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The Devil is in the Details: The Business of Grand Rapids is Business and Business as usual……as long as the public pays for it

August 3, 2022

This is our latest installment of The Devil is in the Details, which takes a critical look at Grand Rapids politics and policies, based primarily on the public record, such as committee agendas and minutes. 

At the last Grand Rapids City Commission meeting, from July 26th, there were a couple of agenda items that were approved, which is what I want to address here. In both cases, Grand Rapids City Officials have decided to use public money for two contracts, one to Experience Grand Rapids and the other for ACP/Green & Associates, LLC. Let’s look at the Experience GR contract first.

On pages 156 – 176 of the Fiscal Committee’s agenda packet for July 26, you can look at the contract between the City of Grand Rapids and Experience GR. The Fiscal Committee document states: 

The proposed contract will continue the long-standing investment in the service of Experience Grand Rapids for their marketing of Grand Rapids as a destination. The contract amount is $150,000, of which $50,000 is funded from the promotional property tax levy and $100,000 is funded from an appropriation included in the FY2023 General Operating Fund budget. This investment helps support Experience Grand Rapids’ diversity, equity, and inclusion work in Multicultural Business Development to increase its reach to multicultural visitors, use a more diverse vendor base, and engage the community. This work supports Experience Grand Rapids’ Strategic Plan which is consistent with the City of Grand Rapids Strategic Plan. 

This is all sounds lovely, especially the whole diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) verbiage, but let’s be clear here that the City is using public money to promote the City as a tourist destination. Why? There are so many entities, especially private sector entities, which have the capacity and the budget to market Grand Rapids as a tourist destination, so why does the City need to use public money for that? I’m sure that the Convention Center, the Arena, ArtPrize, both the Public and Art Museums, various festivals, hotels, restaurants, bars, retail stores, the Meijer Gardens, and a whole slew of other entities are zealously marketing their events, their services, etc to the broader public through trade magazines, lots of social media sites, trade shows, sports magazines, art journals, etc., not to mention the Chamber of Commerce, along with Experience Grand Rapids themselves.

So again, I ask you, why is the City of Grand Rapids using public money to pay Experience Grand Rapids to do what they already do? According to the Experience GR mission statement:

The mission of Experience Grand Rapids is to create an exceptional community by sharing Grand Rapids with the world. What does that really mean? It means that we inspire tourism and conventions through short-term promotions, long-term marketing and sales strategies, and a focus on community developments that will impact the visitor experience.

In the Community Relations section of the Experience GR website, it says:

While the organizational goal is to bring in visitors, convention attendees and business travelers, it’s also important to implement strategies that improve and uplift the local population.

It would probably useful for Experience GR to articulate strategies that improve and uplift the local population, but my guess is that they don’t really have any. Let’s face it, if there primary goal is to market Grand Rapids as a tourist destination, that will only benefit a small sector of the population, primarily the downtown businesses and venues that are already disproportionately the beneficiaries of tourism money that is spent. There are literally thousands of families who will not benefit from Grand Rapids being a tourist destination. So, why does the City of Grand Rapids use public money for this purpose, especially since it does not benefit most Grand Rapidians? 

Granted, $150,000 is small potatoes in the grand scheme  of things, but $150,000 could used to cover the cost of 1 month’s rent for 150 renters. Again, 150 renters is not a lot, but it would provided needed relief for many renters who are living pay check to pay check, those facing eviction and for tens of thousands of families that are facing an ongoing housing crisis. 

The second item I wanted to draw attention to was another contract the City of Grand Rapids, a contract with ACP/Green & Associates, LLC dba Planning Next, for $1 Million. The Fiscal Committee Agenda packet states on pages 5-6 that the City is contracting with them in the amount of $930,360.00, with total expenditures not to exceed $1,000,000.00 for professional services for the Community Master Plan.

Again, I have to ask, why are we paying people up to $1 Million to create a new Master Plan for the City? Why are we not paying people who actually live in this city and people who have a history with the City? What if we used public money to pay for some potential training for people, whom the City of Grand Rapids then hires to work on creating a Community Master Plan. The City of Grand Rapids could pay 20 people $50,000 to work on a Community Master Plan over the next 12 months. Now $50,000 for a 1 year salary isn’t a great salary, but for thousands of people in this city it would be way more than they are used to. 

Think of it this way, $50,000 for a year working a 40 hour work week, comes out to $25 an hour, which for a lot of people would be a significant improvement. $25 an hour wage would cover the average rental costs, according to the most recent information from National Low Income Housing Coalition, which states that people need to make at least $20 an hour in wages to afford the cost of rent in this city. If the City of Grand Rapids paid 20 people $25 it would be almost triple the current minimum wage in Michigan.

Paying people who live in Grand Rapids a 1 year salary that is two to three times what they currently make, would not only benefit those 20 people, it would send a message about the value of investing in people in this community. Paying people from this community would be a statement of equity and it would acknowledge the importance of paying people more of a living wage. This is the kind of creative thinking the City of Grand Rapids needs to engage in, instead of relying on “experts” who don’t live in this community. More importantly, investing in members of the community who are already devalued in a Capitalist economy, would send a powerful message about how the City of Grand Rapids values people over profits. 

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