Important now: It’s an employers’ market; you might find that good talent is more available now with people willing to relocate and work for government, a more stable environment than the private sector. Do not divest from anything that will help you in the recovery, including personnel.
Like many communities, the pandemic forced the city of Grand Rapids to lock down back in March, but Mark Washington, city manager, and his team were already in GSD mode. “Getting stuff done” is a maxim he lives by, a carryover trait he brought from his previous city jobs in Austin and Ft. Worth, TX.
It meant never missing a beat on implementing a four-year strategic plan already in place and even accelerating key aspects of it especially when civil unrest descended upon the city, adding more layers of complication to an already struggling economy.
The lessons Washington learned from the financial collapse of 2008-2010 and other crises like homelessness and social inequities were building blocks for how he has helped the city navigate through COVID, adapt to constant change and even transform itself permanently.
In addition, he acquired his hard work ethic from his mother, military-like discipline from his father and grasp of crisis management from former mentors like Marc Ott, previous city manager of Austin, TX. Washington is confident his city will emerge from the pandemic a much better place than when COVID first unleashed its ferocity.
He says the ability to make a difference in the local community, especially during this unprecedented time, inspires him most in his current position. “There are certain issues that are global or national that I may have an opinion about or some influence over but when it comes to the city, I am able to see a direct correlation between my efforts and the outcomes,” says Washington. “I am able to improve the quality of life for local residents and really serve and help people. It is a motivator that makes me excited about coming to work every day.”
In the following interview Washington reveals how the city is helping businesses recover from the impacts of COVID, why the riots in May hastened reforms in the police department, and which lessons learned will prompt permanent changes in the city.
Can you summarize how you are recovering from the impacts of COVID and some of the ways you are helping local businesses?
Like many other communities, we had a mandatory stay at home order from March to June and that impacted everyone. Beginning in March our focus has been on emergency response and recovery. Initially, we adopted a budget that was $22 million less for fiscal year 2021 [compared to FY 2020] because of the anticipated revenue shortfalls due to the business closures that occurred. We are also projecting a $5 to $10 million shortfall that we have not accounted for in terms of income taxes. We still need to maintain essential services and also help the most vulnerable in our communities.
For example, we have utility bill assistance and parking assistance; we suspended parking fees downtown to support businesses particularly for retailers that need to park near their venues. We are assisting with small business loans and grants directly in partnership with the Chamber and other community partners.
We are also allowing for outdoor gatherings and have basically turned our streets into dining areas. We closed off streets and opened up more sidewalks and parking spots to create street café and dining experiences, which has allowed businesses to serve their patrons in a safe environment. Right now, we are trying to winterize those “social zones” and make sure they are supplied with outdoor heating lamps as well as coverings and tents where possible.
We have businesses that are experimenting with igloos for single party dining where a family can come in and dine and be separated from others all within a bubble that is protected from the elements and is heated. Things like that have helped businesses survive.
In the midst of the pandemic, your city experienced some intense social unrest due to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. What did the city do to help quell this and where do you stand now?
Breonna Taylor is a native of the Grand Rapids area; even though she was killed in Louisville, Kentucky we had quite an attachment to her story because she is a native here and some in our community had a sensitive reaction to the issues around the police use of force.
Unfortunately, we did experience riots in our city, especially in the downtown area and that added difficulty to the businesses already suffering from lower sales and revenue. Now they were faced with recovery in the midst of riots so we had to do a lot to rebuild our community, not only the physical part of it but socially too.
We had to build greater trust from community members particularly those disproportionately impacted by economic and criminal justice issues; we’re talking primarily about people of color. In addition to all the other things we were doing to accelerate recovery from COVID, some weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our community were amplified.
We knew this going into the pandemic and had a four-year strategic plan already in place, including improving and reforming certain aspects of our police department. We found that we didn’t need to change the plan but needed to accelerate its implementation.
Our police chief engaged the community in reimagining our police department and came up with a three-year strategic plan that includes more neighborhood policing, using more social services, reaching out to the homeless community, and being a part of the homeless outreach team.
We found that the issues of public safety not only affected individuals in the neighborhoods but also affected consumer and investor confidence in the community. Public safety is a key pillar of economic recovery both from a social resilience but also from a business confidence standpoint.
You mention building trust within the community. How have you been able to achieve this?
You do it one issue at a time; first by listening and not assuming. We all had to take a step back and pause to make sure we were hearing what the real concerns were. Some of those concerns were expressed in writing, in chants and demonstrations and unfortunately some people expressed it in lawlessness in the riots. But all of it was indicative of frustration. This community needed to know that we heard them, we are taking it seriously and figuring out how we can get better.
That was the state of the country. A lot of it was trickle down frustration about what was happening nationally. We have gone many years without a police-involved shooting that resulted in a homicide and have to accept that what we are dealing with is much bigger than Grand Rapids. We were not necessarily part of the fatal shooting problem in Minneapolis or Louisville, but we want to be part of the solution.
During the pandemic we had virtual town hall meetings about policing and other issues. We had several town hall meetings where thousands of people tuned in and voiced their concerns, their hopes, aspirations and frustrations about things they wanted to see changed in our police department. From that our police department came out with a new three-year plan that will make us the safest and most trusted city of all midsized cities.
What are some of the changes that have occurred as a result of COVID and are there any beneficial changes that could become permanent?
The social zones are something we will end up keeping because it has made the community better not only during the pandemic but we expect also post-pandemic. We are allowing people to carry alcohol beverages not just at one business but around the whole area. It’s almost like creating a festival-like environment but doing it all the time and allowing people to experience retail and dining outdoors.
Normally the summer is our busy festival season, but we had a lot of people concerned about the safety of the participants as well as the performers, so our spring and early summer festivals were cancelled. One our biggest festival where we have 300,000 to 400,000 people was cancelled.
We like to be supportive of festivals through licensing and permitting but in this instance, we had to work with the community to organize an event in late August to early October where we able to have small outdoor gatherings of no more than 100 people. We had a series of 35 events over that time period where we allowed for outdoor activation. We have found that might be something we will continue post pandemic during our normal festival season.
Our park systems and park amenities were one of the most utilized public assets because they are safe. We had earlier thought we could divest in parks to save on personnel and other costs. But the reality was, the utilization was so high we had to increase our investment in parks and maintenance and continue to accelerate our capital projects so people can have outdoor venues.
We are making sure we are a city that is prepared for major outdoor events not just on a small-scale venue like a neighborhood park. We are looking at building a multipurpose corridor that could potentially house an amphitheater that will also attract mixed use businesses and mixed-income residents. The pandemic allowed us to take a step back and address our immediate and short-term needs but also figure out how we want to look coming out of it.
The public-private partnership conversation we had around a project called 201 Market began to accelerate because of what we have learned, and we are in a good place now. We are looking at making the infrastructure investments that will hopefully spark a lot of development in that corridor to potentially include an outdoor amphitheater, and even some sporting venues .
Also, our effort to restore the Grand River is a game changer in terms of economic development and making sure Grand Rapids is a destination of choice throughout the country. This is another example of a project that was strategically on the radar prior to the pandemic and becoming more vital post pandemic because it is about outdoor recreation (see related story in this edition of CityRevive).
What are the most important lessons learned from the COVID impacts?
We know that people of color have been impacted disproportionately prior to COVID and more so since COVID. We have to be more deliberate around our efforts to increase equitable opportunities to businesses and people of color and have doubled down on our efforts toward social inclusion.
I have created an Equity and Engagement Office and we are being more deliberate in transparency and oversight by the police department. I have also appointed a Director of Public Accountability and Oversight. These are new offices created this year and happened to coincide with the pandemic. We had to accelerate the formalizing of these offices.
The economic crisis has put a drain on organizational resources and while we have a tendency to enforce hiring freezes and layoffs we can’t stop hiring, especially in key positions. Right now, it’s an employers’ market. What you might find now is the talent pool might be more available with people willing to consider relocating and working for government, a more stable environment than the private sector.
I hired a new economic development director from Ohio and he started working for me for about two months before physically moving to Grand Rapids. I also hired a systems transportation director out of Washington DC who relocated to the Grand Rapids area. Those were key positions that were part of our recovery. My philosophy was: do not divest from anything that will help us in recovery. We had to increase our investment in those areas and that included personnel as well.
Another lesson: you have to maintain connectivity with the workplace. Most of our government services are delivered through people who know that they are our best and most important resource. I did not want one of my first fiscal sustainability strategies to be layoffs. We did everything we could to make sure that was the last tool we used in toolbox. We froze and delayed positions, we cut seasonal positions but thankfully we did not layoff any of our permanent employees. That really helped morale and I realize not all organizations are able to do this, but it is not the first tool we utilized in responding to the economic crisis.