New Entertainment District Proposed

August 30, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Two prominent businessmen who have advanced the entertainment choices downtown support a project proposed by Rockford Development and Design Plus that would add restaurants, nightspots and a concert hall to Ionia Avenue.

Gregory Gilmore, president of The Gilmore Collection, told the Business Journal that the development would be a positive addition for downtown.

“There are still a lot of entertainment needs for the people that live in the city, as well as conventioneers, and Grand Rapids is still a pretty small city as far as that is concerned.”

Gilmore and his father John, turned a big, old, empty warehouse at 20 Monroe NW into The BOB and will soon open their 15th restaurant. (See story on page B7.)

“We’re trying to address some of those concerns with some of the live music and the comedy, and we’ll plan on going in that direction even further down the road,” he added. “It’s really just a matter of time, I think, before somebody does do it.”

Although an entertainment center on Ionia would compete with his complex, Gilmore felt the market would have more customers to choose from once DeVos Place is hosting conventions and trade shows.

“It’s definitely competition. But in a few years it will be a different story. In three or four years, when the convention center hits its stride there will be a lot more guests downtown, theoretically. And I don’t think there is enough downtown to serve the conventioneers when there are 2,000 to 3,000 more of them,” said Gilmore.

Also supporting the proposed entertainment concept is Sam Cummings, owner of Second Story Properties.

Having been a long-time advocate for further development of Ionia Avenue, he has renovated a number of buildings there over the past half-dozen years, some of which are home to restaurants and retail.

“I think anything that happens that yields more activity is good,” he told the Business Journal. “You always have to keep it new, and these guys have been players downtown for a long time.

“I think they are asking for some participation from the city and some help in taking the Milner down. I endorse that entirely,” he added.

The proposed site for development, a parking lot on Ionia between Weston and Oakes, belongs to the Downtown Development Authority. But SIBSCO, a real estate company owned by the Peter Secchia family, has a five-year option to buy the lot from a land-swap deal the firm made with the DDA in 1999. Rockford COO Kurt Hassberger said SIBSCO likes the project and is willing to make the site available for it.

The development is tentatively called “The Arena District,” a name suggested by Vern Ohlman, board chairman of Design Plus. Its cost has been set at $7 million.

The developers feel that tenants can be found for that stretch of Ionia — just a half-block east of the Van Andel Arena — partly because two new businesses are getting ready to open further down the street.

A furniture store, EQ3, from the Huizen family will begin selling in late fall at 130 Ionia SW. A new Irish pub from the Hirt Development Group of Holland will begin serving next month at 100 Ionia SW.

Both openings are an indication to Rockford and Design Plus that the goal they have for the street can be reached; namely to build on Ionia from The Sierra Room at 25 Ionia Ave. SW south to Purple East at 250 Ionia SW. The development would go up on two parking lots and a corner lot that has to be cleared.

“My vision is to develop The Sierra Room block that we have optioned into a continuum of the entertainment idea,” said Rockford CEO John Wheeler.

“I have not given up on the idea of a small hotel. I have not given up on the idea of a 300- to 400-seat music venue. I have not given up on the idea of a credit-rated restaurant on that block right out on the sidewalk.”

Nor has he given up on the idea of a dozen taverns and restaurants filling the lower levels of The Arena District with second-floor apartments above those businesses.

“I see that as being the streetscape on the west side of Ionia Street,” he added. “I also see us taking that success, when that is done, and going to the city and trying to get a 60- to 80-foot-deep lease on the (Ionia Avenue) parking lot right here.”

For the lot, which is just east of U.S. 131, Wheeler envisions a few more buildings with some small retail shops on the ground floor and housing units on the upper level.

“The new architecture will complement the old architecture up and down Ionia Street.”

Wheeler feels the project will also complement the new convention center that is set to open in 2004. Like Gilmore and Cummings, he believes the Ionia development will add entertainment choices for convention-goers and help bring these visitors back to the city.

“We need a place where everyone can go. Not only that, but if it’s identified as a place and has enough there, then it’s going to draw people to it,” said Mike Maier, president of Rockford Development.

The developers believe The BOB is, and will always be, the anchor for downtown’s nightlife. They also feel the first block of Ionia, from Fulton to Weston, was developed nicely and has drawn people to the street with its taverns, restaurants and retail.

They don’t, however, see The Arena District as competition for the businesses already serving customers who come downtown. Instead, they see their project as adding to the atmosphere and increasing the take for everyone.

But they do see one seven-story obstacle to the project at the northeast corner of Ionia and Oakes, and that is the Milner Hotel. The Milner, a structure that is almost a century old, has been largely vacant since a fire damaged it two decades ago.

The developers said it is in sad shape, too costly to renovate and should come down. But the law protects the building because it sits in the Heartside Historic and National Register districts.

Wheeler said potential tenants have declined to lease space in the neighborhood due to the condition of the Milner. He said the building is filled with mold and water, the basement is covered with sewage and the roof has a tree growing on it.

“Private enterprise hasn’t been able to do anything with the building since 1981. They haven’t even protected the building,” said John Weiss, president of Design Plus. “It’s just a blight that sits there.”

Cummings, a leading supporter of preserving old buildings, said the Milner may look restorable on the outside, but its interior is a different matter.

“A lot of the old buildings that have been renovated have interesting architectural features on the inside, which sells, quite frankly. The problem with the Milner is it doesn’t have any of that. It’s really just a concrete building that is cut up into very small boxes with a low ceiling — and that is not what the market wants,” said Cummings.

“If a building has to be sacrificed so that others may rise and ensure that new development happens, I think that is a good thing,” he said.

Rockford had an option to buy the Milner from Owens-Ames-Kimball Co., a general contractor that won it in a foreclosure suit from Calatico Inc., which tried to turn it into a franchise hotel. Rockford wanted to raze the building, rebuild on the site and make it part of The Arena District.

But the company terminated the option it had with O-A-K last week, saying the asking price — reportedly $700,000 — was too high. On top of that, Rockford would have had to spend an estimated $300,000 just to bring the building down before it could start work on the site.

“We don’t think it can be rehabilitated. So, therefore, somebody is going to have to figure out that you need to take it down, whether that’s the city, or O-A-K, or us through some vehicle. I guess we’re at the point now where we’re kind of proceeding on faith that is going to happen some way, shape or form,” said Hassberger.

“From time to time, we have taken the position that we are very frustrated with the Milner, but we have to proceed with what we are doing anyway,” he added.

“We’ve yet been able to find a use for it, and the free market system obviously hasn’t found a use for it in 21 years, ” said Weiss of the Milner.

Wheeler told the Business Journal that the cost to build The Arena District on the Area 3 lot would range from a low of $5 million to a high of $7 million. The entire development on both lots and the Milner site — if it ever gets cleared — would likely take five years to build.

“That’s what I see Ionia being,” said Wheeler. “I don’t know where else it is going to go.”           

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