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The Devil is in the Details 2/9/2021: Cannabis monopolies and more corporate committee appointments for Grand Rapids

February 8, 2021

This is our third  installment of this posting, which takes a critical look at Grand Rapids politics and policies, based primarily on the public record, such as committee agendas and minutes.

There are two issues we want to focus on today, Cannabis monopolies and the continued corporate representation on local government committees.

Cannabis monopolies?

We noted in our first installment of this series in early January, the City Planning Commission approved several more recreational cannabis permits to SB VB Grand Rapids, LLC, FPAW Michigan, LLC and AEY Capital LLC. SB VB Grand Rapids LLC is registered in Michigan with its company address being in Plymouth, Michigan. M. Scott Bowen, a former City Commissioner and Grand Rapids and lawyer, was representing SB VB at the Planning Commission meeting in January.

FPAW Michigan, LLC is owned by Michigan Supply and Provisions, and owns several recreational cannabis facilities in cities across Michigan. AEY Capital LLC also has cannabis facilities across the state, with Sterling Heights, Michigan listed as the address for this business.

At the February 11th Planning Commission meeting, there will be public hearings for three more recreational cannabis facilities in Grand Rapids, all owned under the name of Green Skies – Healing Tree LLC.  Green Skies – Healing Tree LLC will be represented by Victor Kattoula for all three public hearings. Green Skies – Healing Tree LLC also has numerous facilities in Michigan and in Grand Rapids. The address given for the business is also Sterling Heights, Michigan. 

So, it seems that all three public hearings for recreational cannabis facilities during the February 11th, Planning Commission are for businesses that are not based in Grand Rapids. How is this promoting equity in Grand Rapids, and why doesn’t the city have stronger rules around limiting recreational cannabis facility ownership, which should give priority to local and businesses that are Black owned or owned by other individuals from communities of color? Wasn’t there lots of talk about how the decriminalization of cannabis would lead to undoing the harm of the War on Drugs, which disproportionately impacted Black and latinx communities? Why aren’t people more pissed off about this trend?

Corporate representation on GR Government Committees

The other issue we want to draw attention to today, is the re-appointment and new appointments of people from the corporate world to Grand Rapids government committees. There are three notable examples, based on the agenda for the February 9th City Commission meeting.

Mayor Bliss appointed John Van Fossen to serve another term on the Economic Development Corporation/Brownfield Redevelopment Authority. Van Fossen is the Senior Director of Government Affairs at Meijer, and prior to that he was doing similar work with government affairs for several other entities in the corporate world, based on his LinkedIn account. He also sits on the Economic Development Corporation, which serves as the defacto board for the Brownfield Development Authority. According to the City of Grand Rapids, the purpose of the Economic Development Corporation is to:

The Economic Development Corporation (EDC) assists enterprises in locating or expanding in the City of Grand Rapids by establishing project areas and providing financing and other assistance for both industrial development and some non-profit projects. The goal of the EDC is to alleviate and prevent unemployment and to strengthen and revitalize the City and State economy.

While the first part of this description is true, we all should question whether or not such an entity will actually alleviate and prevent unemployment. In addition, why is a Grand Rapids City government committee working to strengthen and revitalize the City and State economy? If this is really true, do we want people who represent corporations sitting at the table?

The second example is the re-appointment of Dante Villarreal to the SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority. Villarreal is the Vice President of Business & Talent Development for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. Some of you may remember his role of defending the decision to have Kent County Cares Act money for businesses hurt during COVID to go through the GR Chamber of Commerce, instead of allowing groups like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce share that responsibility. During the January meeting of the SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority, Villarreal voted with his colleagues to extent a contract with the DeVos-created Start Garden to manage the City’s Equitable Economic Development and Mobility Strategic Plan. Start Garden will get another $362,500 for their services through June 30, 2021. Who sits at these tables matters!

The third and last example of who sits on government committees from the corporate world is

Lawrence Zeiser, who was appointment to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Zeiser works for the Wolverine Building Group and also acts as an independent “Management Consulting Professional.” 

You can see just by these three examples that there is significant corporate representation on Grand Rapids government committees, specifically committees that have an impact on economic and so-called development issues. And like most local government decisions, this information flies under the radar for most residents, even though public money subsidizes virtually all of these projects. 

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