Mayor kicks off Wheelhouse Talks

GVL / Robert Mathews
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell speaking at the at Wheelhouse Talks series on Jan. 8, 2014. The event was held at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

GVL / Robert Mathews Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell speaking at the at Wheelhouse Talks series on Jan. 8, 2014. The event was held at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

Sarah Hillenbrand

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Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center kicked off its 2014 Wheelhouse Talks with George Heartwell, mayor of Grand Rapids, as the first speaker. On Wednesday, he spoke about the changing approach to leadership and sustainability in the community.

“It’s certainly a prestigious lecture series, and I was honored to be asked to speak,” Heartwell said. “My intent is to talk about leadership from the perspective of one who leads the city. I’ve taught leadership courses and how it’s evolving today.”

Heartwell was born in Ann Arbor but has lived in Grand Rapids for most of his life. He went to Albion College, earned his master’s in divinity at Western Theological Seminary at Hope College, and became an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Heartwell has been the mayor of Grand Rapids for 10 years and was previously on the city commission for eight years.

He said one of his missions as a leader has been to transform city government to get what needs to be done completed.

“In city hall, our work here is to transform city government into a more effective, efficient, cost-conscious organization,” he said. “After a decade of deficits, we’ve done some pretty amazing things and I look forward to completing this project.”

Since Heartwell began as mayor, he has also led Grand Rapids to be a more sustainability-conscious city and has maintained a partnership with GVSU in sustainability.

“My goal when I took office was to be most sustainable city in the nation, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave us that recognition for a mid-size city,” he said. “The city has decided that it is important to be sustainable and be a community that benefits all people.”

Heartwell said the Wege Foundation funded the work of GVSU and Grand Rapids to do sustainability planning in order to organize and lead a community sustainability partnership that now has more than 200 members.

The close relationship between GVSU and Grand Rapids extends beyond sustainability planning, though. GVSU also greatly affects the economic success of Grand Rapids and the surrounding area. Heartwell said he could only think of positives for having a university like GVSU nearby.

“I can only think of pros — look at the contribution the university makes to local economy,” he said. “Those who work for the university are fairly high wage earners, and it’s a big piece of the local economy. Universities in Grand Rapids are producing students who are ready to take on the 21st century. Also, college students spend money in areas like retail and entertainment.”

Heartwell encouraged students to continue the trend of building Grand Rapids, and he said that, among other reasons to stay, the city is a great place for its arts and culture, clubs, restaurants and outdoor activities.

“Grand Valley has a great track record of students staying in Grand Rapids or at least in West Michigan — about 80 percent of students who don’t go to get their master’s,” he said. “Grand Rapids has many opportunities for newly emerging jobs, knowledge-based jobs, health professions or manufacturing. Every business is looking for bright young people with baccalaureate degrees or better.”

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