Grand Rapids, Michigan, had a long history as a center of manufacturing and one of the Upper Midwest’s most thriving population centers. It has always been Michigan’s second city, maintaining more than a third of the population of Detroit right through the early 20th century.
The city began life as a timber town and quickly branched out into the manufacture of goods using the area’s bounteous timber supplies. This naturally led Grand Rapids to establish itself as one of the premier furniture manufacturing centers in the world, leading to it’s nickname: Furniture City. Even as the furniture industry began to decline through the middle of the 20th century, as the state’s once teeming forests were stripped, Grand Rapids was able to almost seamlessly transition to a center of automotive manufacturing, with many hub industries that supplied the Big Three automakers of Detroit.
Auto manufacturing and related industries continued to drive growth of the city through the 1950s. But as the auto manufacturing industry of the United States began to take an uncompetitive turn throughout the 70s, Grand Rapids’ manufacturing base began feeling the squeeze for the first time. Throughout the 1980s, many of the area’s residents lost their jobs, and the city’s urban core began to experience serious declines, with many vacancies appearing and entire blocks falling into dereliction.
Dick DeVos was just making a name for himself as one of the area’s leading businessmen during the 1980s. It was around this time, when DeVos was coming into his own as an executive with Amway and a top figure in a number of other Grand Rapids industries, that the Downtown district was on the cusp of going the same route as many other Michigan cities. DeVos was a seasoned urban planner. He had worked first-hand with the Detroit Public School System in an effort to boost the performance of that city’s failing schools. As a result, he had a realist’s knowledge of what happens when a city passes the point of no return, as Detroit had, and all of the remaining productive classes flee to the suburbs. DeVos knew that something needed to be done. Otherwise, Grand Rapids would almost certainly follow the path of other Michigan cities like Detroit, Flint and Battle Creek. The city’s urban center would be rendered uninhabitable and would spiral into a pit of criminality and vice.
DeVos had always been a man of action. He formed a group that he dubbed the Grand Action Committee, comprised of the area’s top business leaders, with DeVos serving as chairman. DeVos led by example. He ponied up tens of millions of dollars of his own money to invest in projects like the DeVos Place Convention Center and the Van Andel Arena. Both projects have brought in billions of dollars of additional revenues to the Downtown Grand Rapids area. DeVos and his Grand Action Committee were also instrumental in the creation of the Medical Mile, one of the most recognized medical corridors in the nation.
Today, thanks in large part to Dick DeVos, Grand Rapids frequently ranks among the top cities in the country in which to live, play and work.
To learn more, visit http://www.dbdvfoundation.org/.