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The AmplifyGR proposal, conflicts of interest and the value of a Community Benefits Agreement

January 13, 2020

On Thursday, the number of people who came to the GR Planning Commission meeting to weigh in on the DeVos-created AmplifyGR development proposal, spill out into the hallway. In fact, the Planning Commission had to set up a TV on another floor, just so people could hear what was being said during the proceedings.

The Planning Commissioners began with what is standard, asking if there is any potential conflicts of interest with the commissioners. One commissioner, Zack Verhulst, said that his father works for Rockford Construction. Another commissioner asked if he had talked to his father about this project and the commissioner said, no. No one on the Planning Commission had any further questions and it was then decided that there was no conflict of interest.

What those in attendance of the GR Planning Commission Public Hearing might not have known is that Rockford Construction, along with the DeVos Foundation, had begun the process of buying up properties in 2015 (spending roughly $10 million) without the knowledge of residents in the Boston Square area, until AmplifyGR went public in the 2017.

As to the conflict of interest, the planning commissioner was not only related someone with Rockford Construction, the person in question is Mike Verhulst, who is the Vice President of Rockford Construction. Rockford Construction stands to profit handsomely, if the City of Grand Rapids approves the project. Rockford Construction’s CEO, Mike VanGessel, was present at the GR Planning Commission meeting as well, although none of the news media mentioned this and they completely ignored the potential conflict of interest with Planning Commissioner Zack Verhulst.

Some of the news media did report that there were people in support of the project, as well as detractors. This writer counted 12 people who spoke in favor of the project and 8 people who voiced opposition. Those opposing the project brought up issues of displacement and gentrification, but the most consistent comment was to ask the Planning Commissioners to hold off on making a decision, since many people felt like there were too many unanswered questions about the project, or that too many residents in the surrounding area had not been engaged in the process. The public comment period was messy at times, even uncomfortable, but democracy is often messy, especially when people could only have three minutes to express themselves. 

There were also several supporters of the project who used the argument that those who aren’t from the neighborhood should either not have a say or that some of the anti-AmplifyGR voices were the loudest. It is difficult to determine who the “loud” anti-AmplifyGR voices are, since they haven’t really been reported on in the news media. In contrast, I would argue that the loudest voices in this entire process are the ones with the most power, the DeVos/Rockford Construction/AmplifyGR voices. They are the ones who have engaged in a massive land grab in the area and they are the ones who have dictated the process from 2015 until now.

On the issue of not allowing people who are not from the neighborhood to have a say in this process, it is instructive that it is rarely acknowledged that DeVos and Rockford Construction are not from the neighborhood either. I do think that what happens in the Boston Square area and in Southtown in general, should be decided primarily by those who live in that area. I have stated this repeatedly in recent posts, but I also think that there are other ways for the residents of the Boston Square area to get what they want without subjecting themselves to the dictates of the private sector

However, those who presented from the AmplifyGR team made it clear that they would be seeking state funding for the housing projects they wish to develop in the Boston Square area. If they are seeking to use public money (likely millions by the time the project is completed), then it seems reasonable that the public should have a say in how their tax dollars will be used to support projects like the AmplifyGR development proposal. To argue that the public should not have a say in how public dollars are used is just another form of Neo-liberal capitalism, which essentially give primacy to the private sector.

In reading much of the commentary on the AmplifyGR proposal on social media, one suggestion that keeps coming up is that those who live in the Boston Square area should seeking a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). For people who live in neighborhoods where development projects are being proposed, a CBA is a way for people to leverage their collective power to get certain things/agreements in the process. This link provides some clear examples of what a Community Benefits Agreements could look like.

A Community Benefits Agreement might be the best possible outcome for those who live in the Boston Square area, but the proposed development from the DeVos-created AmplifyGR still has to get approval from the Grand Rapids City Commission. It does seem likely that the GR City Commission will support the proposal, especially with recent news coverage around the lack of investment in the southeast part of Grand Rapids. We will continue to follow this story as it unfolds and let people know when the AmplifyGR proposal goes before the City Commission.

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