Hear the Conversation 18:12 – 10.4 mb mp3
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell speaks with Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon and Spartans Athletic Director Mark Hollis about focusing on the success of children in Grand Rapids and the importance of higher education across the state of Michigan.
“If I could pick a defining topic for my term as mayor,” he says, “it would be children.” His platform focuses on children, public education, and the relationship between the city of Grand Rapids and the public school system. Serving his third term as mayor, Heartwell finds it important to recover his efforts to make Grand Rapids a better city for the children of Michigan. “36 percent of our children in Grand Rapids are living in poverty households,” he says. Addressing quality of life, family employment, housing issues, lead safety issues, nutrition issues, and supporting public schools, he says, are crucial to the improvement of life for the children of Grand Rapids.
Our Community’s Children is a an office where the city and the schools come together to work on joint initiatives, he says, such as the Upward Bound Program. This program prepares kids for college by working with them throughout high school to ensure that they are college-ready and is managed by Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College, says Heartwell. “90 to 95 percent of the kids who complete the Upward Bound Program, go on to college and they graduate from college at the same rate as their peers in any of the finest suburban districts in the state,” he says. These students come from poverty households and are first generation college students, says Heartwell. The program is minimally funded by the federal government, he says, so the city matches these funds to open the program to more and more students.
“We were certainly proud,” he says, “that Forbes magazine in their E-edition listed Grand Rapids as the best city in the country to raise a family.” Using crime, education, higher education, and housing affordability statistics, Grand Rapids came out on top of the 100 largest cities in the country, according to Forbes. “But, the fact of the matter is we still have an unemployment rate that is unacceptable, we still have children living in poverty, we still have children subjected to lead and the risks of lead poisoning in their homes,” Heartwell says, “and those are issues that we simply have to address.” Through the municipal sustainability plan, Grand Rapids uses 72 factors to measure and report issues of the city that need to be addressed. “In a public institution,” he says, “we’re certainly always open for criticism.”
Michigan State University has had a presence in Grand Rapids for over 40 years, says President Simon. “What Michigan State University did in the expansion of its presence here in Grand Rapids,” says Heartwell, “is nothing short of astounding, I think, for us as a community.” The city had a robust medical presence, but what Heartwell says was missing was the bridge between research and practice, which is what Michigan State brought to Grand Rapids. “It’s created quite a remarkable synergy here around medical practice, research and education,” he says.
“No matter what we say as politicians about creating jobs, there’s truly very few jobs that we create,” he says. “But, we can help to create the environment that’s attractive to business.” Bringing business to a city environment promotes business growth and provides employment opportunities, says Heartwell. The field of renewable energy as already produced jobs across the state of Michigan, he says, and some local companies have shifted production from automobile to wind turbine parts. Small start-up businesses are rising from the technologies stemming from the concentration of research, education and medicine in Grand Rapids, says Mayor Heartwell. “That circles it all the way back as creating that environment,” says Hollis, “creating that location where people want to live, where young people want to live.”
“Michigan State has a responsibility,” President Simon says, “to the entire state of Michigan and it’s been our honor to be able to work in Grand Rapids along with many other cities in the state.”