Last month we took the Grand Rapids Press to task for uncritically promoting in its editorial pages Amway founder Rich DeVos's latest claim upon the public purse -- i.e., the local and state tax subsidy for his new hotel downtown. Apparently to show how even-handed it is when it comes to pyramid-builders, on Tuesday the Press used its editorial page (and earlier its front page) to lavish praise upon the Van Andel Institute, the big project of DeVos's late partner Jay Van Andel.
The Press cannot say enough nice things about the VAI. It is a "grand venture" and an "enormous gift of the late Jay and Betty Van Andel" that will "enrich the local economy". It will "bring the intellectual capital the area needs", "foster start-up companies", and transform scientific "discoveries into marketable products". The Press was mute on whether the VAI can also stop bullets and leap buildings in a single bound.
All of the Press hype for the VAI is calculated to serve a specific purpose: Rally the locals to pitch in and help Van Andel's heirs make a success of the VAI. The Press argues that we are obligated to do this, because the "Van Andel family continues to show its commitment to medical and scientific research". There's a few problems with this dubious logic. First, what claim do the Van Andels have upon our time, energy, and dollars to support their private endeavors? Second, why do the Van Andels need any help from us when their parents supposedly committed the bulk of their $2.6 billion Amway fortune to the VAI?
Finally, as reported here last week, the Van Andel heirs have not been forthcoming on how much or how little of that alleged fortune will actually be committed to the VAI. In fact, they have been vigorously passing the hat to collect other people's money to finance the VAI.
None of our complaint about this is to dismiss the possibility of the VAI being a worthwhile venture. But it is in the end a private venture, as it should be. It also appears to be a risky one, because the fact remains that Grand Rapids is NOT a center for "life science" research and the likelihood of River City ever transforming itself into Bio-Tech Central is very small. This is not to denigrate the charms of our hometown. It's simply an acknowledgment of the fact that major centers for "life sciences" are already established elsewhere in the country.
Another problem, as noted here the other day, is that the venture capital for new businesses that might be spawned from VAI isn't found here in Michigan. That's why they leave the winter-water-wonderland for green pastures on the East and West Coasts. This brings to mind the original purpose of Amway heir Dick DeVos's Windquest company. It was supposed to fill the venture capital gap in West Michigan. Now Windquest is manufacturing metal shelving. So, if the Amway fortune cannot be brought to bear one way or another to make a go of this dream of a "life sciences" corridor in G.R., why are we being called upon to do so?
Yet the Press hectors us on behalf of the Van Andels to help Grand Rapids become a hotbed for "life science" research and development to ensure the success of the VAI. I think I'll pass on that. Either the Van Andels and their co-horts, the DeVoses, have the bucks to make the VAI pay off, and so they don't need our help. Or they don't have the bucks, contrary to years of promoting themselves as multi-billionaires, so why shouldn't we think all of this is not just another generation of hype to get our dollars into their pockets?
If you ask me, the emperor has no clothes and the suck-up Press will be the last one to report that fact.