Downtown Investment Nears $2B

November 14, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Since 1990, $1.8 billion has been invested in downtown projects or pledged to developments that are underway, and some feel that much investment over less than two decades layers a progressive aura over the city.

“I think the image of downtown is the image of all of Grand Rapids,” said Jay Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, who tracked, compiled and reported on all the projects done and those on the books from 1990 to 2005.

“We’ve seen every imaginable development downtown,” he said.

Investments made by institutions such as GVSU, Spectrum Health and the Van Andel Institute have accounted for $860 million, nearly half of the total spending, with 86 percent being spent on new construction. Much of that building activity has occurred east and west of downtown’s core and has stretched downtown’s borders in those directions.

The public sector has invested $460 million in downtown, slightly more than a quarter of the district’s total. Van Andel Arena, the Kent County Courthouse and DeVos Place account for roughly 80 percent of the public-sector investment.

Private developers have put $420 million into downtown projects, or 23 percent of the $1.8 billion total. Slightly more than half of their investment has gone into new construction, while 47 percent has been spent on restoration projects.

Fowler added that $155 million has been invested in downtown housing with 54 percent of that figure going toward new construction. Since 1995, he said, 1,546 housing units have been built and another 490 are in the works.

DDA Vice Chairman David Cassard noted that the money invested in housing was quite reasonable, at roughly $100,000 per unit, considering current market prices for homes and condominiums.

“It doesn’t sound to me like an exorbitantly high number,” he said.

Fowler said the DDA has played a key role in a number of the projects through its building reuse program, which offers up to $200,000 each year for improvements, and its funding of infrastructure upgrades.

“We’ve rebuilt over half of the streets downtown, I think, over recent years,” he said.

And board members continued to make investments last week when they committed another $35,000 to three small projects.

The DDA gave ArtWorks $10,000 for its La Petite Vitesse project. The local nonprofit group plans to have art students design and build 35 5-foot-high models of the Alexander Calder stabile that sits on Calder Plaza. The mini-Calders will be made of exterior signboard and will be placed on exhibit throughout downtown next summer.

The project will cost $210,000 and ArtWorks Executive Director Cindy Koning said her organization was looking for donors to help fund the effort. Three years ago, ArtWorks did the Something Fishy project for downtown.

The DDA also gave $10,000 to revise the model of downtown found on the lower level of the City-County building, and $15,000 to update and print a brochure that highlights all the development opportunities in the central business district.

The first brochure, known as Downtown Grand Rapids: Open for Business, debuted in 1998 and hasn’t been updated since. It cost $30,000 to design and $15,000 to print.

Fowler and Economic Development Director Susan Shannon said the brochure has helped draw development downtown. The DDA money will pick up the printing cost for the new version, which Shannon will update.

“When you talk about demographics and getting retailers downtown,” said Shannon, “this is a very important piece.”    

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