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The so-called balance of commercial journalism: The MLive story on the DeVos-created group AmplifyGR and its development plans in Southtown

June 14, 2017

Over the past 25 years that I have been monitoring the news media in West Michigan, rarely have I come across a reporter who has been willing to challenge local power. This has most definitely been the case with the most powerful family in West Michigan, the DeVos family.

On Tuesday, MLive ran a story about the DeVos-created group AmplifyGR and its partnership with Rockford Construction to develop part of what is referred to as Southtown. 

The MLive article is instructive on many levels and I want to provide a bit of deconstruction.

First, the article is framed as presenting a balance of perspectives, which is even the focus of the headline. However, there is no real balance in this story. The reporter provides all kinds of commentary about Doug, Maria and Cheri Devos, saying they have “been involved in several school and community redevelopment programs around the U.S. and in West Michigan.” There is no follow up on these other efforts or any investigation, rather it is just stated as fact.

There is also some elaboration on what AmplifyGR is, but the source that MLive uses is taken from the RDV Corporation’s (DeVos owned) posting about the job description for the AmplifyGR job. In other words, there is no independent source.

Secondly, those cited in the article, also reflect a significant imbalance. The AmplifyGR Executive Director, Jon Ippel is cited, as is a representative from Rockford Construction. In addition, Third Ward GR City Commissioner Dave Allen speaks positively about the project. Only one neighborhood resident who opposes the plan is cited. There is reference to others opposing the plan, but no one is sourced and you can tell how many other people expressed opposition.

Third, about halfway through the article it states, “Though Amplify GR was scheduled to send a delegate to the Homes for All group, they canceled, saying DeVos and VanGessel preferred to share their vision with neighbors at the meeting on June 29.” This is simply not true. AmplifyGR cancelled coming to the GR Homes for All forum because they said that the facebook event and my article on the project had created a, “hostile environment.” 

What is also interesting about the above quote from the MLive article is that  Doug DeVos and Rockford CEO Mike VanGessel will be sharing “their vision with neighbors” on June 29. The facebook event page for the AmplifyGR event says there will also be a presentation. This seems to contradict a later comment in the MLive story, which says, “Rockford Construction’s community development director, said details of their plans with Amplify GR have yet to be developed.”

Ok, so if there are no plans as of yet, then what is the presentation all about? Also, AmplifyGR and Rockford Construction have somewhat developed plans, since they have been presenting information at the Southtown Corridor Improvement District meetings over the past 6 months. You can see all kinds of plans in our original article about the DeVos-created AmplifyGR. Do the following two slides suggest anything other than the fact that they have some concrete ideas of what they plan to do in the Southtown area?

Fourth, in the very first paragraph of the article it states that the AmplifyGR project will embark,on an ambitious campaign to redevelop a tired and underdeveloped neighborhood on the southeast side of Grand Rapids.Using terms like tired and underdeveloped to describe the neighborhood AmplifyGR seeks to develop provides no historical context for the area. The area was once a thriving neighborhood, but the MLive story provides no investigation as to what changed and why there are abandoned factories.

Fifth, the article states that, “Rockford Construction has acquired more than a dozen properties in the target area.” Actually, according to Grand Rapids City records, the total number of properties that Rockford Construction has purchase in the area is 28, as we noted in our Part II story about the DeVos/Rockford plan.

Lastly, the MLive article concludes with the following:

Ippel said their approach is based on other successful initiatives, such as, Purpose Built Communities, an 8-year-old group that successfully redeveloped the East Lake community near Atlanta, and is working with 15 other communities.

It is worth noting that the Purpose Built Communities seems to be driven by people other than those who live in the neighborhood that is being targeted. The staff and boards members of the organization are made up of former politicians, corporate executives and people who have worked at foundations.

It seems that up to this point, the same can be said for the AmplifyGR project, which is relying on politicians, foundations and corporate developers. The June 29 meeting will be the first time that most residents will know about the project and have a say in the future of their neighborhood. However, as we have noted in pervious postings on this issue, those who have are funding the project and those who have purchased a great deal of land are operating from a position of power. Residents should indeed be suspicious of what those with power and money and those who don’t live in the neighborhood, are really intending to do.

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