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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Cassleman's Early Years in Grand Rapids

by John R. Cassleman III

John R Cassleman started in his new position well aware that neither the Association of Commerce for whom he worked or its newly hired Industrial Commissioner, “ . . . can make factories or merchandise or bring prosperity to the city served. The Association is not a creative organization, but it can take the city’s advantages, its industrial machinery, the responsiveness of its people and by a proper conversion of these assets, advance the city’s total interest,” observed the editor of the Associations magazine, The Grand Rapids Spectator. 

His first efforts included the initiation and completion by the end of 1930 of a survey of population, taxes, insurance, regulations governing industries, labor rates, living conditions and the costs and specification of nearly every building and piece of property in Grand Rapids which was available for industrial uses. That report was made available to any industrial concern in Grand Rapids that needed information from it, and also formed a foundation that Cassleman used in his attempts “to secure new industries for the city.” 

Cassleman was reputed to have committed to memory the engineering specifications of every industrial building in this city, numbering about 190 at the time, vacant or occupied that could be of use to companies considering relocation to Grand Rapids. He also knew the location and specification of every vacant lot that had potential for industrial use and those that didn’t. His ability to rely on that extensive fund of information from memory served his tireless efforts well over many years including and especially during his negotiations with General Motors executives five years later to convince them to locate and build one of their plants in Grand Rapids. 

Between 1930 and 1935 no major companies relocated to Grand Rapids as hoped and as relentlessly worked for. There were some small wins, but for the most part the energy of the Industrial Commissioner and the Association was expended to help Grand Rapids companies with services to weather hard times or to survive at all during the Depression. One of Cassleman’s fervent goals from the beginning of his employment was the establishment of a foundation supported by local businesses that would provide short term loans up to $10,000 to businesses struggling to get through hard patches. He did it and those loans were still being made as late as 1963 when the program finally ran its course. It was one of many services initiated and provided by the Association and its Industrial Commissioner for businesses of all kinds during the Depression years. 

The scarcity of credit to finance new construction was a major obstacle to attracting new companies to Grand Rapids and the fact that most of the vacant factories buildings were very old and suited only to light floor loadings for furniture manufacturing. The availability of single level structures with modern features designed to support metal working or flow-through production would have resulted in the relocation of some major concerns to Grand Rapids according to Cassleman.

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