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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

For 21-year-old Rick DeVos — yes, grandson and son to “those” DeVoses — the summer before his senior year of college offered a crash course into downtown development, media relations … and his family’s legacy. Was it a hint of things to come from this self-described “visionary,” whose family name carries the power and prestige to take just about any vision and make it a reality?

By Curt Wozniak

Who is Rick DeVos?
The answer: We don’t know yet.
After talking with the young man twice this summer, however, we’ve got a pretty good idea of who he’s becoming.

Our first meeting with Rick was June 13 at the downtown offices of the Windquest Group, father Dick DeVos’ management firm. It followed on the heels of the elder DeVos’ public announcement that asbestos abatement and general cleanup was moving forward in the Rowe Hotel property the DeVos and Van Andel families purchased in 2002. A few months earlier, Rick had been mentioned as a driving force behind the DeVos family’s partnership with Rockford Construction in redeveloping the Cherry Street Landing area.

Dressed in a nicely tailored, conservative navy blue suit, Rick DeVos looked the part of a business consultant, meticulously messy hairstyle and scruffy beard notwithstanding. The week had been Rick’s coming-out party for local news media. A few months prior he returned to West Michigan from Malibu, Calif., where he had been working toward an undergraduate degree in business administration at Pepperdine University. Midway through his junior year, Rick switched majors (“I enjoy business,” he said, “I didn’t enjoy the sort of minutia study of it”) and transferred to Calvin College, where he majors in mass media. When the families announced that Rick would represent them on the consulting team studying the need for hotel rooms in the area around DeVos Place, Rick and his dad faced the media en masse as television, radio and print lined up to meet the third generation heir to the Amway fortune.

During our June 13 interview, Rick, a 21-year-old college senior, fielded questions with all the savvy of, well, a 21-year-old college senior. The content seemed a bit rehearsed, but the tone was refreshing at times.

In response to a question about his involvement in Cherry Street Landing, Rick first offered this sound bite: “I really like the culture of West Michigan,” he said. “That’s something I really missed when I was out in Malibu. There’s a grounding and a realness that’s here that I found completely lacking in Malibu. And I just thought it was exciting that there’s so much possibility downtown with all these great old buildings that can be renovated.”

As he went on, however, he revealed a bit more of himself.

“ I guess I first started thinking about downtown and making it a cool spot years ago when I was in my band,” he continued. “I’d see all these old buildings and I had fantasies of converting one of them into a massive studio and the band would live there, practice there and stuff. We’d play on the roof, stuff like that.

“ So that’s kind of how I got interested in it. I mean, there hasn’t really been an overall strategy that I’ve followed. I didn’t read any book that really set me off. I just know that I really like West Michigan and Grand Rapids, so I’m excited about this possibility for downtown.”

So, it seems Rich DeVos’ eldest grandson draws as much, maybe more inspiration from the Beatles’ famous 1969 rooftop concert (or, granted, more likely U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” music video, which ripped it off in 1987, after Rick had actually been born) as he does from his father’s 1997 New York Times best seller, “Rediscovering American Values.” Further, it’s clear that Rick has his father’s ear — and trust — when it comes to building a downtown that is prepared to meet the needs of his generation. And while Rick’s qualifications (2 1/2 years in an undergraduate business administration program and one semester studying mass media) may be a little thin as far as business consultants go, the fact that a young man who listens to Iron & Wine, Radiohead and DJ Shadow has a voice in the future of downtown development speaks volumes about the type of city Grand Rapids could become. Dare we say it? A pretty hip one.

We followed up on that point via conference call with Rick and Dick DeVos on July 22.

“ He thinks about these things and does try to represent the interests and the attitudes and the perceptions of his generation,” Dick DeVos said of his son. “That’s not something I necessarily intuitively understand because that’s not where I come from. And yet this community needs to be attentive to the goals and desires of Rick’s generation in addition to my generation and my parents’ generation so that we do provide a place that people will want to come to and want to be a part of.

“ I think it’s going to require some real attention and some real listening and I’m just pleased Rick is willing to speak up and speak out on those things that he believes are going to be important for people like him to stay and be a part of this community.”

In a way, then, you could say that Rick DeVos’ summer job was that of spokesperson for Generation Y. You could say that. Rick wouldn’t.

“ I obviously can’t speak for my entire generation,” Rick said, after being asked to do so. (The question was: “What do young people — young professionals and college students alike — want out of this city?”) “But you know, I think we just want … more cool amenities.”

Rick explained: “I think we have a pretty good music scene but it obviously could be a lot better and more accessible for more people. I’d like to see more cutting-edge art galleries, that sort of thing — just an expanded sort of downtown community. More residential stuff, getting people down here all the time so there’s always something going on down here.”

At least we’re sure of one thing: who Rick DeVos is not.

He’s not the straightforward businessman of his father’s or his grandfather’s generation. Besides playing guitar and singing the lead vocal in a band while he was in high school, Rick has also shown promise on the production end of the music business. “He has had lots of comments from his professors and others who have spoken to his creative talent,” Dick DeVos said of Rick.

At the same time, Rick is by no means the liberal artist/black sheep of the DeVos family. On the contrary, the apple doesn’t fall far from this tree, rooted historically as it is in so many conservative causes. For example, Rick’s favorite online reads? The National Review and The Weekly Standard.

And for as much weight as Dick DeVos may well be giving Rick’s thoughts on Cherry Street Landing, the Rowe Hotel property and other downtown development issues, Rick DeVos is not a young man bubbling over with answers. He is, like most 21-year-olds, a young man brooding over questions.

“ Basically, I’m trying to learn and that’s really what I’m doing right now,” Rick said. “I’m trying to learn as much as possible. And when I see an opportunity to make an impact, I’ll try and make an impact. But my ideas and my opinions are still very much being formed about all of this.” GR
Curt Wozniak is the Grand Rapids Magazine staff writer.

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