Pushing GR Entertainment District

October 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — On a per-capita basis, admissions to arts performances, motion pictures and spectator sports in 1999 averaged nearly $100 for every man, woman and child in the country. For the Grand Rapids SMA that figure roughly translates to $110 million.

That finding is just one of many in a study that says downtown Grand Rapids is ready for an entertainment district.

Vern Ohlman of Design Plus, Ron VanSteeland of Grand Valley State University and Fredrick Howell of the Millennium Research Group prepared the report, which will get its first public presentation at a committee meeting of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 17.

Of all the findings in the study, the key one is that consumer spending on entertainment from 1994-99 rose faster than the national economy did. That incredible growth culminated with Americans spending $26 billion on tickets to entertainment events in 1999, the most recent year of available data.

Nearly 40 percent of that total, $10.2 billion, was spent on the performing arts. Spectator sports drew 32 percent at $8.2 billion, while movies pulled in 29 percent or $7.4 billion in 1999. Notice that these figures don’t include the nation’s tab for dining out or admissions to museums.

Faced with those figures, the researchers felt it was time for the city to increase its slice of that growing money pie.

The catalyst for their study was a simple question: Why isn’t there an entertainment district in downtown Grand Rapids? After all, other cities have one.

In fact, the study profiles nine urban areas with entertainment districts, and some of these cities are not as well known or populated as Grand Rapids.

Towns such as Newport, Ky., Des Moines, Iowa, and Huntington, W.Va., have one — and each is worth about $60 million. So do larger cities like Seattle, Cleveland, Memphis, St. Petersburg, Columbus and Pittsburgh.

In their analysis, the researchers discovered that the nine markets had seven factors in common. These districts:

  • Were pedestrian friendly.

  • Had mixed-use buildings.

  • Were adjacent to central business districts.

  • Had broad consumer appeal.

  • Featured a historical theme.

  • Were near a local landmark like a river.

  • Were located where special events and festivals were held.

The researchers feel that most of those factors exist here, except for possibly the broad consumer appeal, and they think that may be changing. Plus, they believe the city has other things going in its favor.

The Van Andel Arena had its second-best financial year in its history last year. Taken together, the arena and Grand Center did about $800,000 better than projections over the last fiscal year. The city is about two years away from opening its new convention center. Most of the restaurants and nightspots that opened downtown six years ago are still doing business. A few more are opening this fall, and films are being shown at Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

The researchers also found, though, that most of the entertainment districts in other cities have a corporate base that keeps it alive. Here entertainment is largely philanthropic based, as foundations, businesses and individuals support the performing arts groups and museums.

“These are wonderful entertainment assets,” said Ohlman, chairman of Design Plus, an architectural firm located on Ionia SW.

Ohlman feels that downtown can support such a district because he thinks downtown can become a lifestyle choice for a group of people with creative talents who like living in an urban setting. But first, downtown has to provide them with that lifestyle choice.

“The connection that I am hoping to make is that providing that lifestyle choice is another way of attracting what is being referred to as the rise of the creative class, or creative and innovative people. This is the kind of lifestyle choice that they very often make,” he said.

“Historically, wealth accumulates around people who are creatively talented. One of the things that those folks are interested in is a broad range of choices. They want options. They want great outdoor recreation opportunities, which West Michigan offers. They want a great nightlife. Music is important to them. There has to be a music scene.”

The Chicago Tribune tagged this group as the creatively hip, and then reported that city officials could possibly do their best urban planning by smiling at someone who has a nose ring, or by taking an artist to lunch or picking up the dry cleaning of a software designer.

That advice comes from a book written by Dr. Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class” (Basic Books), who spoke here last Thursday. His message to public officials is to nurture the creative community in order to keep a city economically competitive and to make it an interesting place to live.

The researchers feel the city needs more members of this group. Downtown has a strong business, medical and governmental core already — all elements that help draw well educated, creative and innovative people here. The missing link? An entertainment core, as a lifestyle choice and as an economic base.

“Those are the two huge justifications for establishing an entertainment district,” said Ohlman. “It isn’t just attracting them, it’s also retaining our brightest and best to stay in the community.”

The researchers have outlined an area for an entertainment district. It would roughly run east from Market Avenue to Division and south from Fulton Street to Wealthy, occupying much of Heartside with the arena and The BOB serving as its anchors, but not limiting it to those blocks.

Design Plus and Rockford Construction have taken on part of the responsibility for that sector. They plan to continue the redevelopment of Ionia Avenue by building entertainment options and loft apartments into their renovation work in the Cherry Street Landing project.

But Ohlman doesn’t view an entertainment district as something for residents only. He and his fellow researchers also see it as a draw to boost the convention, trade show and tourism business for the city, especially with $220 million being invested in an expanded convention center.

Still, he knows that you just can’t open taverns, restaurants and a music venue and expect them to come, and then come back again and again. Whatever and whoever goes into the district has to be planned to create a memorable experience so visitors want to return to the city.

“That memorable experience, when many of us go to conventions, comes after the seminar that you went to. Then what do you do?” said Ohlman. “It’s a total experience. It isn’t just a convention itself.”

Next week: What happens next?           

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