Bliss seeks to expand racial equity as she nears re-election campaign

By: - January 12, 2019 11:07 am

Rosalynn Bliss meets with entrepreneurs, Jan. 10, 2019 in Grand Rapids | Nick Manes

As the mayor of Michigan’s second-largest city prepares to run for a second term in office, she’s focused on continuing to make Grand Rapids a business-friendly city for enterprises of all sizes.  

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, a long time city commissioner who was elected as Grand Rapids’ first female mayor in 2016, has prioritized trying to eliminate historic racial disparities in the city by focusing on support for neighborhood and business districts for people of color.

Rosalynn Bliss

Speaking to a group of mostly African-American entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s on Thursday night, Bliss said that as she ramps up her campaign for her second and last mayoral run this year, she plans to double down on ensuring that Grand Rapids is a welcoming place for all businesses.

“For the city, my hope is that we are an incredibly business friendly city, no matter what size your company is,” Bliss said. “The heart and soul of our local economy is local businesses so we need to make sure we’re a space and a place that supports our local businesses. We need to do that at the city [level], but we have to do it as individuals, so we have to make decisions.”

But there’s long history of racial and economic disparities both in the city and its system of government.

The city in recent years has been a hotbed of new development and investment and has experienced a population growth spurt of almost 6 percent from 2010 to 2017, vastly outpacing the state. However, it’s also been labeled one of the worst places in the country for African-Americans, largely due to the high unemployment rate.

That distinction has been something of a rallying cry for Black entrepreneurs in the city. Jamiel Robinson, a co-founder of the Grand Rapids Association of Black Businesses (GRAAB) who’s also seeking to develop a Black-owned business district on the city’s southeast side, says that access to capital for minorities to open businesses remains a struggle in the city.

Jamiel Robinson, Jan. 10, 2019 in Grand Rapids | Nick Manes

“When you start looking at the Black community, we haven’t had real opportunities to really access and obtain wealth just through the history of us being in this country,” Robinson said.

Bliss also pointed to a 2015 report from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights that determined that “reducing inequality” in Michigan would offer a $1.1 billion tax boost.

“For me, [reducing inequality is] a core issue because if we’re not a great place for everyone, then we’re not a great place,” Bliss said. “It was really heartbreaking. There’s so many things about our city that I love, but I’m not proud of that.”

As the city has grown, it’s also faced challenges with housing. While an apartment building boom has taken off in recent years and the city has been a favorite in the state for Low Income Housing Tax Credits, the federal program typically used to build affordable housing, most projects are still considered “market rate” apartments and often out of reach for working class people.

Bliss pointed to the city’s “aggressive” pursuit of LIHTC housing projects and efforts to amend its zoning code to incentivize more housing as examples of strategies that Grand Rapids has utilized.

Bliss said that lack of affordable housing is “the greatest issue I have wrestled with since sitting in this seat.” She also noted that in her capacity as mayor and the city commission have spent “hours and hours” working to figure out “what we can do at the policy level and at a governmental level to prevent displacement and gentrification, ensure affordable housing throughout the city (and) that people aren’t pushed out of neighborhoods.”

Much of Grand Rapids’ ongoing struggles with inequality date back nearly a century when the practice of “redlining” was used frequently as a means of keeping Blacks and other minorities out of specific areas.

But another, even more historical point, has been on the minds lately of some constituents in Grand Rapids. For more than a century, the city has been made up of three different wards, each represented by two part-time city commissioners, with a part-time mayor serving as a commissioner at-large. Day-to-day management of the city has been handled by an appointed city manager and other staff.

Prior to the early-1900s, however, Grand Rapids had a strong mayor system of government with 11 wards scattered around the city. The history of powerful business lobbying to change that. Recent chatter about moving back to a more representative system was outlined in a report late late month in Revue Magazine.

Asked about that on Thursday night, Bliss said the legal implications of revisiting and possibly opening up the city’s charter have been discussed at City Hall lately. Ultimately, she said it’s not city government’s role to spearhead an initiative. But similar to the city’s recent decision to enact term limits, Bliss said she would accept it should enough residents come together to drive that change.

“My opinion is … whatever happens has to be driven by the community,” Bliss said. “It has to be a grassroots effort. It has to be a community effort. It can’t be led by the city and it can’t be driven by me.”

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.