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George Heartwell, Mayor of Grand Rapids

When a national publication writes that your city is dying, what would you do?

George Heartwell kept doing his thing and helped continue Grand Rapids’ rise to one of the most innovative cities in the United States. Since Newsweek (The Daily Beast) published a list including Grand Rapids as one of the top 10 dying cities in the United States, the city has placed high on list after list indicating just the opposite (as noted in a recent article by my coworker Mike Nichols). It’s been honored nationally and internationally as a leader in sustainability. (Note: the print Newsweek died in 2012.)

As a part-time mayor, he can’t have much a say in what goes on. Right?

Well, maybe if he didn’t care. But he does. He cares a lot about the people who care so much about the city.

He retired from his full-time job in the fall and now is focused 100 percent on a job he has for at least three more years, and perhaps another seven – should he choose to run and be reelected.

“It takes a lot of time management,” he said, as I overheard earlier that he was triple booked Thursday night. “I want to be able to give it everything. It’s a job that will take as much time as you’re willing to give it.”

It’s a part-time job in a full-time city now, and it only pays $38,000 a year, but Heartwell’s put himself in the position to be able to give it his all.

He helped extend former-Mayor John Logie’s position of being more than just a ceremonial ribbon cutter. Heartwell sees himself as a vision bearer.

Saturday marks his next vision sharing event when he gives the annual State of the City address.

“I come to the community and I say this is the vision and this is where I want to take us,” he said, adding, semi-jokingly,that if the community doesn’t like the vision, when the next election rolls around, he’s on the curb.

His vision has been executed exquisitely so far, most notably the sustainability aspect that has helped bring the city international attention. Surprisingly, the most important part he noted, was that it’s the economic viability that drives the sustainability. Still, originally he took some flack. (More on the sustainability side later.)

“Some business people probably thumbed their noses at me, ‘Just a treehugging mayor,'” he said. “But if we’re creating a cool, attractive city, then we’ll attract and retain smart, young people.”

He said he could take the community and the way it comes together to help make Grand Rapids special for granted, but talks with other mayors show him it’s anything but the norm. Take away any one of the sectors of the community, and the city is nothing like the image we see now. Everyone works in harmony and helps create a unique, innovative and driving city.

He said the EPA came a few years back, to find out “what’s in the water that makes Grand Rapids’ community so special.” Their basic conclusion was it’s rare, if not unique.

He likes to base a lot of his vision on Portland, Oregon. And he took credit for some people in Oregon calling Grand Rapids, “Oregon East.”

“We’re probably five years behind where they are,” he said. “But even in some environmental aspects, we’ve surpassed them.”

He talked about how since college, he hasn’t had to take a job that he didn’t want. It’s worked out well, although he’s had some times where he completely switched directions; including the time he sold his dad’s business and decided to go to seminary school in his mid-30s.

But each step in life should open new doors, he said.

“If you take the risk, generally good things happen,” he said, “but not without loss.”

A professor in one of his seminary classes taught him about the change philosophy he holds.

“All change is perceived as loss and accompanied by grief,” he said. “No matter what you’re leaving things behind.”

He said if his nine-year tenure ended now, he’d be able to look back on it as a success. His vision was grand enough, that plenty has been accomplished and he knows not everything could be done. He also believes that the vision is now embedded in the community and it can continue to grow (it’s part of the whole sustainability thing).

One things for sure, Mayor Heartwell is a super nice guy and has helped Grand Rapids evolve into a modern town. He said we’ll meet up again later in the year, over beers, one thing Grand Rapids definitely knows.

2 Responses to “George Heartwell, Mayor of Grand Rapids”

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