Were it not for a smattering of crumbling, century-old industrial buildings mixed in with the new developments downtown, it would be easy to forget that Grand Rapids is in the Rust Belt. Years of strong private investment and generous philanthropy from a few prominent local families, combined with a history of artistic innovation, have kept the Western Michigan city thriving even as the rest of the state struggles.
A major focus of private funds recently has been Grand Rapids’ health care industry, the city’s largest sector both in dollars and square footage. The city’s “Medical Mile” hosts three major medical centers—Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s Health Care, and the Mary Freebed Rehabilitation Hospital—all of which have undertaken significant building projects in the last few years. Funded by the DeVos family, founders of the Amway Corporation, the Helen DeVos Children’s hospital is building a new home scheduled for completion in 2011, and in February the Van Andel family–funded Van Andel Research Institute opened a $230 million addition designed by Rafael Viñoly.
The medical sector has helped support the residential and artistic neighborhoods in the city with a steady influx of hospital, research and support staff. “The development in the health care industry attracts health care professionals, who expect and enjoy the arts,” said Bret Kronlein, vice president of BETA Design. The firm designed the recently unveiled Opera Grand Rapids, a new downtown rehearsal and benefit space for the local opera company.
Large enough for 250-person events, the new Opera Grand Rapids is also sustainably built, following in a recent tradition of green building that includes 2009’s wHY Architects–designed Grand Rapids Art Museum, the world’s first LEED Gold–certified art museum. That new tradition won Grand Rapids the distinction, in 2008, of being named the city with the most LEED-certified buildings per capita. “I would bet we have more projects going now that are LEED than that aren’t,” Kronlein said. “It’s kind of run-of-the-mill for us now, but my colleagues across the country are always surprised.”
Giving an extra shot of life to an already-strong arts sector, a nonprofit organization called ArtPrize, founded by Rick DeVos, last year initiated an annual art competition with the world’s largest grand prize of $250,000. Open to anyone, the competition matched 1,262 artists with 159 establishments who volunteered to exhibit their works, filling a three-square-mile section of downtown with art installations ranging from oil paintings to performance pieces. From September 23 to October 8, the public was able to tour the entries and vote for their favorite. Turnout was extraordinary, said ArtPrize executive director Bill Holsinger-Robinson, estimating that the festival drew a total of 200,000 people over two weeks. “On the first weekend, there were so many people who drove into the city that most of the restaurants ended up running out of food,” he recalled.
The rapids that gave the city its name were dammed up in the 19th century and used as a source of power for the furniture factories that put Grand Rapids on the map as the “furniture capital of the world” in the early 20th century. Although furniture companies Steelcase, Herman Miller, and Hayworth are no longer the defining features of Grand Rapids’ economy, the Grand River is still channelized, its 17-foot grade difference mediated by a series of dams along its one-mile length.
But the rapids may yet return. In 2009, a nonprofit organization called Grand Rapids Whitewater was formed to advocate for modifying the dams to allow recreational kayaking and canoeing straight through downtown. The city responded enthusiastically, commissioning a planning study to determine how such a change could be engineered. City officials view the plan as a key next step in coaxing the flowering of Grand Rapids’ downtown public life, said Jay Fowler, director of the Downtown Development Authority. “This would be not just for the people who kayak or canoe, but also fun for the people watching them,” Fowler said. “Urban revitalization isn’t just about big projects like an arena or medical school, but the small things that make our city special.”