GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The year was 1979. A young couple who grew up in West Michigan were planning their wedding, but they ran into a problem: They couldn’t find a nice reception venue in downtown Grand Rapids, so they ended up having their reception at the groom’s father’s business.

The couple was Dick and Betsy DeVos.

“We held our wedding reception in the Amway headquarters building auditorium because it was the best venue in town. That’s how sad it was,” Dick DeVos recalled.

That would soon change.

Seeing the need for an upscale hotel downtown, Dick’s father Rich DeVos, co-founder of Amway, and his business partner Jay Van Andel bought the old Pantlind Hotel, restoring it to its former glory.

  • The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel stands in downtown Grand Rapids. (2021 file)
  • The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel stands in downtown Grand Rapids. (2021 file)

“The town was dying, darn near dead. A hotel was available that had some potential. My father and Jay Van Andel looked around and said, ‘Somebody else going to do something?’” DeVos said. “This building was gorgeous and they really wanted to preserve that past and yet lean into the future.”

That future would come a few years later in the form of a gleaming modern addition to the old hotel that would become the focal point of a downtown coming out of a decades-long hibernation.

On Friday, one of the most recognizable features of Grand Rapids’ skyline turned 40. The glass tower portion of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel was dedicated on Oct. 13, 1983.

“I have to pinch myself and say wow! Unless you were there 40 years ago, I don’t know that you can fully appreciate how far this community has come in these last 40 years,” DeVos said.

  • A still image from 1980s file video of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
  • A file image of the Pantlind Hotel.

Former President Gerald Ford was on hand for the dedication, and the Beach Boys played at the Amway Grand Plaza Tower dedication. Not bad for a sleepy Midwestern town.

“It was impossible to imagine what Grand Rapids has become,” DeVos said as he looked out over a portion of downtown Grand Rapids from an upper floor of the glass tower.

“There’s no question that the renovation of this hotel kicked it off. And I have no reason to believe that my father and his partner didn’t see the possibilities,” he continued. “Absent what happened here… we would have gone the way of far too many cities in the United States that just lost their downtowns. Completely. And many of them have still never recovered.”

Ten years after the tower opened, DeVos, John Canepa and David Frey formed Grand Action, the not-for-profit group that identified projects to move downtown Grand Rapids forward, got the public behind those projects and figured out how to pay for them using public and private funds. That effort led to Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place and other catalysts for downtown growth.

“As a consequence, as a community, as small as we are, we’re miles ahead,” DeVos said.

That momentum continues with the formation of Grand Action 2.0 and plans for a 12,000-seat amphitheater, with an aquarium and soccer stadium high on the wish list.

“So this idea has to be passed — not just a passing of the torch, but passing of the energy, a passing of the belief and the enthusiasm for this community. And it’s been wonderful to see that some of the people that are involved in Grand Action today are actually the family members of those that I worked with in years gone by,” DeVos said. “We’ve got a long way to go. We have a lot of work to do, for sure. We have lots of opportunity ahead. But we’ve come a long, long way in a pretty short time in the scheme of things. “