grand Rapids' culture of mobility and their commitment to pedestrians, cyclists and The Rapid. "I'm a cyclist. I love biking," said VandenBerg, who noted her support of Green Grand Rapids, a city planning process that encourages multi-modal travel. "It's great for public health," she added. Jones stressed the importance of supporting businesses, such as The Spoke Folks, that create innovative solutions for encouraging mobility throughout the city. Lastly, McGee stressed the importance of awareness of cycling lanes as they increase throughout GR in order to allow for safe mobility for all.

In closing statements, the three candidates summarized what they believe would be their unique contribution to the Second Ward commission seat. McGee stressed his personality as a straight shooter, while Jones reiterated his role as an effective communicator and VandenBerg reminded the audience of her effective track record in both the non- and for profit sectors, as well as her commitment to the LGBT community.

Residents will have another chance to meet the three candidates at a 7pm public hearing on Tuesday, February 9 in the City Hall Ninth Floor Commission Chambers. On February 16, the City Commission will conduct second interviews and conclude the process on February 23 with a debate a formal vote. Whoever takes the office, the community has made clear the importance of housing affordability, diversity, small businesses, and equality in the 2nd Ward.

Photography by Adam Bird
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