Grand Rapids has a lot riding on Haris Alibašic, and that's a good thing.
More than qualified to direct the city's Office of Energy and Sustainability
, Alibašic has his hands in many other projects as well. He manages the state and federal legislative affairs for the city; if any legislation from the state government has an effect on Grand Rapids, it goes through him first. He teaches graduate-level classes at Grand Valley State University and is actively involved
with the Bosnian-American community. And as a member of the Grand Rapids 2030 District Leadership Council, Alibašic is forming partnerships between the private and public sectors to reduce greenhouse gasses in downtown Grand Rapids.
Alibašic's passion for work has been lauded by many in the community. It's what got him an office next door to the mayor's and some serious responsibility. He leads the city's target-driven efforts to become 100 percent reliant on renewable energy sources, at no extra cost to taxpayers, by 2020. As he wrote in the fifth-year progress report
for the city's Sustainability Plan, Grand Rapids was only 27 percent reliant on renewable energy, but well on its way toward the goal. Out of 232 targets outlined in the plan, only two, involving physical activity goals and a multi-city playground effort, had shown little to no progress between 2011 and 2015.
The city's plan to become fully energy efficient falls solely on Alibašic's shoulders. And while that may seem like a big job, because it certainly is, challenge has only made Alibašic work harder to succeed.
The Alibašics came to Grand Rapids from war-torn Bosnia in 2000. Only five years prior, the Serbian army led by Slobodan Milosevic had killed more than 100,000 Bosnians before a peace agreement ended the genocide. Alibašic escaped with his family, and not one to let opportunity spoil, hit the ground running. He received a master's degree in public administration from Grand Valley State University and PhD in sustainability energy management. Now with the city for 12 years, Alibašic has been concentrating on sustainability since 2007.
At the Office of Energy and Sustainability, Alibašic has a lot going on but he is always calm and collected. He understands the importance of communicating ideas clearly and effectively, and to be honest, he's been through much worse. Alibašic has a talent for bringing different ideas together to form an even stronger result. Perhaps it grew during the years he worked in Bosnia as a radio DJ, where he learned how to sample and combine elements of popular music into new songs. While that may seem far from the realm of city government, Alibašic understands that the idea of strength in diversity applies anywhere.
Grand Rapids' approach to sustainability is unique, Alibašic says, as it involves four distinct areas of support.The private and nonprofit sectors, along with universities and foundations, and local government are all working together on various sustainable efforts
in the area. And that's crucial, he says, as economic, environment, and social issues cannot always be seen through the same lens.
"Another very important element of sustainability work is this idea that universities and schools have a role to play," he says. "We have Grand Valley State University, Calvin, Aquinas, even MSU is here now, Western Michigan University and all those universities that have some presence in Grand Rapids work with the city on sustainability. We have a great partnership with the schools to engage students to work on sustainability issues and research them. They will be equipped to go out into the real world and do sustainability work, too."
The Grand Rapids 2030 District
is a good model of success through diverse opinion. The private and public led project is focused on fostering a sustainable, efficient, thriving downtown Grand Rapids. The district was launched in 2015 with 39 founding members, including 20 building owners representing 61 buildings and 9,975,420 square feet of downtown real estate. On the District Leadership Council, Alibašic is tasked with connecting those who are pushing sustainability with those who are promoting it.
"This GR 2030 district involves private and public sector working together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the downtown area," he says. "It involves organizations like DeVos Place, SMG Group, and others, and they promote the Grand Rapids 2030 District as one of dozens of districts recognized nationally along with large cities like Pittsburgh and Seattle. Basically, you have a partnership commitment that allows different sectors to be involved in sustainability."
616 Lofts Director of Environmental Sustainability and 2030 District Chair Drew Coppess
sees Alibašic as a man of efficiency and action, and one whose work is essential to the region's work in sustainability.
"I've had the pleasure of meeting and serving with Haris on the Grand Rapids 2030 District Leadership Council. It became immediately clear to me that he is not interested in idle, green-tinted chitchat," Coppess says. " As a private developer we have aligned with Haris and the long term practical solutions that he champions. Haris is another great example of the excellent political leadership that makes Grand Rapids such a healthy place to live and work."
In the nonprofit sector, few organizations embody sustainability more than WMEAC, which is why Alibašic finds himself working closely with Director of Policy and Community Activism Nicholas Occhipinti
. They both share a background in public policy and an interest in energy matters. Occhipinti served in the Granholm Administration’s public policy shop and was a Special Assistant on a major economic development initiative, while Alibašic previously worked for the Office of the High Representative as a business and economic development specialist.
Along with Alibašic's contribution, Occhipinti was a co-author of the Grand Rapids Climate Resiliency Report
, which outlined the effects of climate change and its impact on the local community. The report sets specific resiliency goals for the local community, aimed at strengthening disaster recovery and managing climate change impact. This joint effort between Grand Rapids and WMEAC is hoped to promote further discussion and action on the effects of climate change and how the city can adapt with emerging sustainable energy technology.
As ubiquitous as the term may be, West Michigan's sustainability efforts are making marked progress. And, Alibašic says, they've been doing so since well before he started making headlines. He credits Dan Schoonmaker and the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum
for starting the conversation in the mid-90s.
"It's important to realize that this region in the Grand Rapids area, you have the private sector, committed to sustainability, working hand in hand with the public sector to promote sustainability," Alibašic said. "All the folks from Steelcase to Amway, and even utilities like Consumers Energy, they're all committed to a certain aspect of sustainability."
And none more committed than Alibašic.
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].