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It’s never a question of funding, rather priorities: Making the area around the Van Andel Arena more appealing or providing housing relief for marginalized families?

September 20, 2022

On Monday, it was announced that Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. would receive an $800,000 State grant offered through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. This grant is to upgrade an alleyway between the Van Andel Arena and numerous bars and restaurants which have their back entrance facing the arena.

According to MLive, the project would repave the alley, add some green space, seating and relocate dumpsters that the businesses currently use to a more central location. The $800,000 grant is only part of the $4.5 million that the project is estimated to cost. In 2021, landscaping in the front of the area was completed, which cost $2.1 million.

The state entity that granted the $800,000 for the project, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, has a board of directors that is made up of corporate representatives and other well connected people from foundations to universities.  The entity that submitted the grant proposal, The Right Place Inc., also has a board of directors that are mostly part of the corporate world, with first and second tier members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure.

The MLive article does not provide further information on where the rest of the funding has come from – $4.5 million for the current alley project, with $2.1 million for the 2021 completed project in the front plaza of the arena – but I would suspect that there have been other costs incurred by the public.

However, if we just looked at the $800,000 state grant that was recently awarded to improve the alleyway between the east side of the arena and a string of businesses, that is no small amount of money. In fact, if we think about how that money could have been re-purposed, for saying housing support, then $800,000 takes on a different tone. 

For example, if $800,000 were equally distributed to families looking to put a $50,000 down payment on a house, that would mean that sixteen families would be able to purchase a home. If we are talking about rent support to families, and each family would receive $5000 in rent support, which would easily cover 5 – 6 months of rent, then 160 families would get $5000 each. This would be significant, since it would provide a great deal of relief to families who are always struggling to make rent on a monthly basis. Having enough to cover rent for 5 or 6 months would give them some breathing room, potentially reduce stress and minimize the chances of these families being either homeless or forced to stay in a shelter or other types of transitional housing.

Of course, if we took it a step further and looked at the total that will be spent on upgrading the Van Andel Arena plaza and the east side alleyway, which is $6.6 million, then we have exponentially raised the bar to provide even more housing relief for families. With the $6.6 million, it would provide 132 families with a $50,000 downpayment for a home, and 1320 families $5000 to go towards rent that would likely cover half a year. Now we are talking about 1352 families that would experience some form of housing assistance with the money that is currently being spent on making the Van Andel Arena area more pleasant for those attending arena events and those spending money to eat and drink at nearby establishments.

I always find it interesting that when it comes to development projects in the City of Grand Rapids, those involved never really seem to have a problem finding funding for projects that benefit members of the business class, the professional class or tourists who come to Grand Rapids because it is marketed as a tourist destination. However, when it comes to providing economic relief to families that are experiencing poverty, those that are struggling, which are often the most marginalized, then finding funding doesn’t seem so easy. If however, the narrative were to shift, where instead of making development projects the priority, families who are experiencing poverty were given priority, how would people view Grand Rapids then? 

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