Grand Rapids Profile

May 3, 2012


Grand Rapids, the county seat of Kent County, is located in western Michigan. Grand Rapids is the center of a metropolitan statistical area that includes Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, and Allegan counties.


Grand Rapids was incorporated in 18501 and, at that time, the city had a main furniture factory and many smaller furniture factories. Wood furniture was a natural industry for Grand Rapids to develop, given Michigan’s source of pine and the location of the city, close to the Grand River, making the wood easy to transport. Additionally, “after an international exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, Grand Rapids became recognized worldwide as a leader in the production of fine furniture.” 2

Over time, like many cities in the Midwest, Grand Rapids also developed a presence in the automotive industry. With its economy heavily invested in these two industries, the city was hit hard by economic downturns and faced a very hard transition out of its downward spiral.

A City Recreates Itself

However, unlike other Michigan cities, such as Flint, Pontiac, even Detroit, Grand Rapids has managed to improve its fortunes steadily, thanks to a remarkable combination of business leadership, public–private cooperation, and the generosity and forward thinking of local foundations and philanthropists. Millennium Park was created in Kent County, immediately adjacent to Grand Rapids, as a way to restore 1,500 acres of industrial land into an urban park for public recreation.3

Many of the city’s wealthy families have made a commitment to give back, and the city had clearly benefited from their philanthropy. Unlike many other Midwestern industrial cities, in Grand Rapids the corporate and philanthropic leadership has worked in concert with public entities, to create and fund organizations and alliances The table below summarizes the structure of organizations in Grand Rapids, each of which addresses specific economic development needs in the city and the region. Most of the city’s corporate and philanthropic leadership serve on multiple boards of these organizations, providing leadership and coordination from those leaders who are best positioned to marshal the resources to implement the economic development strategies in the city and the region.

Grand Action An organization that raises money, conducts predevelopment planning, and studies and orchestrates the development or redevelopment of community assets.
The Right Place A public/private entity that focuses on the retention and attraction of businesses to the Grand Rapids/Western Michigan region.
Medical Mile Beginning with the establishment of the Van Andel Institute in 1996, this area, dedicated to medical research and education, adjacent to downtown Grand Rapids, has grown into the largest concentration of employment in Western Michigan and attracts students and researchers from around the world.
The West Michigan Strategic Alliance An entity made up of business and civic leaders in an eight county region in Western Michigan that addresses sustainability, work force development, urban renewal, and business development on a collaborative regional basis.
Grand Valley Metropolitan Council An inter-jurisdictional alliance of leaders appointed by local government entities to plan and coordinate government services throughout the region.
Grand Valley State University William Seidman, former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and advisor to Presidents Ford and Reagan, among others, helped to develop two campuses for the Grand Valley State University, one near downtown Grand Rapids on land donated by the Steelcase Corporation and the other in suburban Holland on land donated by Frederik Meijer, founder of the Meijer supermarket chain.

Today, the Grand Rapids metropolitan area has close to a million inhabitants, many innovative cultural institutions, a revitalized downtown core, a diverse economy, and high marks for quality of life factors. The city is no longer dominated by any one industry, but furniture, health care, industrial machinery, metals, plastics, food processing, and printing represent core industrial clusters.


1 Kent County Michigan Genweb Project.

2 Grand Rapids, Historical Society.

3 Kent County Parks.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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