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Granholm Chooses Grand Rapids to Underscore Sprawl-Fighting Priorities

Democrat takes case to Republicans in west Michigan

October 31, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

www.michigan.gov/Johanna Miller

Gov. Granholm will talk about her priorities for land use reform to a large group of Grand Rapids area leaders including John Logie, the city’s mayor and a champion of downtown revitalization.

GRAND RAPIDS — Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has chosen an appearance early next week at a conference of west Michigan leaders to put new energy into her statewide campaign for land use policy reform. Eleven weeks after a state-sanctioned council recommended 160 steps to manage growth and improve Michigan’s economic competitiveness, the Democratic governor is expected to announce which of the actions are her priorities.
Ms. Granholm’s appearance before a mostly-Republican audience of 600 business and civic leaders at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids will be her first extended public comments on the links between sprawl, land use policy, and the economy since the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council completed its report on August 15. 

The one-day conference, Acting As One To Accelerate Regional Cooperation, is sponsored by the City of Grand Rapids, Kent County, the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council -- an alliance of local governments committed to regional planning -- and the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, a civic group that is dedicated to making the Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon area the Midwest’s best place to live, work, and play.  The local governments and civic organizations make up the most effective and influential Smart Growth coalition in Michigan, and one of the outstanding such coalitions in the nation. 

Smart Growth In A Republican Region
Those planning to attend include Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie, an independent, U.S. Congressman Peter Hoekstra, a Republican from Holland; state Representative Jerry Kooiman, a Republican from Grand Rapids who staunchly supports improved public transit; and state Senator Patricia Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck who is preparing her Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee to advance a new package of modern land use laws. 

According to her aides, Ms. Granholm will tell the influential gathering that regional approaches to government save taxpayers money, generate new community investments, better steward the environment, and lure jobs to the Great Lakes state. Gov. Granholm also will recognize the significant progress that Grand Rapids has made in energizing its central core, and stabilizing urban neighborhoods and she is expected to draw fresh attention to her view that more compact forms of development also could help lower government costs and close the state budget deficit.

“Good land use generally makes good economic sense,” said Dana Debel, the governor’s environmental policy aide, “although the paybacks typically are generated over time and we need to balance the budget now. Still, West Michigan is on the cutting edge of regional coordination and planning. The governor wants to celebrate the region’s achievements and highlight them as a model for the rest of the state.”

Governor Follows Through on A Campaign Pledge
During the 2002 gubernatorial campaign Ms. Granholm promised to build a stronger state economy by curbing sprawl. After her inauguration in January she used the state’s severe deficit problem as a lever to negotiate with the Republican-led Legislature and cut 17 expensive road-building projects. She also worked with local governments in the Detroit region to establish a regional public transit authority. Her most visible move, though, was to work with the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate to appoint the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. She charged its 26 members with recommending solutions to sprawl, urban flight, and weaknesses in the quality of life that were causing young professionals to flee Michigan in droves. 

Until last week, though, neither the governor nor state Republican leaders have said much about the council’s recommendations. Ms. Granholm, though, has visited Grand Rapids twice in the past week to cultivate relations with conservative leaders and to encourage them to act on the results of the council’s work. Last Monday, October 27, the governor met with civic leaders here to discuss how cities can attract young, top-tier workers and said she would use ideas from that meeting to inform her “Cool Cities Initiative,” which is designed to revive dilapidated urban cores and create jobs. The next day, she brought her “Manufacturing Matters Initiative” to town and personally facilitated a session that asked area business experts how the state can squash its unrelenting rate of job loss.   

Focus On the Leadership Council
The governor’s speech here on Monday is expected to revive public interest in the leadership council’s report, which attracted extensive coverage and commentary by newspapers when it was released. Mayor Logie said he views Gov. Granholm’s visit as an opportunity to bring a measure of order to the council’s extensive list of recommendations. He expects the governor to express concern about the state’s booming sprawl rate, stress the need for a common land use vision, and highlight her hope for legislative action to implement the council’s proposals. The mayor added that those in attendance at the convention would help to shape the state’s emerging land use agenda.

“This event will give us the real opportunity to prioritize the council’s recommendations in a grass roots, bottom to top way,” Mr. Logie said. “And it’s the first opportunity anybody in the state has to do so.”
Despite its conservative bent, West Michigan is the logical place for Gov. Granholm to prod the Smart Growth discussion in Michigan, said Mayor Logie. He said the region’s business, institutional, and public leaders increasingly understand the real value of working to coordinate decisions about economic development and land use.  Grand Rapids, for example, is a partner with its neighboring cities to design and construct water and sewer service in a way that guides new growth into existing communities, reduces the costly work of continually expanding and extending roads and new utilities, and leads to more efficient, targeted public services.

The city and its municipal neighbors have also united around the region’s transit service, which takes people to work, kids to school, relieves traffic congestion, and reduces air pollution. The bus system, known as the Interurban Transit Partnership, is so popular that even in these penny-pinching times area residents will head to the polls on November 4 and most likely vote to boost local funding for ITP for the second time in three years.

Mr. Logie, who’s been closely involved in both the rise of the ITP and establishment of reinvestment zones around Grand Rapids, is now touting another idea that may be the talk of the conference: The Metropolitan Rebate. The plan would allow the metropolitan area’s 47 different units of local government — which together spend over $650 million a year — to voluntarily consolidate essential services, reduce individual operating budgets, and annually free up over $30 million in taxpayer money.

All the plan needs, besides agreement from those 47 jurisdictions, is a new state law that makes such intramural cooperation legal. The Michigan Land Use Leadership Council’s report urges much greater cooperation among local governments and Mr. Logie thinks legislative action on the idea should be a priority in Lansing.

“We are talking about real dollars,” Mayor Logie said. “The pressure on state government to subsidize local government will be greatly reduced if our urban core areas could create this new kind of revenue base. Such consolidations would also expand our ability to think regionally, act regionally, and retain local control.” 

Building the Foundation for Sustainable Growth
Another area leader, businessman Jim Brooks, who also heads the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, champions a similar level of cooperation across a much larger region. Mr. Brooks says thinking and acting regionally is perhaps the most important strategy for growing the future economy of the Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon area. The Alliance was formed in 2000 to spur more thoughtful regional collaboration.

“For the last 30 years, west Michigan has experienced the fastest rate of population growth of any million-plus population center in the Midwest, and with it, one of the fastest rates of urban sprawl,” Mr. Brooks said in a September 25 presentation in Grand Rapids that underlined the key operating assumptions of Monday’s conference. “This extraordinary growth rate combined with a lack of coordinated policy and planning among our local units of government threatens our beaches, waterways, forests, and unique farmland.”

Mr. Brooks went on to say that the region’s 100-plus governments must unite to solve sprawl because the world economy is changing. The emerging 21st century economy uses information as its essential raw material and is defined by technology and mobility, so modern industries and workers are no longer stuck in any one place because of resources or geography. They can literally be almost anywhere.

As a result, Mr. Brooks said, skilled workers and executives increasingly choose to locate in places with a clean environment, reasonable taxes, walkable neighborhoods, good schools, and an active nightlife. Those communities able to offer superior living conditions, then, have a competitive advantage in the modern global economy.

“Regional economic growth is powered by creative people who prefer places that are diverse, tolerant, and open to new ideas,” Mr. Brooks said. “The frightening truth is that every major Michigan city — with the exception of Ann Arbor — has a net outflow of 20 to 30 year olds. They are moving to more dynamic and stimulating places.”

Mr. Brooks, who served on the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, said implementing recommendations in the council’s final report would help to revive central cities, protect the environment, and strengthen the economy in the long run. But he said the council’s tight timeline provided little opportunity to prioritize the findings.

“The work’s not done,” he said. “There is still much to do.” 

Andy Guy, who is chronicling the rise of Grand Rapids as a center of Smart Growth innovation in the Midwest, is a journalist and organizer in the Institute’s Grand Rapids field office. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org, or 616-308-6250.

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