Facts and History


Curious about the history of the city: Where did the City begin? How old are we? When did we become a City? Get the quick facts about the place we call home. 
Photo of the Grand Rapids blue bridge at night with the Grand River in the foreground


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 188,040 according to the 2010 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.

Tax Base

Service fees, grants, and state and federal support make up part of the City's income. The City also relies on income and property taxes to support operations and capital investment.

In 1967, Grand Rapids voters approved a two mill reduction in the City’s maximum authorized general operating property tax millage. This was replaced with an income tax imposed on income earned within the City regardless of the taxpayer’s location. Income taxed includes business net income and employee salaries and wages. Currently, the City’s income tax rate is:
  • 1.5% for taxpayers located in the City
  • 0.75% for taxpayers earning income within the City but located or residing outside the City
Property taxes are levied on a property’s Taxable Value. Annual increases on Taxable Value are limited to the inflation rate until the property is sold, improved, or transferred to a new owner. The 2017 (FY2018) Taxable Value is almost $4.7 billion for:
  • Industrial (5.89% of total taxable value)
  • Commercial (32.88% of total taxable value)
  • Utility (2.21% of total taxable value)
  • Residential properties (59.02% of total taxable value)
This is a 5.09% increase over FY2017. 


Since its launch as the Furniture City in 1876, Grand Rapids has been a leading center for:
  • Manufacturing excellence
  • Technical expertise
  • Innovation
Businesses in the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) continue to manufacture:
  • Automotive parts
  • Plastics
  • Footwear
  • Cleaning equipment
  • Office / theater furniture products
They also produce newer products including:
  • Medical devices
  • Material handling equipment
  • Microbrewed beers and artisanal spirits
  • Food products
  • Aerospace engines and components
  • Industrial tools and dies
  • Hardware and shelving systems
The City is the headquarters for Steelcase Inc. – the world’s leading designer and manufacturer of office systems. We're also home to American Seating Company and Irwin Seating Company. 

During the last twenty years, the City’s economy has diversified. The local medical services, agribusiness, technology, and higher education sectors continue to expand.  Non-manufacturing employment in the MSA now accounts for 80% of the labor force. This leaves 20% of area workers employed in the manufacturing sector. 

The following list reflects the diversity of the top ten major employers in the Grand Rapids MSA:

  1. Spectrum Health
  2. Meijer, Inc.
  3. Mercy Health/St. Mary's
  4. Amway Corporation
  5. Gentex Corporation
  6. Perrigo Company
  7. Herman Miller, Inc.
  8. Steelcase, Inc.
  9. Grand Valley State University
  10. Lacks Enterprises, Inc.


City businesses and residents get natural gas through DTE Energy and electricity from Consumers Energy. The City owns and operates the water supply and sewage treatment systems. These systems are made up of more than 1,239 and 1,100 miles of lines, respectively. These service City businesses, residents and several other cities and townships in the area. The City’s Lake Michigan Filtration Plant supplies and processes water drawn from Lake Michigan. It became operational in 1962 and expanded in 1992. Grand Rapids water quality meets or exceeds the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality requirements.

In 1992, the City began separating the combined sewer and stormwater infrastructure in older areas of the City. The old infrastructure contributed to Grand River pollution during major rain events. We completed the project ahead of schedule in 2015. Learn more about the Sewer Improvement Project here.



Two major expressways connect the City with state and federal highway networks. Greyhound and the Interurban Transit Partnership provide bus services.


Amtrak provides passenger rail service. Class I freight railroads include CSX, Michigan Shore, Marquette Rail and others.


The Gerald R. Ford International Airport is thirteen miles southeast of the central city. It's easily accessible by expressway and partners with six passenger airlines:
  • Allegiant
  • American
  • Delta
  • Frontier
  • Southwest
  • United Airlines


The Grand Rapids MSA has public and private K-12 school systems.
It's also home to 19 four-year public and private colleges and universities. These include satellite campuses downtown Grand Rapids for these institutions:
  • Western Michigan University
  • Michigan State University
  • Central Michigan University
  • Ferris State University
  • Davenport University,
  • Thomas M. Cooley Law School
Grand Valley State University (GVSU) is several miles west of the City. GVSU opened a downtown campus in 1988. GVSU continues to expand its presence in the City. Grand Rapids is also home to Grand Rapids Community College. This popular two-year educational institution operates with a countywide property tax millage.

The Van Andel Institute (VAI) is a post-doctoral biomedical research and education facility. The eight-story 400,000 square foot campus is downtown Grand Rapids next to Spectrum Health-Butterworth Hospital and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. The VAI partners with the Grand Rapids SmartZone Local Development Financing Authority (LDFA). Together they attract medical technology development to the City and to LDFA-supported accelerator services.

Michigan State University’s (MSU) College of Human Medicine relocated from East Lansing, Michigan to the Grand Rapids. It's adjacent to VAI and the hospitals. MSU’s Research Center is also nearby and opened in September, 2017.


The City has two art museums, a zoo and several performing arts theaters. We have a professional opera, symphony and ballet companies. Just outside City limits, the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park hosts over 750,000 visitors annually.

On the Grand River downtown is the Grand Rapids Public Museum. The City owns the museum, but a separate non-profit organization runs operations. The Museum showcases Grand Rapids’ cultural history. The facility has:
  • A newly renovated 50-foot diameter planetarium
  • A working antique carousel
  • A museum magnet school operated with Grand Rapids Public Schools
For out of town visitors, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum is a highlight. This museum documents President Ford's presidency. Ford grew up and represented the area for many years in Congress before his presidency. President Ford died in 2006 at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. After memorial services in California and Washington D.C., he was interred on the grounds of his presidential museum in Grand Rapids. His influential wife, Elizabeth (Betty) Bloomer Ford, was interred next to her husband after she passed away in 2011.

The 49th Annual Festival of the Arts (Festival) will be held downtown in June, 2018. Festival features two and a half days of:
  • Performing arts on six stages
  • Film presentations
  • Fine art exhibitions and sales
  • Food booths
  • Interactive activities for children and adults
Other free events, like Jazz in the Park, World of Winter, and Movies in the Park, take place in the City throughout the year. Check out the Events & Activities page for upcoming events.

In 2009, the first ArtPrize® competition brought 200,000 people to downtown Grand Rapids. Part arts festival and part evolving social experiment, artists worldwide submit their artwork. They can win by either a public vote or by a jury of curators.

In 2017, 1,348 entries from many countries and most U.S. states competed for $500,000 in prize money.

More than 400,000 people visited 179 venues and submitted 383,053 votes for their favorite works.


The 12,000 seat, multi-purpose Van Andel Arena in downtown Grand Rapids opened in 1996. The Arena draws thousands of local and regional visitors to concerts, sporting events, and community events. These consistently large audiences support downtown restaurants and hotels. The Arena is home to a minor league hockey team, the Griffins.

The West Michigan Whitecaps is a minor league baseball team which started in 1994. They play at Fifth Third Ballpark ten minutes north of downtown Grand Rapids. The ballpark also hosts many outdoor events including:
  • Community garage sales
  • The Winter Brew Festival
  • Concerts
Construction of the $211 million DeVos Place downtown convention center was completed in 2005. The facility has:
  • A 40,000 square foot ballroom
  • 26 meeting rooms
  • A 685 space underground parking facility
  • A 162,000 square foot exhibition hall

DeVos Place also includes the 2,400 seat performing arts theater. This is home to the:
  • Grand Rapids Symphony
  • The Grand Rapids Ballet
  • Opera Grand Rapids
  • Broadway Grand Rapids

Recreation and Sports

Grand Rapids has more than 1,800 acres of parkland at more than 120 locations throughout the City. Many provide facilities for team sports such as softball, soccer, volleyball, and basketball.

Bike lanes are installed in roadways whenever the City reconstructs or re-surfaces streets. There are 83 miles of bike lanes so far. There are 288 miles of bicycle trails within the City and surrounding areas.

The Grand Rapids area is popular for sports and recreation activities year-round including:
  • Skiing
  • Hunting
  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Boating
  • Golfing
  • Fishing
Within the City limits, salmon and other game fish are caught in the Grand River. Watch migrating fish work their way around the Sixth Street dam by using the downtown fish ladder.

Since 2010, the signature event of the West Michigan Sports Commission (WMSC) is the Meijer State Games of Michigan. This is a multi-sport, Olympic-style event. The annual Summer Games events began in 2010. In 2014 the WMSC inaugurated the Winter Games events. The philosophy of the games is:
  • Everyone participates regardless of age or ability
  • Everyone is welcome
  • Everyone plays
The Meijer State Games of Michigan is a grassroots organization. They rely on thousands of volunteers and the support of corporate partners.

They held the fourth annual Winter Games main weekend February 17-19, 2017. In total 2,275 athletes competed in 19 sports over three weekends. Despite the unseasonably warm weather, participation grew by 176 athletes over 2016.

The 2017 Summer Games moved to August, 2017 for the State Games of America. This was the first time Michigan hosted the national competition. Michigan athletes were joined by athletes from 46 other states, Canada, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. In total 11,760 athletes competed in 46 sports at 44 different venues.