Like many of the Midwest’s industrial cities, throughout the 1980s, Grand Rapids, Michigan, was suffering from rapid declines in its industrial base. The city had served as a major industrial hub for the West Michigan area since the 1850s, manufacturing much of the furniture and lumber that would help complete the vast wave of construction sweeping America during the late 19th and early 20th century.
As the state’s timber supplies were slowly depleted, however, the city was able to redefine itself as a major cog in the supply chain for the world-dominant automotive industry of Detroit. This second boom in Grand Rapids’ industrial might lasted from approximately the 1920s all the way to the early 1980s, as it supplied much of the off-site manufacturing for critical components of the Detroit-built cars that would fill the garages of every advanced nation on Earth.
But things began to change as the 70s gave way to the 80s. For the first time, the Big Three automakers began experiencing serious competition from other auto manufacturers. Japan, in particular, was able to begin beating out Detroit on price. At the same time, rising labor and pension costs prompted the beginning of the exodus of automotive plants that wouldn’t fully subside until America’s automotive industry was a shell of its former self.
Throughout all of this, civic leaders in Grand Rapids watched as cities like Detroit, Flint and Battle Creek imploded. As the automotive jobs and the industrial base, including the working-class, left for greener pastures, these once-thriving cities quickly found themselves trying to manage a rapidly shrinking tax base and mass flight of their productive citizenry. By the late 1980s, Detroit and Flint had become urban warzones, with little in the way of a real economic base left.
Dick DeVos was among the Grand Rapids business leaders who witnessed, first hand, the decline of Michigan’s great cities into a state of intractable ruin. DeVos, one of the area’s most celebrated business figures, was determined to stop Grand Rapids from suffering the same fate. In the early 1990s, he organized a group of the area’s top business minds to come together in order to stop the progression of the city’s economic woes.
The Grand Action Committee, as it was called, lived up to its name. DeVos, like many people who find great success navigating the gauntlet of the free market, had always been more of an actor than a talker. True to the name of the committee he formed, DeVos took a number of grand actions, putting up tens of millions of dollars of his own money and taking on substantial risk to build some of the most far-reaching projects the city had ever seen.
Among the products of DeVos’ ambitious effort to save his home town have been the DeVos Place Convention Center, the Medical Mile and the Van Andel Arena. The latter project gave rise to one of the most incredible turnarounds of a neighborhood in Michigan history. What was once a derelict slum spanning dozens of city blocks is now called the Arena District, one of the hippest and most sought-after residential neighborhoods in the state.
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