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Former manufacturing hub explores health care industry

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Steve Chiotakis: Even before the recession, the state of Michigan was deep in an economic slump. In the city of Grand Rapids, manufacturing was once king. But a lot of its factories have since shut down. So the past few years, the city’s been embarking on a new economy. In part one of a two-part series, reporter Jay Field explains.

Jay Field: In the last 10 years, Grand Rapids has lost a third of its manufacturing jobs. Roughly 11 percent of people here are still out of work, but you wouldn’t know it strolling around downtown.

George Bosnjak: It actually looks different everyday when we drive in, new construction, new chunk of skyline, new cranes.

George Bosnjak and I are touring the city on foot. He’s with The Right Place, the big economic development agency in town. We head for a hill above downtown. It’s called Medical Mile, home to two new cancer centers and a new medical school, run by Michigan State University. John Logie, the former Mayor of Grand Rapids, says the city has changed a lot over the years.

Bosnjak: When I was running in 1991, I took a pad of paper, a little ring pad and paper, and I walked the four blocks down there. There were 76 vacant storefronts in those four short blocks.

Logie worked with a group of wealthy local philanthropists to try to revitalize Grand Rapids. First, a $75 million dollar arena was built. Shortly after, Jay Van Andel, one of the co-founders of Amway, walked into Logie’s office and said he wanted to build a state-of-the-art, medical research foundation.

David Van Andel, Jay’s son, runs the Van Andel Institute, dedicated to Parkinson’s, Cancer and other disease and biomedical research.

David Van Andel:And that now, in turn, is attracting more and more investment, as well as more and more people, to an industry that, 10 years ago, didn’t really exist on this side of the state.

David Van Andel expects businesses affiliated with Medical Mile to generate hundreds of badly needed jobs in the coming years. But Paul Isley, an economist at nearby Grand Valley State University, says people who’ve lost manufacturing jobs face a tough transition, as they compete for positions in health care.

Paul Isley: The skills necessary for those jobs are different. And so there’s a lag time between when someone loses their job and when they can retrain, find a job that’s available and get back into another job.

It’s a challenge area businesses and universities must address, if more local residents are to benefit from the new life sciences industry transforming their city.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., I’m Jay Field for Marketplace.

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