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Why is the west side of Michigan doing so much better than the east side?

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In January, Stephen Moore wrote an article for the Wall St. Journal entitled, “Why the Rest of Michigan Isn’t Singing the Motown Blues.” In it he discussed the discrepancy in unemployment between Grand Rapids (then at 5.9%, 5.6% in April, 2014) and Detroit (then at 15.1%, 14.5% in April, 2014).

Moore credited West Michigan’s current robust economy as being the result of good government policy (via Gov. Rick Snyder), a diversified economy, a union-lite business environment, a strong regional work ethic, and cheap energy, provided by shale. These are all important factors, and it is difficult to pinpoint what manufactures success at a particular point in time (after all, Detroit considerably overshadowed Grand Rapids as a producer of jobs and wealth for much of the 20th century). Moore did not touch on one aspect that is inescapable to those who live in West Michigan: that is, who settled the area. And that was the Dutch.

If you look at a Census map of primary ancestry by county, you will note that West Michigan has a three-county area with “Dutch” written all over it. These are Ottawa, Allegan, and Kent counties where Grand Rapids and Holland (both referenced by Moore) are located. The rest of the state was settled by Germans, except for the northwest corner of the Upper Peninsula, which was settled by Finns.

Many people underestimate the commercial nature of the Dutch, but they have throughout history turned less promising areas into thriving commercial centers. In the 16th century they created an international shipping empire out of a swampy lowland country, and in the New World they brought New York City, the center of trade in the colonies, into being.

West Michigan was largely settled by Dutch looking for freedom to worship in their Dutch Calvinist tradition. In 1900 40% of Grand Rapids was Dutch, and in 1990, 300,000 people of Dutch descent lived in West Michigan, the largest area of Dutch settlement in the United States.

The Dutch chose to settle here not only for religious reasons, but also economic. In the 1840s Michigan was already link by rail to New York City, so there was a potential market already established. The Hollanders quickly became known for their industry, their frugality, and their hospitality. Their Calvinist religious beliefs only reinforced their natural tendency to materially prosper. Entrepreneurship was in their blood.

They were also civic-minded and remain this way today. The Van Andel, DeVos, and Meijer family invested heavily in Grand Rapids when it was stagnating, and their money and ideas have succeeded time and time again in attracting both tourists and mental capital. The most obvious recent example is Rick Devos's creation of ArtPrize, less than a decade old and already an international festival venue.

In describing the atmosphere for doing business in West Michigan, business broker Max Friar recently said, “What makes Grand Rapids different, in my opinion, is a strong, conservative, honest work ethic that runs thick through the small business community. I think that West Michiganders like to do business with each other because in general there is a sense of trust that permeates business relations. Certainly companies have contracts, but I genuinely smile at how many people do business on a handshake. That says a lot about a community. When people ask me if I work outside of West Michigan, I tell them yes, but honestly I prefer not to."

The influence of the Dutch in developing the business mores of the West Michigan area is often overlooked, but it should not be. We are who we are today because of who the people of yesterday were and what they did.

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