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Trust Us, We’re Experts: Rockford Construction, public forums and westside development projects

July 11, 2016

Last Thursday, a community forum was held at Rockford Construction’s westside facility in Grand Rapids on proposed plans for a new construction project.

The event was promoted on facebook with the following description:

“Please come out to Rockford Construction to meet their new Director of Community Engagement, Brad Mathis and learn about the proposed zoning update on the WestSide’s Bridge Street and Stocking Block.”

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The forum was planned from 6 – 7pm, which started a little late and finished with little time for public comment. There were three people with Rockford Construction presenting, Suzanne Schultz from the Grand Rapids Planning Commission and representative with the Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF), Ryan Schmidt.

After a brief welcoming and overview from a Rockford representative, Brad Mathis, Rockford Construction’s new Director of Community Development spoke. Mathis talked mostly about how Rockford Construction is a values oriented organization. He offered up 5 points that reflected what the company is all about: beauty, quality/diverse housing, a healthy blend between office and retail space, economic development/employment and lastly, work that is inclusive. Mathis went on to state that what the company is doing, “lines up with what the City of Grand Rapids is doing.”

The hiring of Mathis can be seen as a PR move, since Rockford has come under some scrutiny in recent months, especially over the proposed project on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and their current projects on the near westside, particularly on Fulton and Bridge street. 

Suzanne Schultz, with the Grand Rapids Planning Department, spoke after Mathis. While some of the information presented by Schultz was instructive, it seemed rather unnecessary given the time constraints of the meeting and offered no concrete information on the proposed project by Rockford Construction.

Ryan Schmidt, with ICCF, went next and talked specifically about their partnership with Rockford Construction to potentially construct 60 affordable housing units on Stocking St, roughly at the location of the current Stockbridge Pub. ICCF has submitted with the state of Michigan an application for Low Income Housing Tax Credits and is one of 58 applicants. VerWys said that only a dozen projects in the state would be approved, but that he felt that ICCF’s application stood a good chance. They would most likely know in October of this year if the funding for such a project would be approved.

The last presenter was also with Rockford Construction, who gave a brief summary of the larger development project, which would include a potential partnership with ICCF. The hour allotted for the meeting had already passed at this point, but Rockford Construction representatives then fielded a few questions. One major question centered around the issue of affordable housing and whether or not the additional housing offered in the new project would be “market rate.” The person asking the question also made it clear that many of the residents who lived west, south and north of the proposed project cannot afford the rental costs of the Rockford Construction projects located on Bridge and Fulton streets. The Rockford representative did confirm that the additional housing units would be market rate for the proposed project being presented that evening.

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There were only a few additional questions asked, but the company’s representatives kept say that people could speak with them one on one if anyone wanted to talk further. So essentially, the 25 people who showed up for the forum were talked at by the four presenters. Not allowing more time for questions was problematic, since it didn’t allow for questions to be answered publicly, only in private one on one conversations. Again, the forum could have been structured in such a way as to present a brief overview of the proposed project and then lots of time for Q & A. However, such forums are usually designed to minimize public input.

I was about to walk out the door, when a Rockford Construction representative stopped me to let me know that they “were aware of my articles” that have been critical of the company in recent months. I was asked if I would like to sit down with Rockford Construction so I could “have a better understanding of what their plans were.” I said that I didn’t really see the benefit of such a conversation and that the issue wasn’t about me, but the larger issues of gentrification and affordable housing.

The Rockford Construction representative said that if they could figure out a business model that would allow them to construct affordable housing they would do it. I said if they really wanted to build affordable housing the company would do it and that it wasn’t really about funding but about justice. He said that there is no way to construct affordable housing without massive state subsidies. I said that clearly the company is engaged in lots of construction projects that do not rely on state funding, so it is really a matter of priorities and whether or not the company plans around people or profits.

This Thursday, the Planning Commission will decide on whether or not to approve the Rockford Construction plans along Bridge and Stocking. We plan to be there to report on the outcome.

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