(Fortune) — It is not the kind of view you expect these days in downtrodden Michigan. From this rooftop plaza on the 17th floor of Bridgewater Place, evidence of urban renewal spreads in every direction. Directly to the south is the modern campus of Grand Valley State University, home to 11,000 students. Across the Grand River lies the sprawl of the redeveloped entertainment district, with its new arena and convention center, steps away from downtown business and government office buildings. Atop a hill to the east is the city’s crown jewel: a $1 billion (and growing) medical complex that includes a cancer research center, specialized treatment facilities, and a medical school.
This is Grand Rapids, a small city (pop. 200,000) in western Michigan with a redevelopment plan that has lessons for other cities looking to engineer new growth after the decline of old-economy industries. That this plan has taken hold in, of all places, the Rustbelt of Michigan makes it all the more remarkable. Two decades ago the city could have been headed the way of Flint, Pontiac, and, yes, Detroit. But instead its fortunes have steadily improved, thanks to a remarkable combination of business leadership, public-private cooperation, and the deep pockets of local philanthropists.
Grand Rapids is much smaller than that city on Michigan’s eastern coast, Detroit (pop. 800,000). Its populace is a bit more diverse, its suburban leaders were willing to work with city government, and its issues were much less complex. But at a moment when corporate, philanthropic, and political leaders in Detroit are just beginning the process of working together to help revive the city (see “Downsizing Detroit” on time.com), the Grand Rapids reinvention is worth examining. For years Detroiters were promised that one master project after another would solve their woes. None did. But in Grand Rapids, business leaders painstakingly set goals, aligned with government officials, generated support, and empowered key players. “Every community has a culture, and you have to pick out what works in your own town,” says Birgit Klohs, the energetic head of Right Place, a local economic development group. “You have to figure out who the leaders are, get them onto a team, create the vision, and get everybody headed in the same direction.”