The Entertainment District Pitch

October 11, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Regional Issues Steering Committee of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Thursday hears why an entertainment district is needed downtown and how it could benefit the local economy.

Vern Ohlman, chairman of architectural firm Design Plus, will share with the committee the results of a study he did with Ron VanSteeland of Grand Valley State University and Fredrick Howell of the Millennium Research Group that makes a case for such a district located primarily in the Heartside neighborhood just south of downtown’s business core.

The district also could extend further north and east.

“It contains old buildings that have been wonderfully renovated for new uses, walkability, a sense of connection — all of those issues exist in that physical zone,” said Ohlman. “So the ability to continue development there into entertainment venues, I think, really resides in that zone.”

The Van Andel Arena and The BOB would be the anchors for the district, which would include development along Ionia Avenue SW being jointly proposed by Design Plus and Rockford Construction.

“To build on that momentum, Ionia Street is a good choice. The city certainly made a tremendous investment on Ionia,” he said.

Committee members also will hear that to make the district a reality and to solidify the urban center’s economic future, the city needs to retain and attract creative young people downtown; people who not only want to work there but also live there. Members will learn that entertainment, like the right jobs, can be a major draw to get them there.

But Ohlman also will go a step further and outline for the group what the researchers think needs to happen next to get the district going. Topping a short list is creating an association to promote it.

“To really get this to be a district it has to be promoted in a reliable way. It’s getting the collection of entrepreneurs who are already invested in this zone to form some kind of an association out of them, whether it’s voluntary or if someone gets paid,” said Ohlman.

“It’s hard to do on a part-time basis, so you probably do need to pay somebody who has that focus and mindset to pull that information together.”

Another piece the district would need is a shuttle service. Even though downtowners could easily walk to the district, those coming in from the suburbs may not be familiar with the city and may need to be shuttled through it. As part of their study, the researchers have designed a shuttle route in the shape of a figure eight that winds its way through the district.

Ohlman also would like the cost for parking downtown to be included in the price of an entertainment package, or have free parking offered to people who spend a certain amount in the district. The reasoning is that those who live in the suburbs park for free when they visit most suburban entertainment venues, and having to pay for parking might keep some of them out of downtown.

“I think it will take some kind of entity, an association, to begin to pull that together with the city. The city is a partner. You can’t do this without the city,” he said, while adding that downtown retail is another critical element for a successful district.

But the researchers don’t just see the district as a development exclusively for those living here. They also view it as a draw to lure visitors to the city and to help get a maximum return on the $220 million DeVos Place, the convention center being built on Monroe Avenue.

“They have to support one another. They don’t act independently,” said James Horman of Design Plus of the building and the district.

“We’ve been gifted these wonderful tools,” said Ohlman of the arena and convention center, “and now we have to leverage them beyond that to sustain them.”

If the latest available national figures on entertainment spending from 1999 were prorated on a per-capita basis, the city’s share would have been $110 million that year.

Thursday will mark the first public presentation of the findings, a study that was started last December. The work cost $25,000 and was supported by the Frey Foundation, the chamber, Design Plus, Rockford Construction and SIBSCO Development.

The meeting will be important because the city is slightly behind the entertainment curve when compared to other urban centers, many of which already have an entertainment district. Although Grand Rapids has made great strides over the last six years in closing what once was a tremendous gap in the number of sporting events, concerts and other shows playing here, it hasn’t developed that business to its full potential yet because the city got a late start competing for those dollars, according to the researchers.

Former SMG arena manager Craig Liston told the Business Journal six years ago that at that time Grand Rapids was the largest market in the United States without an arena — until the Van Andel opened in October 1996.

“I don’t know whether our research would verify that statement,” said Ohlman. “But my intuition tells me that is a true statement.”           

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