A few months ago, when I was in Grand Rapids, attending the annual BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) conference, I had the occasion to hear a speech given by the city’s Mayor, George Heartwell. I can’t find my notes at the moment, but I seem to recall that, buried somewhere in the long list of impressive facts that he reeled off about the city, he noted that, of the 100+ restaurants they have downtown, fewer than 5 of them are national chains. Anyway, I was reminded of this yesterday, as I was working on my post about how I’d prefer not to have a third Family Dollar store erected in Ypsilanti. And, after I completed my post, I began thinking about why it is that some cities are able to fend off the creeping corporate homogeneity that’s so prevalent in modern America, while others aren’t. Or, to be more specific, I began to wonder why it is that the folks in Grand Rapids have a brand new, year-round market facility to look forward to, while those of us in Ypsilanti are stuck debating whether or not Family Dollar is the kind of anchor that we want for the 38-acre development project that we’ve been told would redefine our city and put us on a path toward prosperity.
Let me start by saying that I know that it’s not a fair comparison. I know that Grand Rapids has the good fortune of having a few extraordinarily wealthy patrons, thanks primarily to the success of the international network marketing firm Amway, that are dedicated to making sure that their city is well-positioned for the future, whereas our only fantastically wealthy potential benefactor, after losing a bitter fight to legally enshrine gay discrimination in Ypsilanti, chose to move to the swamps of Florida, and build a new, ultra-conservative city in accordance with his far right religious beliefs. And I know that things are possible in a city of 190,000 that just aren’t possible in a city of 20,000, especially when those 190,000 individuals are, on average, a lot better off financially than their Ypsilanti counterparts. Furthermore, I also seem to recall having heard Heartwell say that Grand Rapids was number two in the nation when it came to per-capita charitable giving, which certainly helps.
As someone who hasn’t spent much time there, I can’t say definitively, but I get the sense that folks in Grand Rapids, in spite of their religious conservatism, actually believe in the concept of the greater good. For instance, they’re not just talking about sustainability, but they’re actually addressing carbon emissions, rapidly expanding bike paths, and implementing ‘pay as you throw’ garbage collection. And, as I mentioned above, they’re presently building an incredible year-round market facility which will not only serve to support regional growers, but also provide the infrastructure necessary to nurture a generation of budding food entrepreneurs. The following comes by way of the New York Times.
Next year… Grand Rapids is scheduled to open the $30 million, 130,000-square-foot Downtown Market, a destination that is expected to attract 500,000 visitors a year. The three-story brick and glass building, under construction in a neighborhood of vacant turn-of-the-20th century warehouses, is intended by its developers to be a state-of-the art center of commerce for the culinary arts and fresh local foods.
It is also seen as having the potential to accomplish much more.
“This project fills a variety of needs,” said David Frey, chairman of the Frey Foundation and co-chairman of Grand Action, a nonprofit group of local business leaders that joined the city’s Downtown Development Authority to raise money for the market and to build it. “It creates a lot of synergy for the development that’s been happening in Grand Rapids for some time now.”
The Downtown Market, in effect, is the newest piece of civic equipment built here since the mid-1990s to leverage the same urban economic trends of the 21st century — higher education, hospitals and health care, housing, entertainment, transit, and cleaner air and water — that are reviving most large American cities….
The design plan for the Downtown Market includes space for food production and processing, a commercial kitchen to provide an incubator for new businesses and another to educate students in food preparation and healthful eating. A greenhouse will occupy the roof and two restaurants are planned. Enough space is available indoors and out for banquets, civic events and more than 60 vendors. The market was built with nontoxic materials, and has advanced systems for energy efficiency, natural lighting, waste management, recycling and water conservation.
A feasibility study, completed in March 2010 by Market Ventures of Portland, Me., found ample reason for Grand Rapids to pursue the project. Some 12,220 farms in the 11-county agricultural region that surrounds Grand Rapids bring in a total of $2 billion in annual revenue. Many of the growers produce fruits and vegetables, including specialty crops, for sale at a public market.
The study forecast that the Downtown Market, which occupies a 3.5-acre site close to highway exits and the Grand River, would achieve gross annual sales around $25 million, and generate more than 600 jobs. A small staff could manage the market, and its annual income is expected to total $2 million, with expenses reaching $1.5 million…
Is it impossible to think that something like this would work in Ypsilanti? Probably. I would argue, however, that there are a lot of possibilities along the continuum which has, at one end, a $30 million downtown market facility, and, at the other, a Family Dollar store.
And, yes, I know that we’re talking about apples and oranges, here. But I’m not trying to make the case that we should have an indoor market on Water Street. I’m only saying that, when assessing projects, we should keep in mind that some will move us in the direction of sustainability, growth, and self-sufficiency, while others will move us away from those shared objectives. And I’d put Family Dollar in the latter category.
I know that some of you believe that Family Dollar is “our only hope,” as someone expressed in the comments sections today. I would argue, however, that Family Dollar actually represents the ceding of hope.
This is what the future looks like, folks.