How local business impacts community growth and the city planning process

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It’s road work season in Michigan. As you find your way through Grand Rapids, you would be hard-pressed not to see construction taking place. For almost 20 years now, the city has been working through its Master Plan, which highlights the types of development, resources, and investment needed within the community.

“We completed the 2002 Master Plan and have been heavily focused on implementing that over the past two decades,” says Suzanne Schulz, managing director of design and development for the City. The current Master Plan addresses more than just construction. It seeks to be purposeful by identifying and improving quality of life elements, such as public safety and schools as well. 

Throughout the implementation of this Plan, the economy changed drastically. Not only has the city survived the downturn in the economy, it has been thriving. “We’ve gotten a lot of attention because we’ve had steady growth over the past 10 to 15 years. Even during the Great Recession, we had development and we weathered it much better than other communities,” says Schulz. “We’ve had unprecedented growth [over] the past several years, [including] well over 400 million dollars in construction value last year alone.”

Attracting businesses and residents

“The development that we [have] had has really helped support and spur growth in the region,” Schulz says. A challenge for businesses continues to be how to both attract and retain quality talent, which this growth has been able to positively impact.

In her role as co-owner of Management Business Solutions (MBS), Amy Marshall engages with business owners and professionals daily. MBS works directly with local and national clients to develop customized staffing solutions. “Being in the staffing industry, we have seen a huge impact on the way the new construction is impacting the Grand Rapids business community. The more businesses we have, the more employees we need,” she says.

The unemployment rate also speaks to this change. “The market has changed dramatically over the last couple years. In June 2009, the unemployment rate [in Michigan] was at 14.6 percent and [as of this June], we are at 4.2 percent [preliminarily],” says Marshall.

For businesses, the new developments and amenities are something they can leverage as they look to secure new employees. With the unemployment rate decreasing, it can be even more challenging for businesses to fill open positions because employees have greater options and can be more selective, Marshall says. To help small businesses in particular attract and retain employees, she says they should be flexible and creative. “You have to keep a competitive edge by offering unique benefits like work from home options, flex schedules, and creating a fun work environment to stay ahead of what the large corporations are offering,” she says. Putting all of this together can be incredibly beneficial for employers and can help entice new talent to come to the area.

The continued development within the city is having a marked impact on the number of residents. “We have about a 20 to 25 percent rate now of people who are moving into Grand Rapids. They are moving from elsewhere in the country or the world to our city. I really do believe that it is because we are providing amenities and neighborhoods that are unique. That speaks to the quality of life that people want to have without the long commute and at a really livable price point for both buying homes and opening businesses,” Schulz says.

As the cost of living continues to rise, particularly in larger cities, affordable housing is helping to set Grand Rapids apart. Affordable living is something “that you’re seeing to start to diminish or be impossible in other places, like San Francisco,” says Schulz. According to Bankrate’s cost of living calculator, a family or individual earning $50 thousand a year that relocates to Grand Rapids from San Francisco would see a 47.62 percent cost of living reduction. “On the coast, there are just places you can’t afford to live anymore and we’re really becoming one of those places that can offer some of those amenities that you might find in some of those places but it’s at a price point [where] people can have a high quality of life and can afford it,” she adds.

“Looking around the city, it speaks to the vision that the citizens of Grand Rapids created,” Schulz says. When it comes to city planning, hearing from the community is an essential part of the development process.

Hearing community voices

“A large part of [being proactive] has to do with what the community tells us. During the planning process, our goal is to have the community identify kinds of redevelopment – have the community tell us what kind of services they need,” says Schulz.

Kyle VanStrien has served on the city planning commission for eight years. Additionally, he is co-owner and co-founder of Long Road Distillers, located on the West Side. Having previously held the role of secretary and vice chair of the commission, VanStrien is now the chair.

“It’s a role that I enjoy. I like being able to help facilitate discussions and facilitate public hearings. We’re not in the business of creating laws or legislating. We’re really [here] to interpret the law laid out by the Planning Zoning Enabling Act and then follow our Master Plan that hundreds of thousands of people in the city of Grand Rapids have had an impact on or have had involvement in the making of,” he says.

There are always opportunities for citizens to get involved. For VanStrien, he started by serving on the West Grand neighborhood association board. If this isn’t your cup of tea or your neighborhood doesn’t have an association, VanStrien encourages fellow business owners in particular to connect with an organization such as Local First, “which is involved in helping local small businesses grow and thrive in our community.”

When looking at the city as a whole, residents can observe and engage at city meetings. “When it makes sense, come and speak up and share your opinions at public hearings for planning commission, city commission, and for the board of zoning appeals. We do listen and take responses into consideration when making decisions,” VanStrien concludes.

Setting the vision for prosperity

Looking forward, residents will soon have another great opportunity to have their voices heard. “The biggest thing for everyone, in particular businesses, is that we are going to be doing a new master plan in the near future and everyone needs to be involved in the creation of [it],” Schulz says.

“This is our opportunity to work with the community and the planning staff, commissioners, and neighborhood organizations to really reevaluate some of the values we had in the past and get those changed and [determine] how we might impact things for the next decade to come. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity and to be a part of [it],” says VanStrien.

“We have the opportunity to set [the] vision for the next 20 years,” Schulz says. As such, she is issuing a call-to-action for all community members. “Everyone should be thinking about what we need as a city to grow and prosper [and] for our people to be successful. What are those things that we can identify [that are] needed to take us to the next level and continue to be a strong, mid-size city.”

As the city develops and grows, small businesses can continue to have an impact on its direction. By creating jobs, attracting new residents, improving neighborhoods, and retaining dollars, the community as a whole will benefit.

“I love seeing the small business development taking place in neighborhoods. It draws people there and also encourages more walkable, livable areas. I think that’s really exciting. I hope that our city can still continue to lead at the state-level and nationally in terms of being proactive and forward-thinking in terms of types of developments [and] style of developments that we’re open to considering,” VanStrien concludes.

Building Bridges is a series focused on the diverse entrepreneurial community within the West Michigan region. Throughout the year, the series will highlight the unique problem solvers and change makers who seek to positively impact the growth of the economy and local ecosystem. Building Bridges is supported by Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW).

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC, has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. Through these organizations, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!

Photos by Chantal Pasag of Pasagraphy.
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