The Great Divide

Like two prizefighters circling inside a ring, the east and west sides of Michigan haven’t always seen eye to eye. Competing economic and political agendas play a role, as do envy and distrust. So what would happen if the two sides joined forces?


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 There’s no line of demarcation separating east and west Michigan. And in an official sense, neither “place” is really a place at all. But if you think in terms of regions with economic identities, both the east and west sides of the state are distinct entities with their own leaders, specific agendas, and diverse cultures.

While relations between the two sides have been fairly cordial of late — productive, even — the recent camaraderie likely has more to do with the struggling economy and limited resources than anything else.

“The economic stress that everybody is feeling has forced people to realize that if we don’t get Michigan healthy again, none of us will thrive,” says Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan in Lansing. “So that’s created an environment in which people at the local level are more willing to work across boundaries than in the past.”

Twenty years ago, resentment and mistrust often dominated the discussions between the leaders of the two regions. Politicians on the west side resented what they saw as disproportionate state resources going to Detroit, while business executives engaged in virtual hand-to-hand combat to expand the economic climate for their own sides of the state.

The competition wasn’t so much for specific private sector projects as it was a case of one-upmanship, in which each side found it necessary to match the other’s development jewels.

Around the time downtown Detroit was welcoming Comerica Park and Ford Field, for example, downtown Grand Rapids was looking for funds for its DeVos Place convention center — and got them. It wasn’t lost on the west-siders that the east-siders had gotten their stadiums, and Grand Rapids wanted it known that Michigan’s second-largest city shouldn’t be forgotten.

While the east side has size, population, infrastructure, and a large industrial base, the west side boasts less crime, lower taxes, a more modern infrastructure, and — it argues — a better work ethic and overall quality of life.

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