The full-court press is on, folks, to persuade you that the Van Andel Institute's expansion plan is the best thing to hit River City since, well, ever! The movers and shakers assure us that the VAI, a.k.a. Hope on the Hill, will make Grand Rapids a hotbed of bio-tech entrepenuerialism if only we do everything necessary to fund the $150 million it needs for its expansion.
The hype machine got rolling with the Grand Rapids Press giving the VAI's press releases front page coverage on two days and then a big thumb's up on the editorial page. Last week's edition of the usually sensible Grand Rapids Business Journal treated us with a Page Three spread of the VAI's glorious future. (Perhaps to offset the dour article next it reporting that the latest "public-private" venture of the pyramid-builders -- i.e., DeVos Place Convention Center -- will run over a million bucks of red ink both this year and the next.) Now this week's MiBizWest is breathlessly extolling the wonders of the VAI.
However, hope doesn't drive people as hard as fear, so a second message is also being put out by the Hype on the Hill: Embrace the bio-tech future because manufacturing is a dead-end. Birgit Klohs of the Right Place program, founded for the explicit purpose of retaining and recruiting manufacturers -- you know, the companies that bring a big tax base and real jobs for regular people to our community -- has jumped ship to embrace the VAI as the engine for bio-tech riches. Klohs gushed: "The institute is five years old and has, I believe, gone beyond anybody's expectations in anchoring what I think will be the future job creators of the region." [My emphasis.] Quite a statement for the region's official advocate for manufacturing: Bio-tech, not manufacturing, will be tomorrow's employer.
Other VAI proponents have been more pointed. Dr. Luis Tomatis, the founding CEO of the VAI, said: "The industrial era is finished." The Ambassador, a.k.a. Peter Secchia, has been promoting the need to move MSU's moribund medical school to Grand Rapids to provide the VAI with a university medical research partner to facilitate the receipt of government grant money. In a conversation I had with him yesterday, he put it bluntly: "Manufacturing is dead in Michigan."
Let's say that's true. (It's not, but bear with me, folks.) What good does a bio-tech corridor along Michigan Street do for factory rats like you and me, dear readers? According to the VAI's hype (ahem, I mean press releases), its expansion will add 400 jobs. OK, but I'm not a scientist, and I don't think there are many of us presently working in industry who are. Sure, it'll be nice to have a few well-compensated eggheads added to our fine community, but these new jobs Klohs promises will be for these newcomers, not you and me.
As for the jobs you and I might get at these bio-tech business start-ups that the VAI is promising to spin off, the big problem there is that Ann Arbor already has long experience with that phenomenon. The successful ones pull up stakes and leave the state to go where the venture capital is on the East and West Coasts.
Now here's the deal. None of the VAI's promoters of a grand and glorious bio-tech future for River City owe either you or me a good job. If they want to take a roll of the dice on making Grand Rapids a bio-tech center, I wish them well. Meanwhile, manufacturing and other industry will do A-OK in providing direct and indirect employment for us if left alone and not burdened with subsidizing the bio-tech boosters. Conversely, the VAI doesn't have a claim upon our tax dollars or government backing of bonds or any other public favor to make a go of the bio-tech dream.
Let the VAI rise or fall on its own dime, especially when the Van Andel family remains evasive about how much of their fortune is supporting the institute. Maybe the local media should be doing the full-court press on that issue instead of reprinting the VAI's press releases.