By Austin Metz
Editor In Chief
As the city of Grand Rapids continues to progress, Mayor George Heartwell continues to be near the center of the action.
When asked what he was most proud of after seven years as mayor, though there were many things, Heartwell quickly turned to a topic he cares deeply about.
“It would be the investment we have made in the Grand River and its clean up,” he said. “There was a year in our history where we dumped 12 billion gallons of raw sewage over the course of a year into the Grand River.”
Improvements have now been made. He shared that in 2009, the run-offs had been reduced by 99.4 percent and work is continuing to be done to completely eliminate the issue.
“We are continuing to work on the east side but we have all the west side sewer systems separated from the Grand River,” said Heartwell. “The goal is to have it finished by 2015.”
The environment is one of the many topic’s Heartwell feels is important to Grand Rapids and another of these being the education of students around the city. More specifically, Heartwell is focused on improving the Grand Rapids Public School system and the facilities they offer to their students. It all started in 2004 when the schools passed the mileage and raised 165 million dollars to go toward the improving of existing school buildings and investing in new buildings.
While the money has helped greatly and was to be used to improve ten buildings, Heartwell credited the people involved to being what he called “good enough stewards with the money that they ended up being able to do eleven buildings and of those eleven, five of them are lead certified. That is they are built to environmental design standards certified by the U.S. green building counsel.”
Improving the facilities was a giant step for the public school system but the issue of poverty continues to be the underlying issue.
“82 percent of the kids in the Grand Rapids public schools are living in poverty,” explained Heartwell. “They can’t afford the couple hundred bucks for a graphing calculator or whatever it is so the community said we will do that.”
The community stepped up in more ways than one. Last year, Heartwell introduced what was called the Mayor’s 50.
This is a program that brought fifty companies together who agreed to employ students in the Grand Rapids Area. Provided in this program is pre-employment training, leadership training and skills for the workplace.
“Some kids even 17, 18 or 19 years old have never had a job so they don’t know about expectations,” he said. “It’s proven time and again that giving a youth an opportunity to work in the workplace and have a responsible job is part of their development.”
For Heartwell, this development is vital for students to make the transition from being a student to an employee in the Grand Rapids workplace. With these improvements have come reward. While other cities have seen their economy’s disintegrating, Heartwell has noticed that businesses are now moving to Grand Rapids, rather than away from it and he thinks he knows why.
“I think we have a quality of life that’s attractive to business leaders,” he said. “A skilled workforce is another [reason]. They know that when they come to Grand Rapids, they’re going to be able to find people to work in their businesses or in their factories that have skills. Thirdly, we are the health care center for West Michigan.”
The final reason had to do with having Heartwell a “knowledge based economy.” With 13 college institutions having either principal or satellite campus’ in Grand Rapids and 72,000 students attending these schools, Grand Rapids is moving from what was once a labor based economy to a knowledge based economy, explained Heartwell. While much has already been done around Grand Rapids, Heartwell doesn’t feel that he’s done yet. Since taking over as mayor, Heartwell has made it a point of emphasis to work to transform the transit system in Grand Rapids.
“In 2001, Grand Rapids was providing about 3 million rides a year with its transit system,” he said. “This past year, we provided just under 10 million rides.”
Though there have been improvements as well as award’s won, Heartwell continues to push the transit system to new heights in the form of fixed rail street cars. While a place like San Francisco uses cable cars with cables under the street, Grand Rapids is looking to implement a system with overhead Catenary lines, explained Heartwell. How soon could something like this be implemented? To Heartwell, it seems realistic that in five years residents could be riding streetcars around Grand Rapids. With these street cars come added advertising opportunities as well as the freedom to more easily travel around downtown. Heartwell has set the bar extremely high for himself and when asked what he would do if re-elected, he made it clear that he would stick to his previously set goals.
“I’m not going to come with a whole new slate of things to do. I set a goal for 100 percent renewable energy by 2020,” Heartwell said. “I want to be sure that in the next four or five years we are moving in that direction.”
“Continuing to work with our higher education institutions and with our health care institutions to build those economic sectors. All that is important to me.” He concluded, “I am who I am. My vision hasn’t changed for the city. It only gets stronger as days go by.”