Facts and History

Image of the blue bridge in downtown Grand Rapids Overview and History

The City of Grand Rapids is the second largest city in the state of Michigan. It encompasses an area of approximately 45 square miles. Grand Rapids is located in west central Michigan, roughly 30 miles east of Lake Michigan. The Grand River, a major state waterway, runs through the city's center. The city's population is 197,800 according to the 2000 census. Grand Rapids is the county seat of Kent County. The county has a population count of over 500,000, covering 856 square miles. Our metropolitan area has a population of over 1,000,000.

Over 2,000 years ago, the Hopewell Indians occupied the Grand River Valley. They were known for their large burial mounds. About 300 years ago, the Ottawa Indians moved into the area and lived in several villages along the river. When the British and French arrived, the Ottawa traded fur pelts for European metal and textile goods.

One French trader named Louis Campau established a trading post here in 1826. He was not the first permanent white settler. A Baptist minister named Isaac McCoy was first. He arrived in 1825. Campau became the most important settler in 1831.  He did this when he bought what is now the entire downtown business district of Grand Rapids. He bought it from the federal government for $90.

By 1838 the settlement had incorporated as a village. It encompassed an area of approximately three-quarters of a mile. The first formal census occurred in 1845. This announced a population of 1,510 and recorded an area of four square miles. In 1850, the burgeoning community became a city with a population of 2,686. By 1857, the City of Grand Rapids' boundary totaled 10.5 square miles.

Grand Rapids became known worldwide as a leader in the production of fine furniture. This came after an international exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Today, Grand Rapids is still a world leader in the production of office furniture.

Grand Rapids has a history of leadership. In 1881, the country's first hydro-electric plant came to life on the City's west side. Grand Rapids became the first city in the United States to add fluoride to its drinking water in 1945. Grand Rapids lays claims to the first scheduled air service. We are also responsible for the first publicly-funded art installation.

With the new century, the people of Grand Rapids numbered 82,565. In 1916 the citizens of Grand Rapids voted to adopt a home rule charter. This abolished the old aldermanic systems. A commission-manager form of government took its place. This was one of the first in the country. That 1916 Charter, although amended several times, is still in effect.

Symbols of Grand Rapids

Aaron Turner was the City Clerk in 1850. He designed the Grand Rapids City Seal which the City Council adopted on June 25, 1850. The seal depicts a hand reaching down from the clouds holding the scales of justice. The motto “Motu Viget,” means “strength in activity.” Centered on the seal is the American eagle protected by a shield. At the eagle’s feet are the points of arrows.

Joe Kinnebrew designed the Grand Rapids City logo which the City adopted in March of 1982. He was a Grand Rapids native. The three-color logo incorporates the sun in yellow, the Calder stabile in red, and the Grand River in blue. The logo provides a uniform symbol of the City of Grand Rapids. It enables the public to recognize City services and programs.

The Commission-Manager Plan

Grand Rapids Voters adopted the Commission-Manager form of government in 1916. This means that City leadership is made up of elected officials and the City Manager. The City Commission is a legislative body. Its members are the community’s policy-makers. The Commission hired the Manager to serve as the City’s chief administrator. For more info, you can review the City of Grand Rapids Charter.

Elected Officials

We keep a full list of our City Elected Officials. The Mayor is the official head of the City and presides at meetings of the City Commission’s decisions. This person is elected “at large,” or by the entire City. They serve a four-year term.

Here's a look at the Mayor's responsibilities:

  • Representing the City in official functions
  • Signing agreements approved by the City Commission
  • Appointing most advisory committees
  • Working with other governmental agencies and civic groups

The City Commission

This legislative body consists of the Mayor and six Commissioners. They are all elected by wards, two from each of the City’s three wards. The Commissioners serve four-year overlapping terms. Every two years, the community elects one commissioner form each ward.

The City Commission meets at 7:00 pm on the first Tuesday of each month. They also meet at 2:00 pm on each of the other Tuesdays in the City Commission Chambers on the ninth floor of City Hall.

The Commission provides time for citizens to address their concerns at these meetings.

The City Commission does most of their work during the business sessions.  These are sessions of its standing committees. Each standing committee has three commissioners. The only exception is the Committee of the Whole. This includes all Commissioners and the Mayor. The committees all have different tasks:

  • Committee on Appointments recommends candidates for appointment to City boards and commissions
  • Fiscal Committee acts on financial matters
  • Community Development Committee handles issues on public improvements.
  • Public Safety Committee handles matters of Public Safety
  • Committee of the Whole considers major issues and agreements.

At these meetings, Commissioners consider staff and community input. They do this before taking action in their public sessions. City Commissioners also spend many hours as members of other boards and committees. They meet with both individual citizens and neighborhood groups.

City Comptroller

This individual is the only elected departmental director.

Responsibilities include:

  • Following the fiscal policies mandated by the City Commission
  • Tracking the budget on sources and use of funds
  • Overseeing compliance with all applicable laws
  • Reporting to the City Commission
  • Supervising production of the Annual Comprehensive Financial Report for the City

Appointed Officials

The City Commission appoints several officials to oversee its agenda. Want to get to know your City leaders? We keep a list of the current Appointed Officials.

City Manager

This individual is the chief administrator of the City. The Manager coordinates all City departments. They also execute the policies and programs of the City Commission. The Assistant City Managers support the Manager. They each represent a group of departments and their related services.

City Attorney

This office handles providing legal counsel to the City Commission and City departments. They handle all court actions and legal proceedings that involve the City. This includes prosecution for City misdemeanor violations.

City Clerk

The City Clerk handles the following:

  • Official records of the City
  • Voter registration records
  • Supervision of all elections
  • Business licensing

City Treasurer

This appointed official advises the City Commission about certain financial matters. They also administer the City’s investment transactions. The office of the City Treasurer collects City, County, and school district taxes. These are taxes on real estate and personal property within the City. They also collect fees for City services.