The Real Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids is a growing metropolitan region that's quickly becoming a big city. But it continues to think about and organize itself as a small town, and that ultimately retards development, popoluation, and economic growth. It's also costing taxpayers a ton of money.

That's what David Rusk, the consultant, author, urban expert, and former mayor of Albuquerque, recently told a small crowd of civic leaders in Michigan's second largest city. On one hand, Rusk said, the City of Grand Rapids is narrowly and politically defined as a 45-square mile, 198,000-person municipality. That's about the size of Boise, ID, Irving, TX, or Mobile, AL.

On the other hand, Rusk explained, greater Grand Rapids is a 257-square mile urbanized area where some 539,000 residents constantly cross a wide array of man-made township, village, city, and county borders during the course of daily life. Thinking of GR in this way puts the city more on the level of a Denver, CO, Portland, OR, or Charlotte, NC.

High economic, environmental, and social costs result when government acts individually as Georgetown Township, the Village of Sparta, or the County of Kent, rather than collectively and collaboratively as a single and much more powerful governing body. The well documented costs Rusk cited in his talk include cuttthroat inter-municipal rivalary over new development, expensive new infrastructure (roads and schools) in rural areas, wasted existing infrastructure (roads and schools) in core cities (Think Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Grand Rapids), unnecessary duplication of services, and increased racial and economic division.

Nothing Rusk said was news to the people of Grand Rapids, the region, or the State of Michigan for that matter. West Michigan has talked about 'regionalism' for a decade. In fact, Rusk has been coming here since the early 1990's.

But even amidst busted budgets, waning competitiveness, outdated taxing policies, the out migration of young people, and other troubling economic trends, there's little will for real change. And that, according to Rusk, is ultimately holding the Great Lakes State back.

"The issue in Michigan that nobody in a position of leadership ever wants to deal with is the impact on competitiveness of having such a high degree of fragamention in local government," Rusk said. "Across this country, careful analysis shows that the more 'little boxes governments' a region has, the more there is a diffusion of responsibilities amongst many many local governments, and the slower the rate of economic growth."