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Rockford Construction receives more state and local welfare to expand their control of land on Grand Rapids westside

April 27, 2017

On Tuesday, it was announced that the Michigan Strategic Fund board approved the Brownfield project receiving a $13.2 million tax break and a $6.3 million low-interest loan, according to an article that appeared on MLive. 

CEO of Rockford Construction, Mike VanGessel said of this news:

“A project of this scale requires a high level of collaboration at the local and state level. We are thankful to the City of Grand Rapids and the State of Michigan for their support in making this vision a reality for our neighborhood. This is a key approval for this transformational project, and it couldn’t move forward without it.”

What VanGessel is really saying is that unless public money is redirected to Rockford Construction for this project, they would not be able to make the kind of profits they want from such an endeavor.

Rockford Construction and other developers would have us all believe that these project, which rely heavily on public money, will benefit the whole community. This just isn’t the case and the trend is that all the development projects in Grand Rapids in recent years benefits the professional class, investors and other business sectors. There is little to no evidence that working class families or communities of color are benefitting to the ongoing gentrification of Grand Rapids.

In looking at the Michigan Strategic Fund packet for April 25th, one gets some interesting insights into the mindset of those making these decisions. Information on the Rockford Construction project begins on page 128.

The Michigan Strategic Fund document states that the project involves the development  of the first full service urban grocery store in downtown Grand Rapids. This statement is interesting, considering that within 100 yards of the proposed site of the Meijer store is a Duthlers grocery store on Bridge St. Granted, the Meijer store will be a major upgrade to the Duthler, but this should be viewed as a reflection of the new class of people that the project, along with the growing number of Rockford Construction projects that have emerged on Bridge and Fulton St. in recent years.

On page 134 of the Michigan Strategic Fund packet is states that the new grocery store will be “offering fresh food within easy access to transit and nearby walkable neighborhoods. The grocery component is expected to service all of the downtown as well as the neighborhoods within a 1 – 2 mile radius.” Let’s be clear that what most contemporary grocery stores offer is not primarily “fresh food,” instead they offer mostly highly process food items that can hardly be identified as fresh.

On the same page, the document further states that the project will, “add at least 130 full-time equivalent jobs for varying skill levels to a neighborhood with a high unemployment rate relative to the rest of the city.” Will these jobs pay a living wage and will they be made available to those who are unemployed or underemployed that live on the near westside? The document does not address these issues, because we are all supposed to be content with the fact that jobs will be created.

However, what the document reveals next provides insight into the larger reason why this development project, along with many others in recent years, are embraced by the planners, decision-makers and investors who are rarely held accountable:

These development projects are all designed to play a major role into the gentrification of areas of Grand Rapids that those in power have been interested in for the past few decades. It’s all about improving business districts and providing greater investment opportunities to companies that, as a recent report from Michigan Radio made clear, are not even based in Grand Rapids. The flip side of all this new development that will benefit the business class and lead to more investment opportunities, is that it will result in the further marginalization of communities of color and working class families, causing more displacement and pricing people out of neighborhoods that have been traditionally working class for decades.

Doesn’t the Affordable Housing component of this project make it all work out?

While it is true that there will be affordable housing units in this new project, this does not reduce the gentrifying effect that Rockford Construction has had on the westside and in other parts of the city. The blog, If the River Swells, aptly entitled an article from last year, The Affordable Housing Smoke Screen. All of the housing units that Rockford Construction has been involved in on West Fulton St, Bridge St and Alabama have all been market rate housing. This means that there is a whole class of people who cannot afford to live in these places.

In addition, Rockford Construction is involved in development projects in the Belknap area, as the lead construction company in the GVSU project, the ICCF project on Wealthy and Division, both of which have displaced working class families of people of color.

Lastly, it is important that we also not leave out the role that Rockford Construction’s CEO, Mike VanGessel plays as part of the West Michigan power structure.

VanGessel sits on the board of directors of the Right Place Inc, along with many of the other members of the West MI power structure. The Rockford Construction CEO also sits on the board of the West Michigan Policy Forum, which has endorsed state policies such as the Right to Work, reducing taxes for businesses and wanting to eliminate public sector employee pensions. VanGessel is also part of the GVSU Foundation board and Rockford Construction is listed as a patron on the Artprize page. 

In an MLive article that praised VanGessel and said he wanted to bring “excitement” back to the westside, it states in reference to the earlier Bridge St. development projects:

VanGessel has succeeded in bringing well-heeled investors to the table, such as family members of Amway co-founder Rich DeVos; 42 North, owned by businessman Mike Jandernoa and his family; and SIBSCO, owned by the family of former U.S. Ambassador to Italy Peter Secchia.

Being part of the West Michigan power structure surely has its benefits.

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