Many people throughout the country are familiar with the name Dick DeVos. His wife, Betsy DeVos, is a longtime Republican official who now serves as the U.S. Secretary of Education. What’s more, Dick DeVos himself ran for the governorship of Michigan in 2006, a race that he lost by the narrowest of margins to the then-incumbent governor, Jennifer Granholm.
All of this DeVos family politicking has led many to indelibly associate Dick DeVos’ name with Republican politics. But this is a woefully incomplete picture of the lifelong entrepreneur, businessman and education reformer. In fact, Dick DeVos has only spent a tiny fraction of his life in anything related to politics. Although he is primarily known for his involvement in Republican causes, throughout DeVos’ home state of Michigan, he is revered for his key role in saving the West Michigan region and Grand Rapids, Michigan, in particular, from a fate that almost certainly would have resembled that of Detroit.
From maverick education reformer to a city’s savior
DeVos had been a successful entrepreneur and businessman since his early 20s. By the time he was in his mid 30s, DeVos had become intensely interested in education reform. Specifically, DeVos’ pet project was designing schools and curricula that could help inner-city youth transcend the constraints and impositions of failing urban schools, allowing the best and brightest from America’s ghettos to thrive in ways that would have otherwise been impossible.
Despite the many successes that DeVos has had in this area, including creating novel education systems like that seen at the internationally recognized West Michigan Aviation Academy, DeVos quickly realized how stark the challenges were that students, parents and communities faced in areas like inner-city Detroit. DeVos’ Detroit Urban Learning School has been an unqualified success. Yet he saw that once a neighborhood passes a certain threshold of blight and decay, both physical and civic, there is little that can be done for all but the most talented students.
By 1990, these experiences had left DeVos with the realization that the only way to avoid the total social collapse seen in Detroit was to prevent the chain reaction of productive-class flight and increasing crime from ever reaching that critical threshold from which return was impossible.
As DeVos saw many of the same conditions taking shape in his hometown of Grand Rapids, he decided that swift action needed to be taken in order to avert a Detroit-style catastrophic descent into the black hole of urban catastrophe.
He formed the Grand Action Committee, a group of some of the area’s top business leaders, which was dedicated to fomenting investment in the Downtown Grand Rapids area. DeVos himself invested tens of millions of dollars of his own fortune, quickly bringing to fruition such major projects as the DeVos Place Convention Center and the Van Andel Arena. DeVos was also behind the creation of the Medical Mile, a one-mile corridor on the city’s east side that has attracted some of the top medical talent in the country across various specialties.
Today, Grand Rapids ranks as the state’s fastest growing and most desirable city.
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