Sportsplex Faces Some Opposition

October 10, 2003
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KENTWOOD —A packed house is anticipated at the Kentwood Planning Commission meeting tomorrow night.

Commissioners are expected to decide Tuesday whether or not to recommend to the Kentwood City Commission a proposal to build a $17 million health club at Burton Street and East Paris Avenue.

The DeVos family has proposed a 96,000-square-foot MVP Sportsplex in conjunction with a 30,000-square-foot medical office building on the 10-acre site.

Plans call for indoor and outdoor pools, six indoor tennis courts, a gym, day care facility, small café, and health- and medical-related offices.

The proposal has already been through three rounds of Planning Commission meetings.

Though a restaurant and fitness-related retail space were originally part of the plan, the developers dropped those from the plan as a concession to residents of the area.

The site is close in proximity to East Hills Athletic Club on East Paris and Michigan Athletic Club (MAC) on Burton, but the developers have said that based on their research, the fitness market in town is large enough to support a third large health club.

Karl Droppers, vice president of the DeVos family’s RDV Sportsplex in Orlando, Fla., told the Business Journal in a Sept. 29 story that the market research showed there is a population base that can support the MVP Sportsplex, as well as existing health clubs.

“Market trends and a study we conducted make it clear there’s plenty of room for another fitness center in this neighborhood,” he said at the time.

But some residents and employers in the area feel otherwise.

John Smallfield, general manager of East Hills Athletic Club, said his company has been pretty silent on the issue up to now, though he has attended all the meetings as an interested observer.

His company is in a delicate position because it’s a competitor, he said, and doesn’t want to appear to be a poor sport about the whole thing. His facility is a half-mile down the road from the proposed MVP site.

“But what made us step into the ring a little bit was the fact that everything that MVP was presenting to the Planning Commission and to any media outlets was coming strictly from them and completely unchallenged,” Smallfield said. “There are a number of statistics they’re quoting that we have good research that disputes those.”

He said the developers have made some disparaging remarks about East Hills being “old” and outdated. East Hills has spent several million dollars on facility improvements and upgrades over the past four years and more is planned, he pointed out.

What concerns Smallfield the most is the developer’s claim that the market is plenty big enough for everybody.

Based on a market study by the HealthFit Research Board (HFRB) conducted in November 1999 and updated last month, the southeast market of Grand Rapids is nearly saturated with health clubs and related facilities, he said.

The HFRB study of the local market concluded: “Because of the competitive nature of the market, the demand projections for the new facility are about one half of its stated expectations. This could have an adverse effect on the entire marketplace if they resort to below-cost pricing just to attract members from the available market and/or from existing club operators.

“If the sponsors of the proposed facility were an HFRB client, we would recommend that they either abandon the project or reduce its size by about 50 percent. Otherwise, we would expect operating losses that would extend well beyond the normal start-up period.”

Smallfield contends that the impact of another club entering the market would likely hurt the City of Kentwood. East Hills and the MAC, collectively, employ more than 400 people.

In a letter to the Planning Commission dated Oct. 8, Smallfield stated:

“The likely scenario is that because of intense competition for the small pool of new members, none of the three major clubs, let alone the YMCA or other smaller health facilities, will do well. All could potentially ‘bleed red ink.’”

From Smallfield’s perspective, another large health club would provide unnecessary duplication of services and would likely siphon off some membership from East Hills and the MAC.

“The statistics they’re bandying about aren’t correct, and if they aren’t correct, why should the Planning Commission care? Well, they should only care if they are making a good decision for Kentwood. If either the new club doesn’t succeed or if it puts us out of business — if either business fails — it’s not good for the city of Kentwood.”

Phillip Catalano, who served on both the Kentwood city and planning commissions in the 1970s, doesn’t think the proposed sportsplex is a good business and planning decision for Kentwood.

Catalano, a resident of Sabal Pointe Condominiums, which is adjacent to the proposed site, said the biggest objection he has is that the proposed development is “totally out of character” for the neighborhood.

The MVP building that would house six indoor tennis courts is larger than a football field and 43 feet high, he pointed out.

“It is just too intense and too large to be placed smack dab in the middle of a prime residential area,” he remarked. “What they’re proposing is to put this huge development in here that’s going to cover 10.5 acres, approximately.

“And they’re going to operate it from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. If you can envision that across from a day care center, a church, a doctor’s office and a single-family development, it’s just ludicrous to put that there.”

Roger Meyer, president of the Sabal Pointe Condo Association board of directors, said there is a lot of opposition to the MVP proposal.

The association represents 65 households and 110 people and “no one is in favor of it,” he said.

“This piece of property was originally zoned for a two-story office building on the northwest corner of the property — far away from our residents.

“This present proposal is closer to us and would bring more traffic. The traffic going into an office complex would be about 450 cars a day, and this (Sportsplex) would mean between 1,500 and 3,000 cars going in and out of this complex every day, depending on the day of the week and the season.”

Not only is traffic an issue, Meyer said, but the project would have a visual impact on the condo complex. An outdoor swimming pool would have a noise impact, as well.

“I think it would destroy or lessen our property values,” he said.    

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