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G-Sync: Fully Awake at Five

Five years ago when I stepped up to create G-Sync, the city was bustling with energy. I could see it as I sipped a coffee in the floor-to-ceiling glass café at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. I often surveyed the lively Rosa Parks Circle from that spot, though even this vantage point’s offerings would change with time.  

Stepping up to the plate in October 2008 to launch Rapid Growth’s unique view on the events of our region (including how they contribute to place-making), who could have predicted that by the end of that same month, our optimistic outlook would be so different?  

For many in our area, the year 2008 might be remembered for its financial negatives, but in reviewing the statistics on world population growth, this was also the first time in human history that more than half of the world’s populations were living in cities – a number the United Nations expects to be more than 75 percent by 2030.

Thinking about this number, you can either cower under the weight of what is to come or, like many, you can begin to see cities as we do as a place of possibilities where the inventive spirit of man is unleashing the next, the new.

Looking back through the lens of time, even with all the bad in this area, the city has rebounded in ways never before imagined. And if I were to look back over the last five years, it would be hard to pick just one area trumping another. A few highlights do, however, come to mind.

Leading with my stomach, our restaurant scene has surely seen incredible growth as people became nearly cultish about the phrase farm-to-table evoking near Portlandia-worthy quips between bites. Our craft beer movement ensured not only that we would be jovial around the table but also that the world would want to venture here to sample from the source, sometimes because of the awards we earned from respected peers and other times because Grand Rapidians quick adaption of all things social media enabled us to quickly to unleash the power of our smartphones in voting us Beer City USA…twice.  

The addition of the medical corridor brought world-class science to downtown and produced many new buildings that quickly filled up with everything from doctors to scientists to students and ultimately patients.  

Even our entertainment options, from ArtPrize to LaughFest to the thousands of annual smaller (in scale only) events, helped solidify this region as a place full of vibrant and diverse offerings in the arts.  But flags  went up within arts groups from the recent warning by Meijer Gardens’ Chief Curator Joe Becherer about the dangers of co-opting of culture for financial gain to the many farewells to organizations like our arts council to the booting from its Division Avenue home for The DAAC.  To remain vibrant we will need to vigilant about what we value and make our voices heard.

Over the last five years, a new migration to this region of our state has sprung up with reasons as diverse as the ease of and ability to use many paths navigate about in the city. Our public transportation options continue to flourish and even evolve. People often point to another factor for relocating  is because of West Michigan Nice – a condition some often describe with delight and scorn when explaining their experience here.

Development has been brisk, pushing some out but also giving us wonderful projects devoted to building healthy communities, including farmers markets and planned housing developments where the income one makes does not deter whether one can live in the urban center or not.  

The housing market has never been better, with home sales up 20 percent from last year, showing no sign of slowing down. In fact, the homes in some parts of the city are selling so fast that they are sold before they even are listed.

However, we have had bumps as well. More than one report or study of our region has shown that, for all our advances, we need to begin to close the inequity gaps for many of our citizens.

Not everything in housing has been great over the last five years, as many homes fell into foreclosure. Families were not only stripped of their only asset, but neighborhoods already at risk were plunged into further peril.

At one point, many of these at-risk neighborhoods within our city were witnessing a 25 percent vacancy rate, according to Dave Allen, Executive Director of the Kent County Land Bank Authority (KCLBA).

Rather than stick our heads in the sand after the crash, ever true to our entrepreneurial spirit, Grand Rapids Mayor Heartwell got to work on finding a housing solution.

The mayor’s solution was really quite simple in hindsight: Gather all the area banks’ leaders, community-invested foundations and the KCLBA in a room, declare that he was not going to let these houses fail, and begin creating a solution as a group – echoing a method used by former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie, who, when faced with a transit expansion matter, pulled all the area mayors into a room and, after some wrangling, emerged from this meeting with our nearly county-wide modern transit system The Rapid.

“This collective went to work right then and there to solve this housing problem,” says Allen. “And at the end of the day it just worked; we had a solution that worked because it was built on common sense.”

An added bonus for our region, according to Allen, is that this collaborative model (created, tested and finally successful in our city) has now captured the imagination of many others, including the State of Michigan and the Detroit Land Bank Authority, who are exporting our model to other parts of our state.  

As I reflect on Allen’s story, I have to admit, it probably is one of the greatest ones in my recent history. It speaks volumes of our true abilities here more than any list that seems to include Grand Rapids more and more with each passing week. This success story has all the parts that make this region really quite unique in this state.

In the weeks, months, and even years ahead, it is hard to realistically predict what will become of us. I think our naturally leaning arch to create more good is a great indicator of our future. But again, it will take all of us and require new avenues be opened in our urban landscape as access and identity become not only the rule the day but the seat at the head of the board room. We need to mix it up more here.

I do know that if we are going to make the leap to become the next great big-little city, we are going to have remember who we are, but not be weighed down by that past. The history of this region has truly been built on our ability to imagine ourselves on the other side of the issue and then go out to accomplish it. To see it firsthand over the last five years has been nothing short of thrilling.

In five years, we will be a totally different city, but one I can safely bet will be built upon the same working principle: that collaboration indeed is a winning model to enact and export.

I choose to believe (and not as some Holly Golightly) that the collaborations within the city of Grand Rapids forged in my early years of residence here are the same ones that we have witnessed evolving over time. As citizens of this city, we have always been able to come together with willing partners to usher in more good.

And after five years of documenting our region in G-Sync through more than 225 editorials and over 1,200 reviews of our events the ways we come together as a community – to eat and drink together, to celebrate success, to talk honestly about our challenges, to envision solutions – I want to pause to mark the moment.

But just for a minute. Because this is not a time to slumber. I am not really sure there ever is a time for that. I feel like I am in a city fully awake even when I might like a nap. I hope you're as energized as I am by the good things going on around us, and I hope you're ready to continue the conversation for years to come.

But should I nod off, “Wake me up before you go go 'cause I'm not plannin' on going solo.” In the wise words of Wham!, don't forget that life is so much more enjoyable when its lived together.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Add these four events to your list of things to do this week. G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!
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