West Leonard during the 1904 flood.
Just as it does today, transportation played a key role in the early development of the areas west of the Grand River and adjacent to Downtown Grand Rapids. The River itself, and the canals, railroads and street car lines that emerged alongside of it, were the main ‘arteries’ in the latter part of the 19th Century. Today, it’s all about business loops, bus lines, and bike lanes; but then, the pace was a bit slower.
Today, progress can be hindered by virtual log jams; in those early days, real ones were formative in the development of the West Leonard district and the surrounding neighborhoods. The disastrous floods that occurred as Grand Rapids turned the corner into the 20th Century resulted in economic devastation that was not easily reversed. But between the 1920s and the Second World War progress was made toward recovery. West Leonard Business Association (WLBA) was a part of those efforts.
After the War, our urban population began to look toward a better life in the suburbs, siphoning off a substantial amount of the support for businesses located within the City. By the 1980s, it was clear that intentional, focused investment would need to occur to revitalize commercial districts that were crumbling due to age, inattention and lack of traffic. Realizing the potential in these business corridors, far-sighted investors, supported by the City, along with other stakeholders like Grand Valley State University (GVSU) and local entrepreneurs, began to take interest, promote studies, and develop strategies for revitalization. Major stakeholders, along with West Side business and neighborhood associations, partnered to facilitate this rejuvenation. As a major stakeholder in this process, WLBA also regrouped in the 1980s, formally incorporating as a non-profit corporation in 1985.
Today, the backbone of WLBA is said to be the longest commercial strip within the City, running over a mile and a half west from the River. With our northern boundary running along a line formed by Ann and Pannell Streets, and with the River forming our eastern boundary extending to 7th St. on the south, and ending along the line formed by Walker and Bristol Avenues on the west, it is one of the larger districts in the area. Counting all the businesses within the District, including those on streets contiguous to W. Leonard, the total exceeds 300. While many of those are supporting members of WLBA, all benefit from its support. WLBA’s stated purpose is to further the common interests of WLBA’s constituents and to promote the general welfare of the West Leonard business district and the surrounding neighborhoods. While still an autonomous district, we work in partnership with our neighbors on West Fulton, and in the Stockbridge District, pursuing the well-being of the West Side.