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Published in Economic Development

GR population tops 200K; West Michigan continues growth spurt

BY Sunday, June 09, 2019 07:00pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Michigan’s second-largest city crossed the 200,000-person population milestone for the first time last summer, as communities along the western side of the state posted strong growth.

Updated statistics released in May show the population of Grand Rapids was 200,217 as of last summer, an increase of 12,177 residents since 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. 

The agency estimated other surrounding communities also grew significantly in the same timeframe. In Kent County, Algoma Township’s population increased by more than 25 percent to 12,452 people, while Grand Rapids Charter Township added 1,941 residents since the last census. Its population now stands at an estimated 18,602 people. 

Other municipalities including Byron Township (20.3 percent) in Kent County and Allendale Township (28.9 percent),  Jamestown Township (22.5 percent), Blendon Township (16.1 percent) and Georgetown Township (11.7 percent) in Ottawa County also posted significant growth.

The population growth for communities across West Michigan comes as welcome news for economic developers. The reason: As the nation wrestles with a talent shortage in an era of low unemployment, companies are more likely to choose an area where workers with skills are readily available. 

“What (population growth) tells me about an area is it has a higher probability of being able to support the companies that choose to locate there,” said Dean Whittaker, president and CEO of Holland-based Whittaker Associates Inc., a market research and consulting firm serving the economic development, real estate and business-to-business markets. 

That’s a sentiment echoed by Andria Romkema, vice president of marketing and communications for The Right Place Inc., a regional economic development organization based in Grand Rapids.

“Generally talent is usually one of the top, if not the top concern on any company’s mind when they’re choosing to open up a new location,” Romkema said. “When they see a population increase, that’s good news.”

While many factors led to the continuous growth of West Michigan, the increase comes amid some strategic efforts to boost the region’s population. Three years ago, Hello West Michigan became a strategic partner of The Right Place to expand opportunities in a multi-county area in greater Grand Rapids. 

Hello West Michigan produces outbound marketing and holds events for people with ties to Michigan, attempting to lure them back to the area.

Since younger generations often prioritize where they want to live and then decide where they will work, companies are assessing the quality of life where they locate and the amenities for employees outside the office, said Cindy Brown, vice president of talent initiatives at The Right Place and the former executive director of Hello West Michigan. 

“If (companies) choose to move to a new location, do they have things to do for the employees they are bringing that will keep them here?” Brown said.

That’s where West Michigan’s quality of life comes into play, said Suzanne Schulz, planning director for the city of Grand Rapids, who added that many companies and major local industries are currently hiring, adding another layer of attraction for people looking to relocate. 

“We had a lot of growth in our various employment centers,” she said. “We have a very diverse set of business sectors in Grand Rapids, and that has been a very intentional diversification over the years by various companies and institutions to strengthen the region.”

The city of Grand Rapids also has taken on various placemaking efforts, “very conscious” decisions to make the city attractive and high quality. As well, a population increase could lead to added vibrancy, she said.

“Most city services are funded by income tax, so as we add those jobs and those residents and income in the city, it allows us to maintain our parks, our streets and do other things that cities who are in the decline have a much more difficult time trying to make those numbers work,” Schulz said. 

Echoing Schulz’s sentiments, Grand Rapids Charter Township Supervisor Michael DeVries said the simplest explanation for the population increase is the area’s “booming” economy. It’s also the result of the area’s diversity of industries, higher education and economic development organizations’ efforts, he said.

In Grand Rapids Township, which is made up of about 95 percent single-family residential homes, the population growth is bringing with it new kinds of development, including the township’s first apartment complex, The Springs at Knapp’s Crossing, which has 248 units and broke ground in 2017. 

The population growth also has underscored the importance of carefully prioritizing where the township spends money on infrastructure such as roads.

“Everything has to be carefully analyzed to make sure we spend money wisely to manage all that growth,” DeVries said.

Cities in West Michigan posting population growth since 2010 included Allegan (0.7 percent), East Grand Rapids (11.1 percent) Holland (0.7 percent), Hudsonville (3.3 percent) Kalamazoo (3.1 percent), Kentwood (6.5 percent), Portage (6.3 percent), Rockford (10.5 percent), Walker (5.7 percent), Wyoming (5.1 percent) and Zeeland (1.1 percent).

Meanwhile, Battle Creek (-2.2 percent), Greenville (-0.3 percent), Ionia (-3.4 percent) and Muskegon (-2.9 percent) declined, according to census estimates.

Making room for everyone

Along with accommodating population growth, municipalities need to hold conversations to ensure that “everyone can benefit” from their community investments. 

“It’s really good news to see our city growing and people drawn to the area because of the quality of life and the jobs that are being provided, but recognizing at the same time that not everyone is able to experience that,” Schulz said. “And those are people who live here today.”

A key part of ensuring that equity is avoiding the displacement of vulnerable people, including renters of homes in desirable neighborhoods.

In response to a directive from the Grand Rapids City Commission, city staffers are working to create a policy that protects residential renters from displacement when their homes are sold to developers to make room for new development. The policy in some cases would require developers to help finance renters in finding new places to live.

The city is having more discussions focused on increasing home and business ownership among existing residents in certain areas such as along the South Division Avenue corridor, Schulz said. Groups are interested in economic investment along that corridor, but the city does not want to increase displacement as a result of any growth, she added.

“The key is trying to figure out ownership for them, so they can be part of this growth in our city and not be forced out because they can no longer afford to pay as the rising rents occur,” she said. 

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