RapidBlog: Grand Rapids - Alive and Kicking

"Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated"  Mark Twain

I had been pondering writing a rebuttal to a recent top 10 list of "dying" cities in the U.S., put out by a national political magazine, which featured Grand Rapids as the #10 on its list. The debate that ensued has been nothing short of explosive, maybe even overreacting (as some have probably rightfully claimed); even to the point of Mayor George Heartwell penning a letter to the Managing Editor of said magazine.

Since the social media crowd and the online commentors have weighed in heavily on the issue, was there anything to be said on this that hasn't been said already? Are we beating a dead horse? Have we jumped the shark on this topic? (Do people even use the term jumped the shark anymore?) Certainly a lot of people have made some heartfelt points about how Grand Rapids is not dying, like the slew of events that are making Grand Rapids a better place to play and live, like ArtPrize. Or that we have a large collection of sustainable buildings in the area, like the new art museum. But does that get to the meat of the claim, that Census Bureau estimates show that Grand Rapids' population is quite a bit lower than it was in 2000? Do these things equal population growth? And are the numbers even accurate?

What's the Concensus?

The claims are that the city lost population from 2000 - 2009 and that the biggest drop has been in the under 18 age group, based on Census Bureau "estimates." The Census Bureau gathers these estimates from a variety of government agencies (tax records, medicare claims, etc.), but ultimately knows that the creme de la creme in population data comes from their full blown population count every 10 years, where they go door to door and attempt to count every man, woman and child in the U.S.. Even the Bureau itself has this to say (warn) about using their inter-censal estimates, the period between those 10 year counts, for academic purposes:

"Generally, you can compare American Community Survey (ACS) 1-year estimates with Census 2000 and other ACS 1-year data. However, since ACS variables change over time, some areas and subjects must be compared with caution, or not compared at all. "  U.S. Census Bureau

Even though the 2010 census was just completed this past year, the actual numbers for the city of Grand Rapids won't be released until later this spring or summer. In 1999, the Census Bureau estimated the population of Grand Rapids at 185,000. When the actual count was released in 2001, it was actually found to be 197,800; quite a difference. The current estimate is at 193,700. What will the number be when the count is announced? Time will tell.

I think what a lot of people are missing though in this discussion is refuting the actual claims of the article; that people are leaving, particularly young people. I know several young people who have left the area recently for job opportunities. Is it a trend, or just a normal thing for young people to do? Without giving any more credence (and any more links) to a particular magazine, I thought I'd provide a much brighter, and perhaps I believe more interesting, snapshot of where Grand Rapids has come in the last 10 years, and where it appears to be headed in the next decade, by the numbers.

) The median age in Grand Rapids is 31, the national average is 36.5.

) Percent with a bachelor's degree and higher 27.1%, the national average is 27.5%.

) Population in Grand Rapids is estimated to have grown, not shrunk, from July 2005 to July 2009, from 193,289 to 193,710 (according to those same Census estimates).

) The latest unemployment rate available for Grand Rapids was 9.5% in November 2010; the national rate was 9.8%. Some other cities for comparison:

Chicago 9.0%

San Francisco 10.3%

Kansas City 9.1%

Portland, OR 10.1%

Seattle 9.1%

Denver 8.7%

Miami 12.1%

Atlanta 10.3%

Las Vegas 14.3%

) The Grand Rapids MSA's population (suburban areas included) is estimated at 780,000, up from 740,482 in 2000.

That seems a lot more like "not dying" to me.

Grand Rapids is not attracting and retaining young people? Consider these statistics:

) Since 2000, 12,000 new college students were added to the Grand Rapids Metro Area.

) GVSU set an enrollment record in Fall 2010 at 24,541 students, a gain of 5962 students from 2000.

) 4450 GVSU students now live in the City of Grand Rapids, that did not in 2000.

) 11,430 students now attend classes at GVSU's downtown campuses (the Devos campus, engineering center and health sciences campus did not exist prior to 2000).

) 88% of GVSU grads have stayed in Michigan to work.

) Over 700 students attend Cooley Law School downtown, which did not exist in downtown Grand Rapids in 2000.

) Over 350 students will be attending the new MSU College of Human Medicine in downtown Grand Rapids when fully occupied.

) Over $550 Million has been invested in higher education in downtown GR since 2000, with another $88 Million on the drawing boards or underway for Kendall College's expansion, GRCC's expansion, and GVSU's new business college.

That's not to mention the planned year-round market, the expansion to The BOB, more affordable housing planned for the Heartside District, the $30 Million Heart of the City Health Center under works, and the $30 Million Tower 35 under construction on Medical Mile, which we hear may house Ferris State University's Pharmacy program, amongst other medical uses.

I could mention the $1.5 Billion in downtown development that has occurred since 2000, in new healthcare facilities, medical research labs, hotel rooms, a new state-of-the-art children's hospital, a new art museum and other cultural amenities, providing thousands of jobs and the promise of more to come. Or that over 2000 new and renovated residential units have been added to downtown's living scene. Or that Fortune magazine actually came to Grand Rapids and called it a Michigan Success Story, but I think that might be overkill? And certainly ArtPrize has not only gotten Grand Rapids international attention, it increases the downtown population by a couple hundred thousand people for two weeks.

Don't get too cocky

Does Grand Rapids have room to improve? Absolutely. We're still very segregated, we still have too many people living in poverty, we need more affordable housing, there are still too many foreclosures on the market, downtown lacks a vibrant retail scene, we still need more job opportunities and growth, Grand Rapids Publics Schools has a lot of challenges to overcome, and a host of other issues effecting urban areas all over this great country.

We also have to look at our "value proposition" that we present to the global economy, as described by Kevin Budelmann in his blog for us last week. Just do a google search of Grand Rapids and see what the world sees when it starts doing a little research about our little corner of the world.

One thing that is definitely NOT dead in Grand Rapids is the conversation about making Grand Rapids better. But is it a focused conversation? While community pride is a powerful force, is it just cheerleading for cheerleading's sake? Success tends to breed complacency. Perhaps this little "stick in the eye" was just what we needed to stay in the game. Bring it.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Grand Valley State University, Cooley Law School, U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey

Jeff Hill is the Local Publisher for Rapid Growth Media, and holds a degree in Communications and Economics from Western Michigan University.  He also blogs, cycles, and helps juggle the schedule of a busy household with three school-aged children.

Zombie photograph by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
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