As the U.S. automotive industry sank into financial woes throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many cities in the state of Michigan found themselves squeezed in the vice of declining economic opportunity. Detroit was the city worst affected by the shrinking automotive industry. But other cities throughout Michigan, like Battle Creek, Saginaw and Flint, also faced dire economic conditions. Many of these cities would never recover.
By the late 1980s, even Grand Rapids, Michigan, found itself in bad shape. The city that had once served as the world’s center of furniture manufacturing and had later managed to diversify into automotive-related supply industries was now facing a potential crisis. The city had lost tens of thousands of jobs. Many of the plants that made parts for the automakers of Detroit had been forced to shutter their operations for good. The city’s urban center, in particular, was dotted with hulking factories that were designed for large-scale industrial manufacturing. Once the industry began declining, these factories and warehouses stood as vacant reminders of the city’s now impending collapse.
Dick DeVos was just making a name for himself as one of the Grand Rapids area’s top businessmen. As an executive for Amway and a leader in various other industries, he was quickly proving himself to be a capable executive and a strong leader. DeVos had also been involved first-hand in attempting to save the Detroit Public School System, which had been ranked among the worst in the nation for years. This experience would ultimately prove jarring to DeVos as hands-on experience with the results of a city that had been economically destroyed left him hardened to the realities of urban decay. DeVos understood from real-world experience that once a city passes the point of no return, the chances of ever recovering in a meaningful way become virtually nil.
It was a combination of this knowledge and the love of his hometown that prompted DeVos to take decisive action to save Grand Rapids from the same fate that had befallen other Michigan cities. He formed the Grand Action Committee, a group of the area’s top business figures, with DeVos chairing the organization. The group’s mission was straightforward: It would make large-scale strategic investments in the Downtown Grand Rapids area, creating a critical mass of economic activity that would be sufficient to start a positive feedback loop of more investment.
The plan worked. DeVos led by example, investing tens of millions of his own personal fortune into the Downtown area. Projects like the DeVos Place Convention Center, the Van Andel Arena and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital have been tremendous economic engines, driving the city unswervingly towards long-term prosperity.
DeVos and his Grand Action Committee were instrumental in creating the Medical Mile, one of the most prestigious medical corridors in the nation. The Medical Mile currently accounts for billions of dollars in total economic activity each year. And it has attracted some of the most talented and renowned specialists in the world, practicing in fields ranging from organ transplantation to childhood diseases.
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