Drive through the Kent County suburb of East Grand Rapids and you’ll find a mix of new and old mansions and well-kept middle-class homes.
The city of about 12,000 people has a small downtown with upscale retail shops and restaurants and other services, along with Reeds Lake on the outskirts. The city boasts a median household income of more than $125,000 and more than three-quarters of residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to U.S. census figures.
Residents of the town (disclosure: this reporter grew up in the city and attended East Grand Rapids Public Schools) frequently joke about living in a “bubble.”
But for the seemingly perfect nature of the town, a divisive — albeit technically nonpartisan — mayoral election has emerged. The eight-year incumbent, Mayor Amna Seibold, is banking on her experience and track record to deliver her another term on Nov. 5.
However, five of the six sitting city commissioners and multiple members of the East Grand Rapids School Board have formally backed challenger Katie Favale, a first-term city commissioner and local real estate agent.
Favale and her supporters say that under Seibold, East Grand Rapids has begun to “rest on [its] laurels” and enter a period of stagnation.
The key issues in the race — transparency, economic development and competitiveness, quality of life and shifting demographics — could easily apply to almost any of the state’s older, suburban communities, but also have a distinctly local feel in East Grand Rapids.
Favale and her supporters fear that without a well-implemented plan, businesses in the downtown business district known as Gaslight Village will be lured to surrounding communities such as Ada and Rockford. Some of that has already happened.
Talks of how best to make the downtown a more desirable destination have been ongoing, West Michigan business publication MiBiz reported earlier this year.
Favale said she has clients from all over the country looking to buy homes in East Grand Rapids and the demographics of the city are skewing younger.
Those demographics favor denser, mixed-use development, Favale and her supporters say. That’s something that the Gaslight Village area is generally lacking, but Seibold says developers have proposed projects.
“West Michigan is a destination place. Grand Rapids is getting a lot of press, but East Grand Rapids is kinda where people move because we’ve got the schools and it’s where young families want to go,” Favale said. “The dynamic is changing, it’s growing up a little bit. But no one wants to lose the village feel.”
Phil Skaggs, a Favale supporter and Kent County commissioner representing East Grand Rapids, said he believes the city is “at a crossroads” and that the challenger will implement “bold” action on Gaslight Village and the city’s public parks. Skaggs also serves as a staffer for state Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids), who hasn’t weighed in on the race.
State Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) has endorsed Favale.
Seibold, however, says that under her leadership, business interest in the community is strong and will continue.
Favale argues that as mayor, she’d open the city to more transparency, giving greater access to residents to take part in its operations, as opposed to what she sees as a top-down style under the current mayor.
“It’s a different management style,” Favale said.
While most of the current elected officials have defected to Favale, Seibold has considerable support from around the region, including state Reps. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) and Lynn Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Twp.), state Sen. Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford), as well as from other mayors around the region.
She also notes that she received the endorsement of the local Realtors association, despite her opponent being a Realtor.
“I think someday [Favale] will make a very good mayor. … But she has less experience,” Seibold said of her opponent. “In a few more years, it will be a good time for her.”
The race seems to have significant interest from residents, at least anecdotally. A drive around the less than four-square-mile city reveals lawns covered in political yard signs, not just for the mayoral election, but also for various boards and commissions on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Due in part to Proposal 3 of 2018, which makes early and absentee voting easier, stakeholders say they’re expecting large voter turnout in the nonpartisan, off-year election. Seibold said more than 1,000 people have already asked for absentee ballots and she expects turnout to be around 50% of registered voters.
“It’s a very healthy thing,” Seibold said of the apparent interest in the race and the likely high turnout.
She also welcomes the challenge.
“It’s a good thing to have this type of race,” Seibold said. “It’s good for people to be talking about the things that are important and all of a sudden people wake up during an election year and say, ‘Oh, this is important.’ It has been wonderful hearing people get involved.”