Awesome Towns for Entrepreneurs: A Spotlight on Grand Rapids, MI

Being labeled as one of “America’s Dying Cities” has to sting. It is easy to look at that title, shrug it off, and continue to play into the stereotype, but the residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan, took great offense.

The residents of Grand Rapids called out the Newsweek report in a 5,000-word response to the magazine and a 10-minute music video featuring thousands of residents singing/mouthing the words to Don McLean’s classic tune “American Pie.” Their goal was to showcase the town’s thriving community and reputation as a fine place to live and work.

In the written response, community boosters disagreed with the article’s premise that the decline in population is why the city is dying—the community dipped from 197,800 residents to 188,040 residents between 2000 and 2010, a nearly 5 percent drop. They also pointed out that Michigan’s second largest city has had a century of strong industry, commerce, and culture compared to neighboring communities that have undergone decades of economic woes that go far beyond population drops.

The music video was created by Rob Bliss, who had previously organized other events for the community, including zombie walks, pillow fights, and the longest water slide in the world. The video not only demonstrated strong civic pride but also set a world record for the number of people simultaneously lip dubbing. It also caused Newsweek to offer a rare update saluting the town’s response and agreeing that population changes don’t necessarily correlate with changes in a community’s quality of life.

Today, the population is up—about 197,000 as of 2017—and Grand Rapids is still known for its arts and culture scene, industry growth, and natural scenery. It also shows up on all sorts of lists, including the sixth-fastest growing economy by Forbes and thirteenth top place to live in the U.S. according to the U.S. World & News Report. One of its suburbs, Kentwood, also showed up recently on Realtor.com’s hottest zip codes list.

Grand Rapids continues to grow its reputation as a city that supports and encourages business ventures with ideas and infrastructure, including a variety of incubators, networking groups, angel investors, and easy access to interstates and railroads.

Fast Facts

  • Good brews. As the U.S. headquarters for Founders Brewing, Grand Rapids has been recognized repeatedly for its craft beer scene including the titles as “America’s Beer City” and “Best Beer Scene.” The popular downtown brewpub Hop Cat has earned plenty of national recognition, including the “Best U.S. Beer Bar.” There are also many brewpubs, home brewers, and small breweries, all fueled by access to quality water from the river.
  • Feeling fit. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the city’s focus on brews, Grand Rapids is also focused on fitness. It has been declared a bicycle-friendly community as far back as 2009, and the best town for mountain biking by Outside Magazine. The Amway River Bank Run is considered one of the state’s favorite runs.
  • Healthy inhabitants. Grand Rapids was the first major city to add fluoride to its water in 1945 and is the largest grower of apples in the state. Healthcare is also one of the city’s largest employers with many clustered around the Medical Mile, including Spectrum Health, Meijer and Mercy General Health Partners. The city is also known for being the best in the region for end-of-life quality care.
  • A hub of history. More than a dozen museums ranging from art media to general history in the county, call Grand Rapids home, including six within a few blocks of each other. The city was also the hometown of U.S. President Gerald Ford, who is buried there with his wife, Betty. There is a Ford Museum, and the city’s airport is now named after the 38th president of the United States.

Five Businesses to Watch in Grand Rapids, MI

Pop-Up Fitness

Busy moms and dads often feel bad about not having time to go to the gym since there are so many other things to do. This unique service that began in 2018 essentially brings the gym to you with a series of traveling outdoor classes at area parks. You can practice yoga, work up a sweat, and enjoy the fresh air—all are good for the body and the brain. Some group classes also take place next to playgrounds so kids can enjoy themselves under supervision while their parents work out.

  • The owner: Necia Ornee, founder and lead encourager
  • The story: Ornee said she loves Michigan summers, but since they’re so short, she wanted to spend as much time outside as possible. As a mom, she also wanted to find ways to give herself and other moms the ability to spend more time with their little ones while still maintaining a healthy lifestyle. She teaches group coaching and food workshops.

Alliant Enterprises and Alliant Healthcare Products

The goal of Alliant Healthcare is to provide medical devices and medical services to various municipalities and federal agencies. These include some of the more recognizable brands of manufacturers, including Philips, Enovate, Skytron, and Olympus. The company is a Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned Small Business, also called SDVOSB organization. By law, 3 percent of federal contracts need to go to these types of organizations that are owned and operated by veterans.

  • The owner: Bob Taylor, CEO
  • The story: Taylor served in the U.S. Air Force and the Air Force Reserve for more than 20 years in a variety of positions including as a navigator and as a liaison officer at the Air Force Academy. During his service, he became familiar with medical devices and the contract process. He established Alliant Enterprises in 2002, which employs many veterans. The company recently announced plans to expand its format by creating several divisions to manufacture its proprietary lines of medical devices and healthcare products that the other divisions will sell.

The Mitten Brewing Company

Restaurants are financially risky, and there are certainly plenty of beer-related competitors around town. But if you throw in other things people can’t get enough of—quality pizza, firefighting, local history, Tigers baseball, and opportunities to help charities—you might have a home run on your hands. The craft brewery opened in 2012 in a restored Victorian-era firehouse and has become a popular destination for locals and tourists across three locations, including one in Northport and one in Saugatuck.

  • The owners: Chris Andrus and Max Trierweiler
  • The story: Their Grand Rapids location was the first legal brewing in that side of town since the Prohibition. The owners decided to go beyond basic pub food and common craft beer to come up with creative names and recipes and look for ways to give back. The beer includes memorable baseball references like the Peanuts and Cracker Jack porter and the Slow Pitch lager. One of its popular pizzas is the Late Night Snack, garnished with Hot Cheetos, pizza rolls and extra herb ranch dressing. The owners have donated more than $200,000 to area charities since 2012 and they received a variety of honors for brewing and community involvement, including the Grand Rapids Chamber’s “Young Entrepreneurs of the Year” award.

Become Unmistakable

In a community with such a strong history of commercial success, there are plenty of resources for those wanting to start something new. Becoming Unmistakable offers opportunities for existing business owners to look for ways to do things better, starting with better leadership. Clients of this business consulting firm are given strategies to boost the right side of the brain and focus more on creativity, service, quality and talent, rather than traditional business values like logic, analysis and dealing with data.

  • The owner: Mike Novakoski
  • The story: As CEO of Elzinga & Volkers, a general construction contractor, Novakoski used to have problems recruiting the right people, although applicants clearly knew their stuff. So he began researching what skills are typically learned and taught vs. what skills are truly needed for success. He concluded that left brain-right brain balance is ideal, although many people need additional coaching on the right side. Mike has translated his philosophy into books, a training program, and an online management platform. He officially opened a small business consulting firm in 2018 and moved to a two-story location at the beginning of 2019. The site includes a collaboration space, plus meeting rooms and reception areas.

Target Axe Throwing

One business strategy is to offer what already exists but in ways that make it better. Another strategy is to provide something completely new and create a new market. That is part of the appeal of the area’s first indoor ax-throwing location, where visitors age 14 and up can learn to throw a functional yet deadly weapon at a safe throwing range. The activity is billed as a way to blend the area’s frontier and timber-based history with a new way to reduce stress, plus a fun social outing for friends or co-workers. A lane rents for $80/hour for up to four people or $100 for 5-10 people. Snacks and non-alcoholic drinks are available, and guests can also watch and cheer on others.

  • The owner: Jim Burns
  • The story: Burns already has a reputation as a local promoter of interactive businesses. He opened a seasonal haunted house in 2012 and Escape Michigan in 2015. Escape rooms lock people in a room and give them an hour to solve puzzles to find their way out. Target Axe Throwing, which opened in 2019, is in an adjacent space, so visitors can have even more opportunities to socialize as they hone their skills and compete. Axes can be rented or guests can bring their own if proper safety precautions are met.

Business Resources in Grand Rapids, MI

High Five

A unique member-owned co-op brewery and taproom in Kentwood allows beginner homebrewers to work alongside and learn from some of the country’s top beer professionals. Membership is open to anyone who appreciates beer—not just those who work in the industry.

Along with promoting educational opportunities in the art of crafting beer and general business networking, High Five also collaborates with various community organizations and charities. The company began in 2011 when founder Dallas McCulloch shared the $5,000 he won in a local business development competition. The first round of membership and investment opened in 2016, and today, there are more than 150 members representing homebrewers, brewpubs, and commercial breweries.

High Five also receives support from members with diverse skill sets including hospitality, architecture, and more. It opened its own brewpub in 2018 where members can make, drink, and share their own beer.

Downtown Market

Grand Rapids Downtown Market offers space for 20 indoor vendors, two restaurants, and outdoor and indoor events. Beyond its popular appeal, the market is considered a valuable space for culinary and retail entrepreneurs to give commerce a try. It has an incubator-style commercial kitchen that tenants can rent to research new products or produce items that can be sold. There is also classroom space for tenants, dietitians, and other professionals who want to teach cooking classes and workshops about successfully launching food-related businesses.

Downtown Market has regular open houses and networking events for all, but the events are particularly interesting to prospective and young entrepreneurs. The market offers a full-time on-site business guidance counselor eager to advise new and existing businesses about all elements of starting a food company, from cooking techniques to paperwork.

Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce

Being part of a Chamber of Commerce is a good idea for any business in any community—large or small. Chambers of Commerce range from social-oriented groups to more formal economic development organizations that focus on policy and recruiting. The Grand Rapids organization tries to help businesses succeed, learn and grow, which in turn makes the whole community prosper. Along with regular meetings for members from different business sectors, it sponsors a variety of community forums about different economic areas, helps businesses battle bureaucracy, and presents opportunities to get members involved in local civic affairs.

This particular organization relies on social networking and other digital outreach tools, including a podcast and a blog. One popular program is the CEO and Management Roundtable, where top community leaders share their strategies and inspire others, especially start-ups. It has a goal of attracting and developing minority-owned businesses, which will add more fabric to the Grand Rapids business economy. The Chamber also is one of five in the state to partner with the Michigan Film and Media Office, which encourages members to look for creative ways to portray the state to the rest of the world. Visual and performing artists interested in showcasing the area in their creations may be given temporary Chamber membership to improve their access to businesses and facilities.

Talent Development

Beyond the basic benefits of Chamber membership, the Chamber encourages residents to take advantage of other programs and resources designed to provide additional support and access, especially for those hoping to be future leaders. Its Talent Development program focuses on ways to encourage civic involvement, engage larger segments of the community, increase diversity, and help others be better bosses and people.

For instance, the ATHENA program supports women leaders along with men who empower women in leadership roles. It offers regular forums and scholarship opportunities for eligible young women under age 30. OutPro is a resource for LGBT employers and employees that organizes regular social and professional networking events. Its Institute for Healing Racism looks for positive ways to look beyond racial inequality of the past and bring more people together through dialog and education.

The Right Place

This private, non-profit economic development organization provides consulting services to companies around the world that are considering doing business in Grand Rapids. This assistance can take the form of helping them find appropriate sites for their supply chains, providing tours of area businesses, discussing incentives, and creating connections with local and state commerce officials.

Businesses who utilize its services can have access to all sorts of demographic info and business analytics for the area, including top employers and leaders in sustainability. It also can make connections to area experts in different sectors, organize a variety of forums for members of the business community and provide help to existing companies that are considering expanding.

The Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

The DeVos Center at Grand Valley State University offers a variety of classes, networking opportunities, mentorships, and other tools to help people turn good ideas into great success stories. Students can apply for scholarships, join incubators, obtain funding, and attend various state and national conferences in different business or professional topics.

Though enrolled university students can find a variety of services, including a business-focused study abroad opportunity in Italy, enrollment is not a requirement. There is also a Teen Summer Academy designed to teach young people the basics of business and finance.

Joe Butler
Joe Butler
Writer

Joe Butler is an accomplished writer and editor in the Northwest with more than 20 years of experience publishing in newspapers, magazines, and specialty websites. He graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in mass communications and has worked with a variety of clients nationwide. Joe lives near Spokane, WA, where he writes, reads, and collects spoons as well as the cheapest, plastic snow-globes he can find.

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