Grand Rapids, Michigan, began life before Michigan itself had even become a state. What started as a trading posts and summer camp for the Ottawa Indians was fed by the serendipitous occurrence of America’s vast westward expansion and the need that thereby arose for massive quantities of lumber. It so happened that the entire state of Michigan was essentially one endless forest. These timber resources were in ultra-high demand in a country where many states where all but devoid of timber.
With its location on the relatively fast Grand River, which fed directly into Lake Michigan and its shipping lanes to Chicago, Grand Rapids was the perfect location for a nascent lumbering industry. By 1850, the city was producing more lumber than anywhere else in the country. And the enormous supply of high-quality and cheap lumber quickly gave rise to a furniture industry that would provide the new towns of the American frontier with most of the furniture in its homes and buildings.
But 70 years later, the state’s forests had been nearly decimated. It so happened that the 1920s marked the beginning of the automotive boom. Grand Rapids was able to transition smoothly from being the nation’s furniture capital to being one of its most important production centers for automotive parts. By the 1980s, however, the state’s auto industry was headed in the same direction that its timber industry had gone 70 years before. Grand Rapids was beginning to experience the tell-tale signs of sharp urban decay. Blocks of the city’s center were populated with vacant warehouses and factories that would likely never see productive use again. Crime began to spike and this started to drive the productive classes from the city’s more urban neighborhoods. Grand Rapids was beginning to look like Detroit.
Dick DeVos, one of the city’s most accomplished businessmen, didn’t need tea leaves to see the ominous future portended by the collapse of his hometown. He vowed to take action. DeVos formed the Grand Action Committee, a group of the city’s top business leaders that was dedicated to the sole end of creating genuine economic prosperity in the city’s Downtown area through investment.
DeVos himself invested tens of millions of his own money in projects like the DeVos Place Convention Center and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. The plan worked. Today, Grand Rapids is routinely names as one of the best cities in the Midwest in which to work, play and live.
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