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The Last 40
By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Grand Rapids Magazine Archives

John Logie’s office in the Warner Norcross & Judd suite of downtown’s Fifth Third Bank building looks out upon DeVos Place. With the hopes of so many individuals riding on that awesome structure — especially Logie’s (he chairs the Convention/Arena Authority) — the view from his window puts the future of this city in your face.

One recent afternoon, as construction continued on the convention center’s 40,000-square-foot ballroom, the native Grand Rapidian — who also was the longest serving mayor in city history — humored us by looking back, not forward … at least for a while.

Grand Rapids Magazine has chronicled shifts of power, of community priorities, of tastes in Grand Rapids for 40 years. And, as Logie pointed out in his eminently straightforward style, the city at the heart of our articles today continues to shift and change. Our rejuvenated downtown. Our culture of philanthropy. The pull to “think regionally.” The push to improve public transportation. Many of the issues Grand Rapids faces today are rooted in the 40 years since Volume 1, Issue 1.

IN 1964, GRAND RAPIDS was in the final stages of what Logie called the two most significant alterations to the city’s landscape in the 20th century: the freeway system and the Federal urban renewal project. The day is coming when a pre-DeVos Place downtown will be unimaginable. The day passed long ago when travel into the city from Allegan or northern Kent County was a hassle, or when people thought of the blocks between Monroe and Ionia avenues from Lyon Street to Michigan as something other than a government/financial center.

“ I call (the current downtown renaissance) ‘back to the future,’ because the downtown of the 1950s and ’60s had thousands of people living here in a number of different places,” Logie said. “The downtown urban renewal project stimulated virtually squeezing most of them out of here.”

And with the residents went the retail. The downtown of 1964, Logie recalled, was still the primary retail district in Grand Rapids. “We had three major department stores — Herpolsheimers, Wurzbergs and Steketees — all running full-tilt,” he said. “Probably just within the confines of their three major buildings there was perhaps as much as half-a-million square feet of retail.” And just when the suburban exodus and subsequent “malling” of Kent County needed them most, U.S. 131 and I-196 appeared on the scene.

Of course, suburban America’s roots go back further than the 1960s, to the introduction of the GI Bill during the 1940s. But as Logie explained, and as other civic leaders supported in separate interviews, downtown was still the place to be in 1964.

By the mid-1970s, however, it was, in Peter Secchia’s words: “deadsville.”

IT WAS ELECTION night, November 1976. Jimmy Carter had just beaten Grand Rapids’ favorite son, Gerald R. Ford, in the presidential election. A defeated Ford was coming home … or so Grand Rapids hoped.

“ We had planned a parade that night for President Ford, and the Secret Service almost cancelled it,” remembered local business leader Peter Secchia, who chaired the parade. “We had so many closed buildings and vacant lofts in upper floors that they didn’t have enough security personnel to staff them all.”

Eventually, enough off-duty sheriffs and recent retirees suited up to provide additional security, and Ford paraded down Monroe as planned. However, the thought that “our man” might not come home on election night was devastating to Secchia.

“ That was the night when most of our leadership here recognized that not only had our hometown hero been defeated, but that our city was being defeated with all those closed-up shops,” Secchia said.

“ From that point on,” he added, “it started to build up.”

Within a few years, Rich and Helen DeVos made the initial contribution for DeVos Hall. The Grand Center became a reality, as did the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum — collectively the first wave of downtown redevelopment. A powerful force in the Grand Rapids we know today was born of those late 1970’s projects: the concept of public/private partnerships.

“ There seems to be the desire of the community, probably embodied by some very interested civic leaders, to get behind these developments and do what it takes to make them happen,” observed Lew Chamberlain, owner of the West Michigan Whitecaps and a member of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce regional issues committee. “I think that’s kind of unique about our community, this idea of public/private partnership that has really driven all the redevelopment that has been occurring downtown.”

Dick DeVos, retired president of Alticor Inc. and son of Rich DeVos, agreed. He articulated his opinion on why public/private partnerships have been able to succeed here. “In many other communities, the private sector was viewed as something that funded what the public sector wanted to do,” DeVos explained. “Yet in this community, we’ve really acknowledged that there is wisdom — in addition to resources — in the private sector.”

Public/private partnerships built that shiny new convention center across the street from Logie’s office. They also built the Van Andel Arena, which many — including John Canepa, retired chairman of Old Kent Financial Corp. — point to as a catalyst of the second wave of downtown redevelopment.

According to Canepa, however, it almost didn’t happen that way.

“ A lot of people don’t realize it, but prior to the initiation of the arena downtown, there had been talk about arenas in and around Grand Rapids for 10 years …,” he said. “There was talk about one going out on 28th Street. There were a lot of other rumors, too, but nothing really materialized. And of course the Van Andel Arena was very important to the revitalization of that part of town.”

WHILE OUR SELF-perception has changed from “deadsville” to a “cool city,” Grand Rapids’ story during the past 40 years also has been about changing the perceptions of those outside the city. During the last few decades, some have seen GR as a regional competitor. And others missed us completely in the long shadow cast by Detroit.

“ Possibly one of the fundamental shifts that has occurred in the last 40 years has been that the center of gravity in West Michigan has clearly moved to Grand Rapids vs. Muskegon, vs. Kalamazoo, vs. Battle Creek,” Dick DeVos observed. “That’s not to diminish those communities; it’s merely to say that the era of competition that existed over the last 40 years, in my view, is over. And the era of cooperation is upon us.”

Many current leaders share DeVos’ belief that regional cooperation will be an essential element of Grand Rapids’ continued growth. David Frey, the former chairman of Grand Rapids’ Union Bank & Trust Company, is an advisor with Bank One. He points to recent growth trends as a call to view West Michigan from Grand Rapids to the lakeshore as one unified economic engine.

“ In the 1990s, central West Michigan was the fastest growing region in a five-state area,” he stated. “It’s projected that the same trend will continue through the year 2015. There’s a lot of momentum in place in terms of growth of jobs, growth of the economy, growth of industry; therefore it’s even more important that we think and plan regionally.”

With a regional focus budding in Grand Rapids, our voice in state politics should continue to grow. Dick DeVos sees the recent past steering us there. “Historically, the political balance in Michigan had tipped very much toward Detroit,” he said. “Today, there is an appropriate balance that views Michigan far beyond the southeast corner.”

UNLIKE MANY OF Grand Rapids’ current crop of civic and business leaders, John Canepa was not born and raised in West Michigan. A native of Newburyport, Mass., Canepa moved here from Cincinnati to join Old Kent Bank in 1970.

In his early years in GR, Canepa found it odd that his co-workers weren’t interested in going to the bar after work. He found it even odder that there were no downtown bars to go to, other than the Pantlind Hotel. “That was the one thing when I came here that I missed,” he remembered.

Years later, as he approached retirement, Canepa began to miss something else: his family back in Massachusetts.

“ When I was thinking about retiring from the bank, there was no question in my mind: I was going to leave Grand Rapids and go back and retire in Boston,” he said.

But John Canepa is still here today. Still here, too: Lew Chamberlain. Peter Cook. The DeVos family. Jeanne Englehart. The Frey family. Meg Goebel.

George Heartwell. Kurt Kimball. John Logie. Fred Meijer. Pat Miles. Peter Secchia. Valerie Sims. The Van Andel family. Peter Wege. John Zwarensteyn. Mobility is not a limitation for this region’s visionary civic and business leaders. Yet, they choose to stay in West Michigan, turning their ideas, energy and enthusiasm as well as their resources toward the improvement of this community.

As Canepa experienced, the city they watched change so much will not let them go.

“ As I got closer to retirement,” he continued, “it became very clear that I’d never leave Grand Rapids. This city has become a part of my family and me. It’s a unique community and I don’t know why anybody would want to leave.”

Neither do we. GR

Curt Wozniak is the staff writer for Grand Rapids Magazine.

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