Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Growing Grand Rapids

The past couple of weeks, a few conversations have really stuck with me. The most recent conversation left my jaw on the floor.

I was in Los Angeles, where my friend had moved in January to join the "real world." He talked about how another one of our high school friends is attempting to get a job in California as well, in an effort "to get out of Grand Rapids."

Because Grand Rapids is just that bad, isn't it? Such much so you have to go to the dirty streets and filthy air of Los Angeles and join the crowded workforce that crams the huge freeways every morning, afternoon and night. It's almost as though they don't believe in Grand Rapids, or what it has to offer in terms of potential.

Back at the end of high school, not too long ago for me, I felt the same way. Grand Rapids was a small city,  if I were to get a job out of college in a bigger and better place, then I'd go. But I've also always held a soft spot in my heart for G.R. And every time I came back from college, be it a weekend or school break, I found myself noticing something else getting better.

So I decided I needed to come back to Grand Rapids. I got a job — two actually. One of which is bartending at the Mitten Brewing Co. Being part of the thriving craft beer scene has led me to many observations about Grand Rapids, as well as getting to know a lot of key people in the city. (That beer scene isn't going anywhere, either, but I'll save that for another time.)

Recently Mayor George Heartwell noted that the beer industry is great for the city, not only because it spurs creativity and brings in money, but it draws in a young, "hip" population. That population is key to driving a city's growth. The amount of potential Grand Rapids holds is unlimited, and the more intelligent and influential the young people who move downtown, the better the city will get.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a guy from the economic development group, The Right Place. His whole job is to look at Grand Rapids and where it's headed. He said Grand Rapids is right about where Portland, Oregon, Brooklyn and Austin, Texas, were about 20 to 25 years ago. Where are they now? Hip, creative, thriving cities. The thing is, according to him, Grand Rapids is already ahead of those cities in some aspects.

While the majority of Grand Rapids was off on long weekend camping and beach trips during the Fourth of July, I was stuck bartending. The night was incredibly slow, dominated by beer tourists. The night's costumers included an amazing couple from Fort Wayne, Indiana. They were your classic mid-40s DINKS — Double Income No Kids. They both work in an aerospace factory, and made fairly good money, and although they weren't college educated, they were smart, both street and book. They also were well traveled and shared my love for Dave Grohl.

But they were amazed at Grand Rapids. (This also was just a few hours after a pair of guys from Columbus were in and were amazed a "small town" like Grand Rapids was so young, big and thriving.)  I spent a good three hours focused on the Fort Wayne couple. We chatted about everything, from the industries including the big companies, manufacturing, beer and the Medical Mile. They said they would take the Grand Rapids area over many others, because of the climate and the great people and beer.

They were confused when I told them not many of my high school classmates are left in the city. They couldn't understand why someone wouldn't want to come back and be apart of something bigger and help a city grow and be influential. Cities don't become amazing, bigger and better without the help of smart, young, ambitious people.

Then again, some people would rather disappear and be part of a bigger ocean of people.