New to West Michigan: talented transplants tell all

Rapid Growth wondered what it's like to be new in town, so we checked in with a panel of talented transplants at our Speaker Series last week. Susan Julien Larimore gives us the inside scoop on being a newcomer to West Michigan and highlights a few local organizations who help make the transition to town easier.
If you’re a Grand Rapidian who has lived here for many years, it’s likely you’re proud of the city’s rich history, inspired by its collaborative spirit, and energized by its innovative nature and growth.
Over the past ten years, Grand Rapids has embraced change, trading its cautious and predictable ways for those more vibrant and exciting. Not everyone across the country has discovered how wonderful Grand Rapids has become – yet – but the word is getting out:
•   One of the top 15 emerging U.S. downtowns (Forbes, 2013).
•   One of 12 Cities Leading the Way (Bill, 2013).
•   Seventh in Top 10 Happiest Cities to Work In, fourth for Best Cities to Find Jobs (Forbes, 2013).
•   No. 1 in number of LEED certified buildings per capita for mid-sized cities – in the U.S.
•   Host to ArtPrize, an open, independently organized international art competition.
•   Home to over 80 international companies.
As Grand Rapids continues to thrive and earn national recognition, it’s attracting top talent from across the country. How do these newcomers make the decision to come here? How welcoming do they find Grand Rapids? Is the reality of living here different from their expectations?
For our October Speaker Series, Rapid Growth gathered a panel of five newcomers from as far away as Los Angeles to as close to home as Grand Haven to share their thoughts and experiences on being new to the Grand Rapids area. If turnout at the event, hosted at Rockford Construction headquarters, is any indication, it's a topic that resonates with plenty of local residents.
The panelists included Christian Gaines – Executive Director of ArtPrize, Austin Langlois – GVSU student from Grand Haven, Maureen Noe – President/CEO of Heart of West Michigan United Way, David Rosen – President of Kendall College, and Kristen Taylor, Development Director at UICA.
First Impressions
“When a recruiter called me about the position at Kendall College, I had never heard of Grand Rapids before. But I wanted a place where I could have impact and make a difference. Grand Rapids seemed like somewhere I could. A small town that cared about art, sustainability, and buying local. A community with a focus on the future.” That's according to David Rosen, who moved with his family here from Southern California.
Christian Gaines and his wife Kristen Taylor also moved with their family from California. Prior to Gaines learning of the position at ArtPrize, they knew very little about Grand Rapids. They relied on the Internet to research West Michigan. But once they visited Grand Rapids, Gaines says, “I could tell it was a community on the move. I love that the community is compact. ArtPrize is out of the norm and alluring for me. The possibilities are endless here.”
Through her online research to determine whether she could find a job here, Taylor discovered Grand Rapids has an “incredibly diverse economy that’s very special and unique – medical, retail, manufacturing, arts, and non-profit. [That] made it easy to make the decision to come here.”
Before deciding on accepting her position with United Way, Maureen Noe, who came from Cincinnati, also researched Grand Rapids. When she learned it was the second most philanthropic community in the nation and considered one of the most innovative cities in the country, she thought to herself, “Why wouldn’t I want to go there?”
Pleasant Surprises
Once Gaines moved here, reality was even better than his expectations. “I am surprised by the amount of economic development organizations and number of media outlets here. Grand Rapids is the 37th largest market in the nation. Bigger than New Orleans and Las Vegas.”
Gaines also remarked that people lack drama here compared to Los Angeles. “There’s no hurling things through windows or screaming. A refreshing change.”
Taylor is delighted with the housing. “Housing prices here are extremely low. Best shock I ever had!”
As a student at GVSU and intern for Experience GR, Langlois fell in love with Grand Rapids. While many of his friends in college are looking for jobs in major metropolitan areas, he looked in Grand Rapids and landed a job. Langlois says, “There are jobs available in Grand Rapids!”
Rosen and Noe also agree Grand Rapids has exceeded their expectations. Both commented on enjoying the collaborative nature of the community.
Possible Improvements
Although the panelists were largely positive about living and working in Grand Rapids, when asked by an audience member what they thought we could do better, they offered a few suggestions.
Langlois expressed desire for a pro sports team in town and an improved public transportation that could quickly and easily connect people to everything.
Noe stated the airline service could be improved. “We need more direct flights to other cities.”
And panelists were largely in agreement that the city reflects a few core Midwestern traits: punctuality, modesty, and something known as "West Michigan nice," an oft-observed lack of direct criticism or confrontation that can result in ineffective communication and problem-solving.
If Grand Rapids wants to position itself as a destination for new college grads and experienced professionals, said the panel, its citizens would do well to increase both their ability to give and receive constructive criticism and their pride in their community.
Helpful Services
Before accepting positions in Grand Rapids, most panelists sought information online about the area through several resources, including City of Grand Rapids, Experience GR, and Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.
Area businesses recruiting talent from around the globe and newcomers here have a wealth of information and support available through local services and organizations designed to make relocation stress-free. These services also assist in making engagement within the community a pleasure.
Hiring organizations and newly hired executives in West Michigan can call on Welcome Home, a local relocation service founded by Shirley Hubers. This service manages all the little details of a big move, from cleaning the house top to bottom to arranging services like lawn or day care – before executives and families even arrive.
Hello West Michigan is an organization working diligently to attract new talent to the area and connect job seekers from outside West Michigan to excellent jobs here. They also assist with “trailing spouses” seeking employment here in order to make transition easier and financially feasible.
Another resource is After the Move, a company devoted to helping newcomers make connections within the community. They offer assistance with finding schools, health care, babysitters, vets, clubs, volunteer opportunities, and more. Founder Candy Wilkes-Scheper understands firsthand the importance of familiarizing yourself and getting involved quickly in a new community. She lived in France twice with her family, for a total of five years, and also lived in Brazil as an exchange student for one year.
Consider West Michigan
Going forward, there is room for more conversations about how to best welcome newcomers to West Michigan. Not only is it helpful to gather feedback from the talented transplants heading up local organizations, but it's also going to be important to position Grand Rapids as a city that's attractive to college graduates and young professionals early in their careers.

To that end, The Right Place, Inc., a regional non-profit economic development organization, and Hello West Michigan are offering a free event to those visiting here Thanksgiving weekend. Who do they hope shows up? People in their 20s and 30s currently attending college or living and working elsewhere. Several local companies and non-profit organizations will be represented and ready to convince guests to take another look at their hometown. ReThink West Michigan is Wednesday, Nov. 27, at The Factory (38 West Fulton, Suite 400), 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
As West Michigan continues to grow and attract talent from outside the region, it is honest feedback from those who are "new in town" - along with intentional assistance from community individuals and organizations - that will determine whether or not the newest crop of Grand Rapidians feels welcome enough to stay.
Susan Julien Larimore is a freelance writer in the Grand Rapids area who loves to make things happen with words. Connect with Susan at her website:

Photography by Adam Bird
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