As if on cue, a loud clap of thunder boomed in tandem with the thunderous clapping from supporters as Mayor Rosalynn Bliss was introduced to present her first annual Grand Rapids State of the City Address for 2016 at the historic Harris building Tuesday night, Feb. 2.
Bliss has only a few weeks under her belt as Grand Rapids’ leader, but brings 10 years of experience as a city commissioner to the table. In her ambitious, inclusive vision for the city and its progress, Bliss compared Grand Rapids to a tree and its branches.
“Like a tree, we are growing, expanding, and branching out,” Bliss said. “A tree that has varied branches and needs nurturing.”
Economic development, police relations, cycling safety, housing and income equality and racial disparity were a few of the initiatives raised.
Bliss used Grand Rapids Community College’s craft brewing program as an example of one of the “tree branches” key to the city’s economic strength.
“Let’s picture a microbrewery launching in Grand Rapids with dedicated workers from and trained in our city, getting certified through GRCC’s craft brewing program,” Bliss said. “That is the power of economic development done right.”
Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky sees Bliss as driven and passionate about her position.
“She has expressed a great interest in what we do and that’s appreciated at the officer level,” Rahinsky said. “We’re really excited (to work with Bliss).”
The city commission and a group of citizens adopted a plan just over a year ago called the Community and Police Relations Recommendations. Some elements of the plan have been implemented, others are in progress. The pace of progress remains a top priority.
Hiring practices, connecting youth interested in law enforcement careers, engaging citizens through community meetings have all begun as part of the plan. By the end of February all police officers will be outfitted with body cameras.
A cycling safety campaign to educate cyclists as well as drivers is expected to launch in the spring. Bliss reported Grand Rapids has one of the highest bike crash rates in Michigan. The city has a goal of reaching 100 miles of bike lanes by 2017.
Entrepreneur Tami VandenBerg, Director of Well House, has applied to fill the 2nd Ward Commissioner’s seat left vacant by Bliss.
“It’s exciting to have our first female mayor,” VandenBerg said. “Mayor Bliss is someone who has been involved in many different issues and supported those who did not always have a voice at the table.”
Housing and income equality are issues Bliss will raise in budgetary meetings with city commissioners. The “Great Housing Strategy,” ideas and recommendations from an appointed group of citizens, has become the framework for dealing with housing issues such as affordable housing and homelessness.
A tough issue that in Bliss’ words has grown to an “unacceptable proportion” is that of racial disparities in income equality. According to Bliss, “the typical African American household in Grand Rapids earns less than half of the typical white household, with 35 percent of Hispanics living in poverty.”
Bryan Blakely, community activist and pastor at First Christian Reformed Church really wants to make a difference and be part of the solution as a leader.
“(Bliss) dealt directly with issues of economic and housing gaps,” Blakely said. “I’m anxious to see how everything unfolds.”
Bliss admitted she has set some bold goals in her first address to the city. Her enthusiasm for the future seemed to eclipse any concern of goals not being achieved.
“It feels great to have completed the first address,” Bliss said. “We’re a great city, I believe we can accomplish the goals set out.”