Acton Institute Powerblog

Grand Rapids Growth

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It has been a bit of a mystery over the last few months, as an anonymous group of developers had been purchasing up a series of properties near downtown Grand Rapids. The investigative work of the local TV news turned up the plans for the group to end up with a 41-acre area that runs along the Grand River through the heart of downtown.

Currently, the area is mostly made up of unused manufacturing facilities, abandoned buildings, and generally unproductive land. Over the last week, WOODTV 8 has learned the identify of one of the primary developers and their plans for the property. The project is called the RiverGrand, and Duane Faust of a developing company with offices in Atlanta and Los Angeles has been identified as a key player.

In an interview with Faust, 24 Hour News 8’s Suzanne Geha got Faust to describe the project: “We plan to build a large scale, mixed-use infrastructure development project that will serve as the standard bearer for not only Grand Rapids but the entire state of Michigan, making the transition from an industrial, manufacturing-based economy to a technology-economic-health care-entertainment as well as financial economy that everyone else is doing in the country,” he said.

There are currently no blueprints, but Faust says the project would take the best elements from other well-known developments, including Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Atlanta’s “Atlantic Station,” and London, England’s Canary Wharf.

Like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the RiverGrand would have a marina for use by boaters. Similar to Atlanta’s “Atlantic Station,” the RiverGrand would be “a city within a city,” made up of mixed-use land that serves as the core of downtown economic, residential, and social activity. And akin to London’s Canary Wharf, the land would be the home for several high-rise buildings, which would “significantly” change the skyline of Grand Rapids.

Since the RiverGrand project is much smaller than these other developments, the similarities would be appropriated to the scale of the plan, of course. Even so, Faust predicts that RiverGrand will employ 10,000 people.

This is good news for an area that has been hit hard by recent manufacturing losses. Electrolux, which at one point employed 2,700 people in Greenville, Michigan, closed its doors earlier this year. The key for the Faust plan is that Michigan is to move beyond a primarily industrial economy, and the attractiveness of the RiverGrand project is the diversity of economic opportunity it embraces, from tourism, music and entertainment, to commercial and finance industries.

This is in marked contrast to the plan from the politicians in the state’s capital. On the heels of the Electrolux move, Gov. Granholm trumpeted the news of a new plant being opened in Greenville, which would employ 500 people. The facility is owned by United Solar Ovonic, which is a developer of alternative fuel techonlogies, including the production of solar cells.

It’s clear that the Lansing politicians see the future of Michigan’s economy to be a continuation of the industrialized past, as two consecutive administrations (Engler and Granholm) have used tobacco settlement funds to set up technology and biotechnology funds for new endeavors in Michigan.

The problem with such efforts is that the liberty of entrepreneurial enterprises should not be pitted against the determinism of lawmakers. As we have seen, the transition from an industrial economy can be difficult for many in the short-term. And while it is tempting for politicians to try to find for themselves the next big thing, they must resist that temptation and simply place Michigan in a position where it has a clear and fair tax structure that is competitive with other states and nations.

Technological innovation will always be an important part of a robust economy. But a diversification that deals with the realities of a global economy will be the real answer to long-term growth. For that reason, the future hope for Michigan lies more with entrepreneurial endeavors like the RiverGrand project as with the decisions of Lansing lawmakers in determining the future industries of Michigan.

Projects like the RiverGrand will do more to make Grand Rapids a “cool city” than state programs ever could.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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