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Published in Economic Development

Grand Rapids seeks more equity under new contract for SmartZone business incubator

BY Monday, March 01, 2021 02:14pm

GRAND RAPIDS — City officials are seeking proposals from companies to operate its business incubator as part of a broader push to bring more equity to economic development.

The city’s SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority announced the request for proposals on Monday, aiming to bring more diversity and equity among tech startups.

Jeremiah Gracia COURTESY PHOTO

Grand Rapids Director of Economic Development Jeremiah Gracia said the city’s SmartZone strategy was last reviewed in early 2016, while a new citywide strategic plan and a 2020 equitable economic development and mobility plan have since surfaced.

“The (SmartZone) board agreed that it was time to just do a refresh,” Gracia told MiBiz. “It’s not intended to replace anyone, but allow the opportunity for everyone to present their new initiatives and strategy.”

Grand Rapids’ SmartZone is supported by tax increment revenues on properties within the SmartZone Certified Technology Park. It supports entrepreneurship within sectors like life sciences, advanced manufacturing and information technology, helping startups move from proof of concept to commercialization.

The nonprofit Start Garden Inc. has administered the program since April 2016 and plans to submit a proposal for the new contract, Director Darel Ross told MiBiz.

“We’re definitely excited about the new RFP process and how it aligns with the city’s equity goals,” Ross said. “This is the first time equity measures and an equity lens has been built into any funding coming out of the SmartZone. It’s safe to say under a historical lens that the SmartZone has not taken equity into account.”

The SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA) in January extended Start Garden’s contract for six months as the RFP process moves forward. The next SmartZone administrator is planned to be announced on May 19.

The city has commissioned Bethesda, Md.-based Regionerate LLC to oversee the selection process and aims to support entrepreneurship in historically marginalized communities and among populations underrepresented in the tech industry.

LDFA Board Chairman Dante Villarreal said the SmartZone contract is among several at the city that are being revisited as they are set to expire.

“This is part of being good stewards of the tax dollars,” Villarreal said. “We’re in a global pandemic that has uncovered pretty significant disparities in economic development when it comes to our communities of color.”

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