By Zane McMillin, Mlive.com
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — ArtPrize public relations director Brian Burch sat in the event’s headquarters Thursday and regaled a small group of college students with tales of his “big dreams” of leaving the Grand Rapids area.
Those dreams were, of course, leading up to 1997, when Burch up and left his hometown for a job and life in Chicago. It was a time, Burch recalled, when Grand Rapids had little going for it, and little reason to stay.
“Grand Rapids was not a big city to me at the time,” Burch said. “Grand Rapids was not a place that I could find opportunity.”
But then, the kicker: “That all changed very quickly.”
After four years in Chicago, Burch told the group of eight students, he returned home to find things had changed. Concert venues had sprung up, a nightlife was growing and an arts scene was taking root, among others.
“I came back here,” Burch said, “and the city had changed in that very short amount of time.”
A whirlwind tour
It was a tale right up the alley of Burch’s student audience.
They were eight members of the Van Andel Millennial Board, an endowed youth council comprising students from 14 private Michigan colleges, including several in Grand Rapids and West Michigan.
An arm of the Michigan Colleges Foundation, the Millennial Board works to “develop and implement … strategies to attract and retain students in Michigan,” according to its website.
The Millennial Board’s ArtPrize visit Thursday was one leg of a rigorous, two-day whirlwind tour of sorts to sites around Grand Rapids that, in some way, highlighted parts of the city that would attract a young, right-out-of-college crowd.
The group started their day at The Rapid bus system’s Central Station, where the group learned about recent service changes and the upcoming bus rapid transit Silver Line.
Other stops Thursday morning included a tour of design hub GRid70, where bustling creatives from the likes of Amway, Steelcase and Meijer worked as the Millennial Board members looked on.
From there, the group walked over to ArtPrize’s headquarters at 41 Sheldon Blvd. Other Thursday stops will include meeting Mayor George Heartwell, touring the West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology and attending the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s Politics and Pints event.
“I think our visits today have, in large part, they speak to the heart of what the Van Andel Millennial Board is about,” said Casey Hoffman, an Albion College senior who chairs the Millennial Board, “and that is going against a common stereotype that Michigan and Michigan’s cities, including Grand Rapids, is washed up, and that’s simply not true.”
What students want
Hoffman said the Millennial Board recently conducted a survey of college students across the state to see what drives their post-graduation planning. To wit: Where would they want to live?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, survey respondents highlighted a city’s vibrant nightlife, leisure activities and recreation as traits desired most in addition to a steady job.
“It’s more than just about working, it’s about living,” Hoffman said, “and that’s what cities like Grand Rapids are offering students and graduates who want to be a part of Michigan’s ethos.”
Holland native and Hope College senior Courtney Dernberger, a Millennial Board member, said she has heard from multiple friends that plan to move to Grand Rapids upon graduating from college, largely because of what it has come to embody.
“The biggest thing I hear is just a community, and that they can have people that they feel comfortable with and places to congregate — Founders Brewery, things like that,” Dernberger said. “And I think Grand Rapids offers that. It’s growing in its ability to offer that.”
Kyle Los, program manager at GRid70, played tour guide Thursday as he took the Millennial Board throughout the design hub on Ionia Avenue.
The tour included a stop at Meijer’s Culinary Innovation center, a modern-looking test kitchen in GRid70 where the company tests out its gastronomic concoctions.
“There’s a focus on the future generations from a product standpoint, but more importantly, from an innovation standpoint,” Los said.
“For us, the next generation is going to be the ones who are innovating, so we need to be focusing on how these people work, where they work, and we want that to be a part of the community here.”
For Hoffman, at least, the two-day tour was all but certain to reinforce that need.
"Michigan has a lot to offer, Grand Rapids has a lot to offer," he said, "and I think we’re going to find in future years young people… are going to be in the state and staying in cities like Grand Rapids."
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