Welcome to the site! My name is Dan VanderMolen, candidate for 2nd Ward City Commissioner in Kentwood, MI. Here you'll find out a little bit about my personal story, an overview of the vision that I hope to bring to the city commission, voting resources, and more. If you're interested in receiving periodic messages with news, updates about events, volunteer opportunities, and other ways to support the campaign please click on the mailing list button below.
During my lifetime I have been fortunate enough to make stops in some of the greatest cities in our country. Originally from Grand Rapids, I left to pursue my education in Chicago, Illinois. After getting married, my wife and I moved to the West Coast, starting our life together in Portland, Oregon.
We spent three amazing years there, experiencing the world-renowned arts and culture that they have to offer. Before long the Midwest came calling again, and we returned to Michigan to start a family. For the next seven years we finished degrees, established careers, and gave birth to two beautiful baby girls.
The need to explore set in once more though, and we made a brief stop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before returning to West Michigan to make our forever home in Kentwood. Guided by all that I learned from living in these neighborhood friendly communities, I developed a unique understanding of what it takes to create a thriving, sustainable city for all our residents.
Throughout my career I’ve focused on building strategic partnerships with regional organizations and stakeholders to provide the best possible support for the diverse population of Kent County. This includes more than a decade in the local nonprofit sector, as well as a voluntary service year as an AmeriCorps member. Because of this I’ve gained a valuable understanding of how to leverage local resources, key lessons related to effective workforce and talent development, and the firsthand knowledge of how important it is to implement a proactive approach to early childhood care and education.
I have served as a board member for the Garfield Park Neighborhoods Association, am currently a board member for United Church Outreach Ministry (UCOM), and was recently appointed to the Kent County Community Action Advisory Governing Board. My passion for municipal government and policy runs deep, so I recently completed the Michigan Certified Public Manager® (CPM) Program at Saginaw Valley State University, the only approved program of it’s kind in the state of Michigan. My children are the most important people in my life, so I serve as the current president of the Meadow Brook elementary school parent teacher organization.
If elected to serve as your commissioner, I will use these skills and experiences to focus on strengthening our city. I promise to represent everyone - longtime residents, new residents, and new Americans who are choosing to call Kentwood home. Together we can lift up small business, bring sustainable jobs to the area, and make Kentwood a welcoming, equitable place to live. Like our motto states: it takes a community effort to help us thrive.
Together we can make sure Kentwood reaches its full potential as a thriving city in the heart of West Michigan. In order to do this, we have to embrace the role of social equity as a key tenant of our ongoing community development. This means engaging local residents in all areas of city planning and being intentional about elevating the voices of those who have been historically underrepresented.
There was a well publicized moment during the 2019 East Kentwood High School graduation ceremony when Principal Omar Bakri took a moment to highlight the 60 plus countries represented in that year’s graduating class. According to the district’s website there are more than 90 languages in total spoken throughout the school system. To emphasize this point, the city’s recently released Master Plan highlights a 2017 American Community Survey found that nearly 23 percent of Kentwood citizens are speakers of a non-English language.
We truly are a global community and it is one of our greatest strengths as a city.
Although not a perfect indicator, the results of the 2020 Census will provide an opportunity to discuss how best to align city operations with the incredible diversity of our community. There are more than a dozen local boards and commissions that provide residents with the opportunity to have direct input on the direction of the city. We need to build the institutional capacity necessary to make sure everyone is given the opportunity to have a seat at the table.
This work might not be easy, but it’s necessary. The government needs to be held accountable by those it serves and must remain connected to, not removed from, its constituents. We need to confront our biases and implement a system of deliberate and fundamental transparency. This will allow us to foster a community that embraces open, honest discussions, and doesn't shy away from having difficult but important conversations. To achieve that we need to commit to working together, and to work together we need to make sure that all of the unique voices in our city are heard.
Born and raised in West Michigan, I have a passion for the community building and engagement that so many of us share. Originally from Grand Rapids, I had the opportunity to live in Chicago, IL, Portland, OR, and Lancaster, PA, before returning to Michigan with my family to lay down roots in Kentwood.
What my travels have taught me, and what I plan to bring to the commission, is a broad understanding of the importance of community. In each place I lived every person I met forged their identity in the place they called home. Whether it was a state, city, or neighborhood, everyone was defined by the people and places around them. As we build towards the future and our identity as a city continues to evolve, there are a few key areas I would highlight as a way to maintain our forward momentum: access to affordable housing, development of green spaces, and community events.
When my family was searching for a place to settle down, one of the things that drew us to Kentwood was the availability of quality, affordable housing. That, combined with access to good schools and a central location, made this area an ideal landing spot. However, costs across the region continue to climb, and it is imperative that we implement effective measures to ensure that there are safe, attainable options for all budgets.
By leveraging relationships with local financial institutions and services agencies, we can work to educate the public about what options are available to help open the door to the housing market, including FHA loans and first time home buyer programs. If purchasing is not the right solution, then we need to make renting more accessible. Working with landlords and apartment complexes to provide income-based solutions and increase access to subsidies will help provide affordable choices for everyone.
Next, we need to focus on continued investment in the development of our local green spaces and recreational areas. As the pandemic has reminded us, getting outside and enjoying nature is an important way to experience the world around us. Kentwood currently has an extensive network of parks, trails, and trailheads spread across hundreds of acres throughout the city. We should continue to fund the critical infrastructure necessary to maintain and develop the resources that are already in place, while at the same time looking to grow the Parks and Recreation footprint through the strategic acquisition of new land and facilities.
Finally, it is important that we prioritize building up and expanding the amazing activities that take place here in Kentwood every year. When we’re finally able to regroup and physically get together again after the pandemic, people will crave opportunities to enjoy the company of friends and neighbors. Our city already has great events, like the annual tree lighting ceremony and the 4th of July parade. Let’s take what is established and increase opportunities for community interaction. Whether it’s a large scale festival or intimate block party let’s make sure everyone is encouraged to celebrate the moments that bring us together.
INVEST IN THE LOCAL ECONOMY
During my time as a leader in workforce development, I learned what it takes to improve financial security for the residents of Kentwood. Far too often we limit this conversation by focusing on securing employment, when in fact we should help people establish overall financial stability, which in turn strengthens the health of our local economy. This is a complex issue but we can confront it right now by placing emphasis on career pathways and intentional support of local business.
Addressing employment needs is often a moving target. If we don't stay ahead of trends, we’ll find ourselves playing catch-up to outdated issues. Even if jobs are available - what good does that do if they don’t pay a living wage? We know today’s economy is changing, specifically in the manufacturing industry. There is a new emphasis on the importance of specialized skills, so we need to support workers in meeting these evolving demands of employers. In Kent County we have a strong network of training and credentialing programs ready to do this. However, it is important that we implement a holistic service model designed to assist those navigating additional barriers to employment and education. This means aligning our economic plan with other critical systems including transportation, food security, and child care.
Creating a sustainable, prospering Kentwood also requires that we make it a point to invest in our regional economy. Recent studies have shown that when we spend money at locally-owned businesses, nearly 70% of those dollars stay in the community. In the specific case of Kent County, this means that a 10% shift in market share from chains to locals across the retail landscape could result in the generation of an additional 1600 jobs with wages of approximately $53 million being added to area payrolls. By shifting our spending habits inward we immediately reduce our collective environmental impact, provide necessary support to the people most likely to reinvest in the wellbeing of the community, and underwrite local innovation.
This type of investment becomes even more important as we transition to a post-coronavirus world. As your city commissioner I would work to immediately develop a set of best practices and standard operating procedures to help businesses navigate the impending recovery period. This would include providing the most up-to-date information as it becomes available by hosting online forums with pertinent stakeholders and experts. If we collaborate to develop solutions that benefit the long term needs of both job seekers and business owners we will create an economy that is designed for agility and built to preserve the unique character of Kentwood.
Ensure Kentwood city services are inclusive and accessible to all new Americans living in our community by establishing an immigrant integration system.