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Laurels & Hardlies

If ever there was a rollercoaster feel to a year in recent memory, 2009 provided the model.

By Grand Rapids Magazine staff
and esteemed panel

Even in the midst of the financial crisis and the drama of General Motors and Chrysler cutbacks, Michigan State University won the national bid for an isotope accelerator and a world audience at its door. Nestle announced its Gerber baby food company in Fremont would be the site of a $75 million international infant research and development facility, and Kellogg announced expansion of its R&D and presence in Battle Creek. The Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids doubled its size and finished construction (early) this month.

Have we mentioned Rob Bliss? People nationwide now associate his name with Grand Rapids, far more so than Mayor, umm, (what’s his name?). People are drawn downtown for Bliss’ urban events, whether it’s a zombie walk or a giant pillow fight or to chalk up the downtown sidewalks. But never have 20,000 people filled city streets and sidewalks to watch a Bliss event until ArtPrize, the spectacular event that attracted nearly 1,300 artists from more than 20 countries and twice as many states to Grand Rapids. Bliss released a gazillion paper airplanes from atop the city’s buildings — some of them stuck together but nobody cared.

The turn-out for Bliss’ ArtPrize event caused our panel to recollect the evening of last Dec. 31 when WLAV radio sponsored the first-ever New Year’s Eve ball drop at Rosa Parks Circle. It was truly a memorable night, when thousands of people braved the frigid temperatures for hours, warmed by community.

And that’s just the beginning. So without further ado, here are some of the 2009 highlights noted by our panel:

A Way to Go! Laurel to Rick DeVos and Bill Holsinger-Robinson for turning downtown Grand Rapids into a playground for residents and visitors alike. It’s so Grand Rapids that food has to be part of any art celebration (just ask a Festival volunteer), and art gawkers ate their way through the menus at downtown restaurants. They even waited in hours-long lines, mostly politely.

A Thanks for the Memories and Good Luck to the (Not) So New Guy Laurel as Grand Rapids City Manager Kurt Kimball moved on to new endeavors such as promoting ArtPrize, retiring after more than 20 years of largely inspirational leadership in the position. He yielded to Greg Sundstrom, a long-time “company man” who inherits a skeleton budget and sometimes fractional city commission.

A “Beam Me Up, Scotty” Laurel to The Right Place Inc. and its economic development efforts based on lucrative incentives that brought more than 10 companies to West Michigan through September, representing at least $187 million in investments. One of the big catches was luring a call center subsidiary for, the Internet travel company with ads featuring “Star Trek” actor William Shatner. The business on Eastern Avenue in Wyoming is set to eventually employ more than 400 workers.

A More Than Just A Band-Aid Laurel to the blossoming health care business sector in West Michigan, considered to be the bright spot in an otherwise sputtering economy. Gerber’s plans with parent company Nestle to invest in the Fremont plant for research and development of infant and toddler food products were joined by similar projects being pursued in Holland by Michigan State University’s bio-research center and in Battle Creek by Kellogg Co. and the Kellogg Foundation to expand facilities and establish a research center to assist new startup companies in food science and food safety industries. Allegan’s 122-year-old Perrigo Co. contin-ued to be a job-generating trend-setter with its new product introductions and local and global expansion as it topped $2 billion in sales for the first time in the fiscal year ended in June. (And did you catch the Perrigo Dancing Scientist video on YouTube?)


A “Left His Mark” laurel to business icon L. William Seidman, who died May 13. At his memorial celebration, GVSU president Tom Haas spoke about his life and accomplishments.

A Hallelujah Laurel to the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau that continues to take advantage of state-of-the-art facilities in downtown Grand Rapids by drawing thousands to conventions that hold promise for future lucrative visits. The CVB hosted the 2009 Religious Conferen-ce Management group during a freezing February weekend that attracted 1,300 conferees, including 400 religious meeting planners who came away with glowing reports about this city’s capabilities. Other “catches” include the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives that will hold its heavily attended annual training conference and exhibition at DeVos Place in 2014. The convention will mean roughly 5,000 room nights for the city’s hotels and about $3.8 million to the local economy.

A From the Ground Up Laurel for the opening of Saint Mary’s Health Care’s Hauenstein Center. The 145,000-square-foot, five-story, $60 million building at 220 Jefferson St. SE was born of a $2 million gift from retired businessman and World War II hero Ralph Hauenstein. The hospital’s Doran Foundation raised more than $15 million for the project that provides new quarters for critical care and emergency services, as well as bringing together neurosciences programs under one roof.

ArtPrize earned a “Way to Go!” Laurel for transforming downtown GR into an art extravaganza. Kudos to 20-year-old college student Rob Bliss, whose “100,000 Paper Planes and Melodies Over Monroe” project had 20,000 people watching from the streets.

A Blowin’ In The Wind Laurel to Rockford Berge, a partnership between Rockford Construction and Spain-based Berge Logistica Energetica that combines wind farm construction with comprehensive logistical services. The arrangement creates marketability for West Michigan as a leader in the wind turbine industry. A study done by the Right Place Inc. on wind turbines as an industry in West Michigan projected that 4,500 jobs would be created in a five- to seven-year span.

A Left His Mark Laurel to the memory of business icon L. William Seidman, who died May 13 at age 88. Founder of Grand Valley State University in the 1960s, Seidman also established the accounting firm BDO Seidman and television station WZZM. He was an economic advisor to President Gerald R. Ford, chaired the FDIC from 1985 to 1991, and led the Resolution Trust Corp. in the wake of the savings and loan crisis. He was most recently a commentator for CNBC.

A Putting It To Good Use Laurel to Grand Rapids Community College for its purchase of the former Davenport University pro-perty on East Fulton Street to be used as a campus extension. GRCC’s decision to purchase the Davenport campus, as the business college consolidated its new Lettinga Campus in Caledonia Township, saves the taxpayers millions of dollars, provides capacity for 3,000 additional students, and quells neighbors’ fears about development.

A Stay on The Path Laurel to The Rapid and its CEO Peter Varga, who noted the transit service was on pace to top the 10-million ride mark before the budget-challenged fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. It represents an increase of more than 1 million riders over the previous year. Interurban Transit Partnership supporters also vowed to ask voters again to approve a millage for the Silver Line, a rapid transit service that would run along Division Avenue from 60th Street to downtown. Voters defeated a similar proposal for the 10-mile route earlier in the year, after a Grand Rapids Press erroneous report regarding the route and funding services.

A We CAN Work Together Laurel to the leadership committee involved in supporting Michigan State University’s successful bid to establish the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams project in East Lansing. The FRIB project will be a new research tool for probing into the heart of atoms. It will cost approximately $550 million to design and build and is projected to create hundreds of jobs in mid-Michigan and generate more than $187 million in new state revenue, according to an independent economic impact study. “I worked with a lot of people I don’t normally work with,” said committee member Peter Secchia, who noted the number of Democrats and University of Michigan (Pete’s a Sparty, of course) connections on the 44-member committee.

A What A Way to Make A Living Laurel to the marketing geniuses for the West Michigan Whitecaps, who grilled up the now famous four-pound Fifth Third Burger — with nearly 4,800 calories and 300 grams of fat — that attracted hordes of crowds and “gourmet” guinea pigs. Adam Richman, host of the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” show, took on the burger as part of his digestion conquests, aired nationwide on cable television.

A Life-Changing Development Laurel to the Van Andel Institute upon completion of its Phase II building project, a $170 million, 240,000-square-foot, eight-story building expansion that will significantly increase the institute’s capacity to impact lives as one of the top three medical research facilities in the world. The facility features the Jay Van Andel Parkinson Research Lab. When operating at capacity, the expansion will augment the initial 162,000-square-foot facility to support a $125 million annual research operation employing 800 re-searchers and administrative staff.

A Lucrative Happy Birthday Laurel to Amway Corp. Entering its 50th year, Amway’s parent company, Alticor Inc., announced record sales of more than $8.2 billion for 2008, a 15 percent increase over 2007. Two-thirds of the company’s 58 affiliates recorded sales increases, including strong growth in the China, Russia and India markets. Amway affiliates worldwide celebrated the 50th anniversary of the company’s founding with an array of local events and global gatherings.

A Keep Them Coming Laurel to Travel Michigan for the success of the Pure Michigan state tourism advertising campaign. Led by the convincing voice of Tim Allen and a budget of $30 million for 2009, the campaign, which drives people to the Web site, went national over the summer with a $10 million media buy on cable networks. The result has reportedly meant $1.1 billion for the state economy.

A We’re Doing It Despite The Odds Laurel to the Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians who broke ground on a scaled-down version of its planned Gun Lake Casino in Wayland Township in September. The ceremony came after protracted legal battles brought by a GR business group, lasting nearly 10 years

A Finger in the Dike Laurel for Holland’s forbearance again Mother Nature and “lake effect” as a June 19 storm dropped 6.8 inches of rain in five hours. The deluge caused millions of dollars in damage, including washed-out roads, swamped basements, backed up sewers and more. The city of Holland and nonprofit groups worked together as the Holland Flood Relief Task Force to help low-income homeowners without insurance.

A There’s More Room for Us Hardlie for Michigan’s dubious distinction of once again being the state with the highest rate of outbound migration in the country. According to the 2008 United Van Lines Migration Study, 67.1 percent of moves were headed out of state. We’ve held the “top” outbound title since 2006.

A Where Did We Go Wrong Hardlie for the closing of the GM stamping plant on 36th Street in Wyoming, a loss of more than 1,500 good-paying jobs. The move forced the city of Wyoming, long dependent on the plant that primarily supplied now oversized, non-selling GM vehicles, to become a part-time government due to the loss of its largest taxpayer.

A How Could We Ever Survive That Hardlie to the continued fallout of the largest collapse of the U.S. financial markets and banking system in history. All of the turmoil, including a widespread foreclosure crisis and a freeze on the credit markets so cherished by the small business community in particular, made for another combustible economic year in West Michigan.

A Where’s a Leader When We Need One Hardlie to the Michigan legislature and governor for their inability to fix last year’s ill-fated 11th-hour attempt to dump the long-reviled Single Business Tax in favor of the even more despicable Michigan Business Tax. All followed by yet another inexcusable failure to enact a completed state budget on time heading to election year 2010.

A How Can You Screw This Up Hardlie to Gov. Jennifer Granholm and state legislators for being “unprepared” to handle laid-off Michigan workers filing for unemployment benefits. The misery created by job separation was compounded by employees not being able to register for benefits, as the state “system” melted down under the weight of unemployment claims — despite the fact that more than 200,000 business owners “contribute” annually to the state unemployment insurance fund through the unemployment tax intended to help administer the system.

An Isn’t There a Better Place Hardlie to the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority for agreeing to provide $100,000 in funding to a private effort to create a statue of the late civil rights activist Rosa Parks, anticipated to be installed at the gateway to the sculpture installation created by renowned artist/sculptor/architect Maya Lin. The statue idea and expenditure aren’t at issue, but the city’s infringement on a world-class work of art is troublesome. The city seems to be begging for a lesson in sensible art and design as it denigrates Lin’s work as just another “park.”

A We Didn’t Need This Now Hardlie to Sequenom Inc. as it attempts to settle into its much ballyhooed Grand Rapids presence amid shadows cast elsewhere by employee mishandling of clinical tests. Industry watchers maintain Sequenom’s science is reliable, and other products remain in the pipeline.

An Isn’t That What We’re Paying You For Hardlie to Varnum, legal counsel for Bridgewater Condos, which wrote the purchase agreement that left off the address of the escrow agent in the agreements that helped let 15 potential condo buyers get out of their River House condo deals unscathed. Pending appeal, the legal decision could cost the company owned by Robert Grooters up to $7 million in sales revenue and deposit refunds.

A Way to Muck It Up Hardlie to the organizers of the B-93 Birthday Bash that saw hundreds of concertgoer vehicles parked on the back 40 swamped, and in most cases destroyed, by Grand River flood waters. It made for some “dam” compelling entertainment for the rest of us and a bonanza for towing companies, with the only consolation being the evident lack of significant personal injury.

A What Was That All About Hardlie to Paul Fischer, who acted as “prosecutor” in the case of Rockford District Judge Steven Servaas. Fischer, the executive director of the Judicial Tenure Commis-sion, the body that investigated Servaas and recommended he be ousted from office for alleged infractions, inappropriately accosted Servaas in his office in search of a “confession.” The Michigan Supreme Court decided to impose censure on Servaas, but did not kick him off the court.

A Wouldn’t Video Games Be Safer Hardlie to Kent County Commissioner Dean Agee, who turned himself in to Osceola County authorities after being charged with carelessly shooting a gun. On July 18, Agee hosted a weapons demonstration on property he owns outside Evart. Between 25 and 50 people were on hand, shooting World War II vintage weapons that included a .50 caliber machine gun (that Agee doesn’t own and did not shoot). Some bullets travelled nearly two miles and struck a camper and a pickup truck at the Dulcimer FunFest.

A Who Cares About the People Hardlie to Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, who couldn’t understand local opposition to some of the $750,000 he handed out in March via a settlement from Countryside Financial Corp. Cox won a $130 million settlement from the mortgage firm blamed for much of the state’s foreclosure crisis. Local civic leaders questioned whether Cox should have earmarked $250,000 each in settlment money for the city-owned Crescent Park and Kent County’s Millennium Park instead of allocating more than the pledged $250,000 to local foreclosure relief efforts. Not a bad deal if he would have supplied the tents and firewood those ousted residential owners would need to survive in said parks.

A Where’s Waldo Hardlie to West Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra’s decision to update to his Twitter page while traveling in Iraq war zones, prompting the Pentagon to review its policy regarding sensitive information. Hoekstra — the ranking Republican on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee — said he wasn’t sorry for providing the online updates. But some say the “transparency” the Holland lawmaker said he was giving his constituents by posting updates could have revealed his (and others in the Congressional delegation’s party) precise whereabouts.

A So This Is Why Health Care Costs So Much Hardlie for Holland Community Hospital’s intent to build a $10.5 million, 30,000-square-foot medical office facility in the backyard of Zeeland Community Hospital’s still-new operation just down the street. More perplexing, Holland officials have proposed merging the two hospitals’ boards to create a more unified approach for health care services, but Zeeland Community has declined. Can’t we all just get along?

A Let’s Try Common Sense Hardlie to the Michigan Department of Human Services for warning an Irving Township mom that she could be arrested for welcoming neighborhood children into her home while they waited for the school bus. Seems the law states no one may care for unrelated children for more than four weeks each year unless they are licensed day care providers. Luckily, all the hoopla prompted Gov. Granholm to tell the department to work with the state legislature to change the law. GR

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