Toronto Firm Gets Downtown Nod

April 16, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — A Canadian consultant will help the city’s economic development department put together a downtown arts and entertainment district.

City commissioners chose the Urban Marketing Collaborative (UMC) last week after a five-member committee reviewed proposals from three companies and then recommended the firm for the $80,000 contract. UMC is a division of the J.C. Williams Group, a consulting company based in Toronto with an office in Chicago.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the city’s Downtown Development Authority each contributed $40,000 to the $80,000 effort.

City Economic Development Director Susan Shannon told commissioners that UMC has a lengthy track record in helping cities revitalize downtowns and the company specializes in attracting retail to a central business district. She said the firm would identify key projects for downtown and physical improvements to it, and would prepare a property-leasing program and develop a branding strategy for downtown.

“There may be more than one district. We don’t know that yet,” said Shannon.

UMC has done downtown work for two-dozen cities, including such major markets as Cleveland, Denver and Los Angeles, and smaller ones like Des Moines, Iowa, Elmira, N.Y., and Norfolk, Va. The firm has also consulted for the private sector.

“They’ve got a really good background, good experience in doing this sort of thing,” said Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Downtown Alliance. “I think it was their creativity that really attracted me to this group.”

Evoy, Shannon, DDA Chairman Vern Barry, DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler, and Design Plus CEO Verne Ohlman served on the selection committee.

“What we’re looking at is an arts and entertainment strategy. What that might result in is a creation of a natural physical district. But on the other hand, they may come back and say with Grand Rapids, that’s not necessarily the best way to go. So I’m looking for a real solid implementation plan on how to get where we want to go,” she said.

Evoy also said she favors a district that will be open 18 hours a day, rather than one that is an exclusive sector of nightspots.

“We’re not necessarily looking for something that doesn’t come alive until 10 o’clock at night, but something that you can go to during the day that would have a retail component. You’re going to leave a lot of people out of it and you’re going to leave a lot of businesses out of it,” said Evoy of a district that is a late-night-only spot.

Ohlman is a strong advocate for an entertainment district. He was part of a group that did a study nearly two years ago that concluded such a sector would benefit the economy and help to leverage the arena, DeVos Performance Hall, the new convention center, and other cultural events and organizations.

Ohlman also thought UMC was a good choice for the city.

“They were highly collaborative and understood collaboration very well. That is one thing that I happen to be very interested in because I happen to think that success comes from the art of collaboration, and so I would put that very high on the list in regards to them,” he said.

Ohlman added that UMC representatives were very open in their discussions with the committee, seemed experienced in their work and appeared to be very competent.

“I’m hoping this group can teach us how to do it right,” he said.

Like Evoy, Ohlman expects more from an entertainment district than just nightclubs. He sees it impacting the job market and convincing the best and brightest young people to either stay or move here, if it’s done right. Ohlman also sees its effect going past the city’s limits.

“There are subtleties beyond that suggests West Michigan as a whole — or at least in our tri-county area — that Grand Rapids really does form the solid core for the whole area; sort of a global image for the whole area, I think, really is centered in Grand Rapids,” he said.

First Ward Commissioner Roy Schmidt told the Business Journal that he considered the money being spent on the consulting agreement as an investment in the city’s future that will provide it with a healthy return someday. He felt the contract would have a payoff similar to the Renaissance Zone the city created in 1996, which appears to be the major reason Grand Rapids was recently named one of the nation’s most livable communities.

UMC will begin a series of extensive talks in May with city officials, retailers, restaurant owners, arts groups and anyone else with a stake in downtown. The work is expected to take from four to six months.     

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