4 things Fort Wayne can learn from Grand Rapids

With all of the development happening around Fort Wayne, you might find yourself wondering: What will the city be like in five or 10 years?

While each city has its own set of challenges and opportunities, making it impossible to predict exact outcomes, regional planners might consider looking to Grand Rapids for a few clues.

No longer in the shadow of Detroit, this former manufacturing city is ahead of the curve in many ways and getting noticed for its resurgence

Here are four things Fort Wayne can learn from Grand Rapids’ success. 

1) It's developing the riverfront to be a destination for recreation.

While it's no secret that Fort Wayne has riverfront development underway downtown, planners might be able to take a few notes from the way Grand Rapids has rejuvenated the Grand River to get people out on the water.

For example, a Jan. 2017 article in Rapid Growth explains that much of the city's restoration efforts are geared toward making it an "active adventure city." Therefore, groups investing in river advancements do so with that goal in mind.

Stephanie Kotschevar, PR Manager with Experience Grand Rapids, says Grand Rapids Whitewater, for instance, is spearheading initiatives to improve the river's edge and the rapids going back to the into the river.

"These changes will open up new possibilities to how Grand Rapids is seen as an adventure destination,” Kotschevar says.

Grand Rapids is making the most of its natural resources, like the Grand River to attract and retain talent.

As Fort Wayne develops its riverfront, helping people feel welcome and excited to be on the waters could bring the area to life—not to mention attract a new demographic of adventure-seekers to northeast Indiana.

2) It's embracing an attitude of collaboration.

Jim Mroz is vice president of marketing and communications with the Right Place, an economic development organization in West Michigan. He attributes the city’s success to collaboration and vision.

“There is a level of collaboration amongst philanthropists, community leaders, business leaders, and government here that just isn’t found anywhere else,” Mroz says. “From municipal ordinances and master planning to development and private investment, there is a sense here that we’re all share the same one community.”

Ultimately, he says this vision translates into the community’s ability to look at and concentrate on the long-term and not get diverted by what he refers to as “short-term hurdles.”

As Fort Wayne moves forward with its own plans, keeping an attitude of collaboration will be key.

3) It's making public transportation a priority.

While big projects are important to upping a city's quality of place, Grand Rapids has learned that basic infrastructure needs like public transportation are important, too.

To make the city more accessible to residents, Grand Rapids has one of the most well-developed public transit systems for a midsize city called The Rapid rooted in its downtown. Using The Rapid, residents can catch "rapid buses" to nearly every corner of the city about every 15-minutes.

Nick Monoyios, a long-range planner for The Rapid public transit system, explains the thought behind the city's growing public transportation system to Experience Grand Rapids.

"We’re not anti-car or anti-parking, but transportation is the second-highest household expense after housing, and we want to provide choice," Monoyios, says. "We’re shooting for efficiency and convenience, but also equity in terms of meeting the needs of all residents, at all income levels.”

And since the city has invested in public transit, it has garnered the interest of regular riders.

According to Experience Grand Rapids, “ridership has consistently increased on the city’s (North/South) Silver Line BRT service, which has drawn the attention of other cities looking to improve their public transit infrastructure. A second BRT service – the (East/West) Laker Line, for which Monoyios serves as project manager – is in the planning stage.”

The Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) system also provides free shuttle service, so people only have to park once when they are downtown.

Mroz said better transportation is just part of the equation. Better roads, water, sewer, air travel, rail, and broadband internet are on the city’s radar.

In his words, these investments are “not exactly exciting stuff, but critical for future economic growth.”

Founders Brewing Company represents a home-grown success story.4) It's fueling a competitive startup and entrepreneurial community.

Grand Rapids’ industrial roots produced many family fortunes and legacies (like that of the DeVos family) that have contributed to the growth of the city's entrepreneurial community.

According to Fort Wayne entrepreneur and ex-Grand Rapids resident, Joe Noorthoek, this is something that gives Grand Rapids an edge.

“There’s been an important partnership element between people wanting to (pursue an idea) and people with money (backing it),” Noorthoek explains.

Grand Rapids is now competing with larger cities in California to be a destination for small business.

Earlier this year, LendingTree rated the Michigan city No. 2 in terms of new small business profitability, and along with money, the city is getting noticed for its non-traditional actors in the entrepreneur community, as well.

For instance, the Acton Institute is a think tank started by a Catholic priest in Grand Rapids, which engages members of religious, business, and academia in advancing entrepreneurship and innovation through grants and award programs.

“These are the kinds of entrepreneurial (investments) the city is starting to take pride in,” Noorthoek says.

Fort Wayne could see similar results by continuing to develop infrastructure to support and invest in entrepreneurs here.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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