For A Great, Grand American City

Since its inception, Rapid Growth has annually featured an abridged version of the mayor's State of the City address. See past year's coverage here and here

Why Grand Rapids?
As I deliver my sixth State of the City address we find ourselves in times unparalleled in the lifetimes of most of us in this room. The world has plunged into the steepest and deepest economic decline since the Great Depression. America, the leading economic engine on the planet, has this time provided the fuel for a global decline that has pushed much of our middle class closer to poverty and thrust the poor into a steel-hard time unknown since the dust bowl days and soup lines of the 1930s. …

Grand Rapids has fared better than the state as a whole. We know that and we are thankful. We have worked hard to make it so. Our net job growth continues to lead the state. Our downtown construction is the envy of every Michigan mayor. We are making a transition away from an old, rust-belt manufacturing economy where a strong back and company loyalty would guarantee a middle-class life and a comfortable retirement. We are rapidly becoming a city with a new economy characterized by research and development, design, knowledge, advanced manufacturing, human medicine, education and the adaptation of new technology to solve 21st century problems.

At the same time, we know how precarious our hold on economic normalcy is. Far too many people have spent far too much time fruitlessly looking for work. Those who have found jobs often settle for lower wages and are even now struggling to make the house payment, feed the family and hold on until a better time arrives. …

Ladies and gentlemen, it is exactly for times like this that we were put together in this time and place. Grand Rapidians are nothing if we are not compassionate; and mean times call forth the best in our compassionate spirit. Grand Rapidians are nothing if we are not innovative; and confounding challenges bring out the spirit of creativity in all of us. Grand Rapidians are nothing if we are not hopeful, if we are not forward looking; and this hope is rooted in our experience and in our faith. This deep and abiding faith – understood in so many ways and trusted by so many people – is the foundation of our

hope in a future which is better, brighter, fairer, and more just….

Our American Dream
The question about the viability of US cities has been answered. The journey to suburbia is over…it turns out that the American Dream was not to be found there. Not that we didn’t seek it. For 50 years America turned to the suburbs; but in the end suburban dwellers experienced traffic congestion, long commutes and a photocopy similarity of neighborhoods and shopping districts. In the end, the ephemeral suburban dream could not be sustained.

Now begins the modern era of great American cities. Grand Rapids is in the forward ranks.

Young people and empty-nesters are returning to cities. They find a multitude of affordable housing choices there. But more important they find walkable communities, efficiency of operation, good transit services, plentiful and varied entertainment, stimulating social networks and interesting neighborhoods, parks and streetscapes.

It is a new day in America and Grand Rapids is poised to rocket to the top of the short list of great American cities. … There is a reason we are weathering this economy better than most. We have positioned ourselves to lead. And lead we will!

We have not only been guided through these transitions by the wisdom of our elders, but we are, right now, banking wisdom with our young urban pioneers, with our eager young students, and with our trail blazing green developers. They are becoming a new resource, one that will not fail to draw interest as we move to take our place among the greatest cities in the U.S.

Greening Grand Rapids
I plan to explore the creation of a Grand Rapids Carbon Offset program so that, as a City, we can do our part in helping to promote and encourage a recognition about carbon’s impact on our future and use the opportunity to fund some of our own carbon offset strategies. We will provide certified carbon credits for purchase by conference organizers or individual conferees. For example, a conference attendee flying from San Francisco to Grand Rapids generates 1.439 tons of CO2 which has a market value of $51.80 based on carbon calculator for air travel.

The Green Grand Rapids Carbon Offset program will be in position to receive the contribution of $51.80 for this attendee’s travel and issue a carbon offset “green tag”, audited for certification. Some conventions will build this cost into the overall registration fees. Others will offer it as a voluntary option to their members ….

We continue our work toward the goals of 100% renewable energy by 2020. Although nothing is immediately on the horizon that will take us beyond our current level of 20% we have two very interesting projects underway that will contribute to achieving total municipal independence from fossil-fuel generated electrical power.

We are also well on our way to achieving total separation of our storm and sanitary sewers. We will launch a community-based storwater planning process in partnership with WMEAC early this year. Legislation is being worked on in Lansing that would establish and clarify guidelines for the creation of a storm water utility. We are fully committed to a clean Grand River. Already the Grand is a top flight fishery; now imagine our river downtown with a kayak course, canoeing and pleasure boating. Think of the opportunities for development along the river with restaurants and cafes looking over the water while the river edges remain accessible for strolling in three seasons. The river has always been at the center of our community and, with its restoration it will again define us as the people of this place.

Public transit is yet another way that we can both create a vital urban environment and improve the quality of the air we breathe. Our ground-breaking Master Plan and zoning ordinance intentionally focus on “transit-oriented development.” Since I stood before you here last year both the federal and state funding for capital investment in the Grand

Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood Bus Rapid Transit line have been approved. A local funding component will be required and the ITP Board is exploring options at this time.

Also, I am pleased to report that since I announced a streetcar plan for downtown Grand

Rapids in my 2008 State of the City Address, The Rapid has convened a Task Force, secured funding for feasibility analysis and is moving forward swiftly to plan development of our first streetcar line. In an ideal world the construction of the streetcar would correspond with the construction of the Bus Rapid Transit line so that the two will integrate into the line haul bus system to form a seamless public transportation network.

All that is then needed to make us a transit-efficient region is a countywide system. This will require expanded partnerships that build on the foundation created by the founding communities of the Interurban Transportation Partnership. I invite the Kent County

Board of Commissioners and our other partners in the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council to develop a framework for this discussion. Providing public transit services to outlying areas of Kent County will help connect people with jobs, health care services and retail outlets. It will reduce traffic on the County roads and make us a more efficient region. It will also enable us to provide more effective links to our regional partners in

Ottawa County as together we study how we can connect those systems. …

Five years ago I announced at this forum that I would pursue an initiative I called Education Renewal Zones. This effort would create a citywide tax capture zone that would return a portion of the growth in our tax base to instructional programming in the

GRPS. The premise behind this tax capture was that strong public schools do more than anything else to raise property values in a city and the modest loss of revenue from tax capture would be more than compensated over time through a strengthening tax base. I met with Governor Granholm who expressed her enthusiasm for the concept. I met with Michigan legislators who were slightly more wary. I underestimated the opposition I would encounter from within my own ranks as two City Commissioners – neither serving on the Commission today – publicly challenged the concept. And I was naïve in not anticipating external opposition from those who might “lose” tax revenue in the near term and who did not buy my argument about future tax revenue potential.

Well, good things are worth waiting for. The Kalamazoo Promise proved that investing in the education of youth has a dramatic effect on people’s perception of urban public education…and on property values and the vitality of the community. And the Governor, drawing on the early work we had done on Education Renewal Zones and on the

Kalamazoo Promise, promoted legislation called Promise Zones and signed it into law early this week. Promise Zones Program requires both tax capture and philanthropy and give the children of a community the assurance that if they work hard and get good grades they can go to college….

Looking Ahead
As we welcomed the New Year two weeks ago the pundits were universal in saying that

2008 would go down as one of the worst years in memory. War. Economic collapse. Shrinking incomes and shrinking tax bases. A Governor attempting to sell a Senate seat, a long-time Senator convicted of graft and a major city Mayor sentenced to prison. These are things that are burned into our consciousness. So this morning I am glad to have reminded you of several good things that we – all of us here today and many others in the community – made happen in Grand Rapids in 2008.

Now we turn toward 2009 with a renewed sense of optimism and a hope born of the spirit

of this place and this people. For you see, although we’ve been damaged we are not defeated. And we will not be defeated.

Although we have ample cause to be anxious we are not without hope and we are not without resources. We have no shortage of resolve. We are prepared. I know of no more resilient, more capable community than ours.

This can be – no, it must be – the beginning of our next golden era; one in which we claim our place as a great American City. We know ourselves well…our emerging opportunities and our historical limitations. We are a people who value place and respect difference. We are a compassionate people who will not abandon our neighbors when times are toughest. We are a people who respect the wisdom of our elders and who invest in those who will follow us as the next generation of our City’s leaders.

Most of all we are a people who believe that in every challenge is an opportunity; and the greater the challenge the more potential exists. Grand Rapids, our potential now is enormous! If we do not lose our focus on the things that matter most – our children, our environment, and our growing economy – if we continue to work collaboratively throughout the region, then our future will certainly be prosperous and our place on the list of America’s Top Cities will be assured.

We must help each other discover that future. Join me today. There is hard work ahead.

No one can do it but us. Now is the time to come together, to roll up our sleeves and to be about the serious work of building our great American city one child, one tree, one job at a time.

Edited for length by Daniel Schoonmaker, managing editor of Rapid Growth. To read the full address, go here.

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