In recent years, Grand Rapids has been recognized for its impressive economic and cultural growth.
The city now has an opportunity to rise to the next level and lead in a sector that will drive the future, and stakeholder input will be the key.
Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Public Schools are in the final stages of adopting the GR Forward Plan for future growth – a blueprint that, among other things, opens the door for the city to lead in information technology. This process was in a public comment period and will culminate Dec. 15 with City Commission action.
Our company is a Grand Rapids success story that could provide a model for the city's IT roadmap. From a start-up in 2012 with only a handful of people, we are now a global company with nearly two dozen employees doing cutting edge work in business-to-business software and high-volume product photography.
Downtown Grand Rapids can do more to nurture innovators.
One of the key factors that sparked Appropos' growth was access to flexible, affordable space.
Appropos started in a warehouse office, paying only $800 a month. The affordable lease allowed us to innovate and grow. By minimizing real estate costs and keeping overhead low, small businesses can make the most of their capital to develop new products and create new jobs. Appropos has since gone on to expand into two spaces with long-term lease agreements on the near West Side.
Unfortunately, these affordable spaces are increasingly being repurposed and redeveloped for residential or high-end office use instead of spaces where tech companies can locate and grow, creating a scarcity of available space for start-ups and developing tech companies in the downtown.
Downtown Grand Rapids can do more to nurture innovators, helping the dreamers-and-doers get off the ground. And with the right priorities and policies, our community can help turn more good ideas in the tech arena into great businesses that can grow and attract good jobs.
To create a vibrant downtown that can attract talent, we must identify and create flexible office and maker space that can accommodate small businesses and their employees.
Here's where developers can shape these spaces, by stepping into the minds of a young three- to six-person innovation company. We like to play our music loud and avoid being distracted, so soundproofed offices are a good idea. Because our employees work long, irregular hours, access to showers is helpful.
Enclosed spaces where we can shut the door and have a private phone call or video chat is essential. These and other considerations go beyond current co-working spaces and could bring even more young professionals to downtown Grand Rapids.
To get us closer to this goal, the GR Forward plan offers some practical recommendations:
- Inventory all available, affordable buildings – including Class C space – at the periphery of the downtown core.
- Develop zoning that reflects common-sense land-use considerations, including refocusing from residential and high-end office toward industrial and commercial in the downtown periphery.
- Establish a nonprofit to connect entrepreneurs with space and growth needs.
- Provide financial tools, such as small low-cost loans, for entrepreneurs in target zones, such as the West Side riverfront space.
- Create a talent pipeline, by partnering with Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Public Schools' Centers for Innovation and other local students, and tech camps.
- Recruit under-represented workers such as women and minorities, contributing further to Grand Rapids' economic activity.
- Partner with entities like DGRI to establish next-gen communications and tech infrastructure similar to Google Fiber and Rocket Fiber in Detroit to boost growth in digital and big data.
Informed by the experiences of our company and others, we see firsthand what can help make Grand Rapids a high-tech hotspot. With strategic decisions and thoughtful community collaborations, Grand Rapids can welcome technology trailblazers and be a true world class destination, by ensuring they have a place to take root and grow.