In his 2007 State of the City address delivered on Saturday, Grand Rapids’ mayor, George Heartwell, outlined an ambitious agenda that builds on the achievements that Heartwell claimed he has made in his three years as mayor. In recalling what has been a familiar concept in his term, Heartwell discussed the idea of “sustainability”–in terms of both the environment and economics–but also extend the term to contain a “social” component. This was not new territory for Heartwell, who in addition to highlighting his and the city’s efforts to increase the number of sustainable buildings and reduce energy use, highlighted what he described as his successes in passing bond issues to fund school construction, expanding after-school programs, and undertaking an effort to increase literacy in Grand Rapids. Heartwell called on citizens to come together as they did following the death of former President Gerald R. Ford, with Heartwell stating, “Grand Rapids can continue to make history as a city in which people unite to accomplish what others find impossible.”
Before outlining his goals for the upcoming year and beyond, Heartwell announced what he described as a “remarkable accomplishment.” Heartwell told the audience that last week the city received notice that it has been designated a “Center for Excellence” in education for sustainability by the United Nations. Grand Rapids, which received the designation in large part due to its Community Sustainability Partnership, is the first city in the United States and the second city in North America to receive the designation. Heartwell explained that this one indication of the successes the city has had in achieving its short-term sustainability goals. The mayor also highlighted efforts including the City’s being “well on its way” to accomplishing its goal of 20% renewable energy, installing energy efficient lights in 1/3rd of its traffic lights, reducing its facilities energy consumption by 11%, and running its truck fleet on bio-diesel fuel during much of the year. He called on Michigan to become the 25th state to establish a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) for developing renewable energy resources in the state and described some of his meetings with other mayors to pressure the Governor and the Michigan Public Service Commission to establish an RPS. Heartwell also explained that thanks to efforts to “incentivize” the building of “green” (LEED certified) buildings, Grand Rapids is ranked fourth in the nation for its number of green buildings.
Following his overview of accomplishments, Heartwell focused on his agenda for “social sustainability” and the importance of having a city “where equity, fairness, even-handed deployment of city services and city resources is the norm.” Heartwell asserted that, “All our grand economic plans, all our work for
environmental protection is hollow – and ultimately futile – if we aren’t a city where the poorest among us get equal consideration to those with wealth and power” and outlined an agenda that he believed could get the city towards a position of being socially sustainable. Mayor Heartwell began by raising the issue of Proposal 2 and his opposition, and that of the City Commission, to the ballot proposal that banned affirmative action. He explained that he is no longer contemplating challenging the constitutionality of Proposal 2, not due to a “softening of will” or public opposition, but rather that the City’s lawyers have advised him that the costs of a lawsuit would be substantial and that such a lawsuit would have little chance of succeeding. He said that the City is still considering filing an amicus curie brief in support of a challenge to Proposal 2 in the Eastern District of Michigan court, but has not yet made a decision on its benefits. Instead, Heartwell explained that the City is looking at ways to continue to develop “an increasingly diverse workforce” in Grand Rapids as well as an “increasingly diverse supplier and contractor base” for the City. He said that on Tuesday the City Commission will vote on a “Disadvantaged Business Enterprise” initiative that will help this process. He closed this section of his speech by asserting that the goals he hopes to accomplish can only be achieved by “a community united across gender and racial barriers.”
Heartwell also promised ongoing efforts to support and improve the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS). He argued that:
Our future depends on quality public education for all our children. Not just suburban children, but all children. Not just white children, but all children. Not just children of the economic elites, but all children.
He explained that there are several challenges faced by children in the GRPS district, including “their parents are not pushing them to excel, their peers ridicule academic achievers, structures of race and class cloud their futures, they struggle with the myriad issues of poverty.” However, Heartwell also placed much of the blame on a school system based on inequality in which wealthier suburban school districts receive more money than poor urban districts such as Grand Rapids. He argued that all children have the potential to learn at “high levels” and called for a sustained effort to “close the disparity gap in education between rich and poor… between urban and suburban, between white kids and minority kids.” To this end, Heartwell called for a regional approach to public education that would begin to talk about the forms of collaboration that have benefited the region’s economy and transportation system. He announced an effort to convene a summit bringing together the Superintendents of Kent County schools and top elected officials to address the issue.
Heartwell also renewed his commitment to ending homelessness in Grand Rapids, describing a plan that the city is a part of, the Vision to End Homelessness, that outlines steps to end homelessness by 2014. Its an ambitious plan, especially given Heartwell’s statement that there are close to 2,000 homeless individuals in Grand Rapids. However, Heartwell cited some initial successes with the plan, including the implementation of a “Housing First” model for Kent County that puts homeless people into affordable housing and provides support services to prevent a return to the streets. According to Heartwell, 117 families were housed this year and 91% are still housed after six months. It is not just the individual families that benefit this approach, but society as a whole, with Heartwell citing statistics from other cities showing that the cost for investing in housing homeless people is about $1 for every $5 spent on shelters. Heartwell said that for the plan to work there will need to be non-profit and for-profit cooperation, but expressed hope that most shelters would be closed by 2014.
Mayor Heartwell’s final area of discussion was the need to build “strong neighborhoods” that would build off Grand Rapids’ tradition of strong neighborhood organizing. Heartwell announced a proposal for a new tool, a Neighborhood Improvement District, that would function similarly to the Downtown Improvement District. Heartwell described the Downtown Improvement District as providing critical support for downtown neighborhoods in terms of beautifying streets, employing staff, and promoting events. He explained that he sees neighborhoods as potentially using the District for programs like the downtown ones or youth programs, park enhancements, and crime-stopping initiatives. Neighborhoods would be able to determine their needs and set the level of tax assessment and the city would collect the funds and return them to neighborhood associations. A major caveat of the proposal is that it will likely require state legislation.