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Data Goes Hyper-Local in Grand Rapids

by Steve Wilson

My early career experiences with nonprofits leading local community and economic development created a perfect pathway for me to enter place-based philanthropy. Back then, I often looked to local foundations to provide both support and leadership as we envisioned future infrastructure needs.

Nearly 15 years ago, as I rode in a helicopter flying low in the skies above the Michigan shoreline communities of Saugatuck, Holland, Grand Haven, and Muskegon, I pointed out the sand dune being rescued from development by the Nature Conservancy to my companion. Beside me was the executive with Southwest Airlines who led their logistics planning. I told him the coalition conserving the dune was one of many regional collaborations emerging around the environment, the economy, transportation, education, and tourism. He quizzed me about regional demographics as we headed back to Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.

Responding to his questions, I told him that the regional population for the Combined Statistical Area (CSA) of Grand Rapids-Wyoming-Muskegon was 1.3 million1, a more convincing number than the 196,000 city population or 574,000 for the county.2,3 By aggregating regional attributes and the corresponding data, Grand Rapids’ regional air alliance successfully “landed” Southwest Airlines.

The regional collaborations I referenced in that conversation were funded by several foundations located in Grand Rapids and West Michigan, including the one I direct today (the Frey Foundation). The funders’ 1990’s-era goal was to establish a “regional mindset,” driven in large part by 21st century realities of metro economies: density, smart growth, a creative, attractive place for young professionals, and an environment fostering science, engineering and tech clusters.

With philanthropy playing a lead role, our approach of using regionally aggregated data encouraged development of a $211 million convention center and the relocation of Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine to Grand Rapids, just two examples of more than a dozen large-scale projects, totaling some $420 million.

The strategy worked. Grand Rapids’ national standing soon began to rise as the density, economic diversity, and natural attractiveness of the region lured new investment and employers, encouraged smart growth and became a hub for what urbanist Richard Florida called the “creative class.”4 The new convention center attracted large numbers of regional and national conventions, start-up breweries and tech firms were booming, and Southwest Airlines was soon operating seven flights a day from GRR.

Grand Rapids suddenly made top ten lists, including “Hottest Real Estate Market” and “Second Best City in America for a New Small Business.” Business Insider Magazine named Grand Rapids the #1 place Millennials flock to for jobs and Forbes named the city the fastest growing economy in the U.S. Yet, for many Grand Rapids residents, life in the city was anything but Top Ten quality.

Today, Grand Rapids nonprofits and their funders use hyper-local data to inform a broad range of local program strategies from early childhood to job skills development, from city parks master planning to zoning for commercial corridors slated for economic revitalization.

A watershed moment occurred in 2014, when the U.S. Census Bureau issued its American Community Survey showing that African-American residents in Grand Rapids were three times more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts, and Hispanic residents were twice as likely to be unemployed. After digging into this report and others, the Grand Rapids Press had this to say in an editorial in 2015. “Wide disparities in social and economic well-being ultimately undermine our progress. We must acknowledge and begin to understand the problem, and work together to make Grand Rapids a place where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.”5

This polarity was in the national spotlight the following year when U.S. News & World Report placed Grand Rapids 13th on its list of best cities to live, while Forbes Magazine listed Grand Rapids as the second worst place to live for African-Americans.

Fortunately, by the time the Forbes article broke, a handful of community coalitions were already digging deep into local data to discover how disparities in public health, education, and economics played out in Grand Rapids when disaggregated by race.

The Grand Rapids African American Health Institute (GRAAHI) is a case in point. Established as a collaborative partnership, GRAAHI collects detailed neighborhood data while mapping health disparities across the city and county. Early funding partners included Grand Valley State University, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Dyer-Ives Foundation, and Grand Rapids Community Foundation, some of the same foundations that had once funded the research into regionalism I had cited to Southwest Airlines. These foundations were aware of the divergent data and wanted to unpack the specific nature of local disparities.

Much of the emerging hyper-local research into racial and economic disparities was made possible through partnerships with the Johnson Center for Philanthropy’s Community Research Institute (CRI). With support from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation in 2001, CRI conducted its first in-depth community survey to provide baseline data about the needs of residents. A specific emphasis of this early study was to characterize disparities between the general population and various subpopulations.

CRI provided accessible data tools, enabling community coalitions like GRAAHI, neighborhood groups, and individuals to do comparative analyses informing policy and program direction. The initial 2001 survey was broadened with the support of additional funders, becoming VoiceGR (later VoiceKent), with CRI’s research team striving to reach a sample of respondents that proportionally represented the composition of the city and county populations.

The power of hyper-local data unmasked the deep racial and economic disparities that Grand Rapids residents were living with, even when it came to a seemingly innocuous question like, “How do you like living in Greater Grand Rapids?” Although the aggregated responses showed that more than 80% of those surveyed gave the city and county high marks, when data was split by race, economic class, and neighborhood geography the answers varied, with some sub-groups ranking the area significantly lower.6

Today, Grand Rapids nonprofits and their funders use hyper-local data to inform a broad range of local program strategies from early childhood to job skills development, from city parks master planning to zoning for commercial corridors slated for economic revitalization.

As I look back upon the approach I used in the early days of my career, I understand the need for both aggregated and disaggregated data — but not one at the expense of the other. The use of aggregated data truly fostered significant regional growth in West Michigan. Yet that same data became detrimental when used to mask the fact that many area residents did not share in the pronounced prosperity. The added tool of hyper-local data has been effective at breaking down the decades-old structures of racism as we use equity as a lens for new community infrastructure and initiatives.


Photo: Steve Wilson
Steve Wilson
 retires this month from the Frey Foundation, where he has been president since 2012. Before joining the foundation, Wilson spent nearly four years as executive director of the Ruth Mott Foundation in his hometown of Flint. Prior to that, he led the Grand Rapids convention and visitors bureau, now called Experience Grand Rapids, from 1992 to 2008.


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  1. City Population. (2018). USA: Combined Metropolitan Areas. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from https://www.citypopulation.de/php/usa-combmetro.php
  2. United States Census Bureau. (2000). Grand Rapids, Michigan Population; Census 2010 and 2000 Interactive Map, Demographics, Statistics, and Quick Facts. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from http://censusviewer.com.
  3. U.S. Census 2000 data sets the CSA of Grand Rapids-Wyoming-Muskegon at 1,308,805, with a Grand Rapids city population of 196,831 and Kent County’s population at 574,336. As of 2017, those populations are estimated at CSA: 1,456,935, City of Grand Rapids: 198,829, and Kent County: 648,594. (United States Census Bureau. (2018). American Fact Finder. Retrieved June 11, 2018 from https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml).
  4. Florida, R. (2002). The rise of the creative class. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  5. mLive (June 14, 2015). How can Grand Rapids solve its persistent social and economic problems? Retrieved from https://www.mlive.com/opinion/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2015/06/how_can_grand_rapids_solve_its.html
  6. Community Research Institute. (2016). VoiceGR 2016 Results. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from http://johnsoncenter.org/resources/community-data/voicegr2016. The full text of the original question was: “For yourself, what grade would you give the Greater Grand Rapids Area as a place to live overall?”

Comment(1)

  1. Reply
    Dottie Johnson says

    Well stated Steve, and oh so true.

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