Fowler In For The Local Long Haul

July 12, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Jay Fowler has something most people don’t have: a two-sided business card.

“That was the only way I could get everything on it,” he said.

One side of the card shows that Fowler is an assistant planning director with the city, a department he has been part of for all but three of the past 28 years.

Flip the card over and Fowler is the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, a post he has held for the last 19 months.

Whichever title someone chooses to call him, one thing remains undeniable. There are only a handful of people who have had as much input in the commercial development of the central business district as Fowler, first as a city planner and now as that planner and head adviser of the panel that has improving downtown as its mission.

Fowler began his career with the city as a paid college intern in the planning department while he was earning his degree in urban and environmental studies at Grand Valley State University. That was back in 1976.

“Since then, I’ve had tremendous opportunities offered to me by the city of Grand Rapids, along with an exciting career,” he said.

Fowler left the city for a short stint to serve three years with the West Michigan Regional Planning Commission. But he returned to the city’s planning department in 1986 and has been an integral part of that group ever since.

Prior to replacing the retired Jim Knack in 2003 as DDA executive director, Fowler was on that board’s staff for the better part of a decade after being designated as the city’s downtown planner in 1995.

Fowler has left his own particular mark on many of the most heralded downtown developments in the last decade and a half. Just a handful include the Van Andel Arena project, the DDA’s Building Reuse Program, the Voices and Visions Master Plan, the renovation of Monroe Center, and the Downtown Zoning Ordinance.

“It was a pretty big task,” he said of the zoning changes he made to downtown. “It took a couple of years to work through all the issues.”

Fowler clearly enjoys his work with the city and the DDA. Both groups direct his focus to the central business district and he said that suits him just fine. He has the temperament and patience needed to work quietly in the background on a seemingly never-ending list of projects that take a very long time to complete.

“There are always new and exciting projects. Downtown has made tremendous progress over the last several years and it’s exciting to be part of all the changes,” said Fowler, a GR native.

“And you’re never really done with downtown improvement. Sometimes you think if you just build one more thing, you’ll be done. But you’re not, because downtown has to evolve. It has been evolving since the founding of Grand Rapids in 1835 and it will continue to evolve. To be a part of that is exciting.”

His latest project may come to fruition this week. After years of putting together sort of an on-the-street directory of downtown, the DDA may get the Wayfinding system underway on Wednesday by awarding a contract to install signs that will direct visitors to downtown sites. The system will cost $1 million and will feature 193 signs in five different sizes that will be color-coded to represent the four distinct districts of downtown.

“That is actually one of the last major recommendations of Voices and Visions, to establish this Wayfinding sign system,” said Fowler of the 1992 report that contained a consensus on the direction that downtown should take in the future.

“We’ve made several runs at trying to do this. It’s very complicated and it has always run into a roadblock at some point. But the DDA board has consistently felt it was a good idea and said to keep trying.”

Also on Wednesday, the DDA is expected to choose a new chairman. Verne Barry, the well liked and highly respected chairman of that board, died on June 30. Mayor George Heartwell will have to name a new member to bring that panel’s membership up to the required number. Commissioners will then have to ratify whomever Heartwell selects.

Fowler has been happily married to Catherine Neis long enough for them to raise two grown daughters, Emily and Theresa. Neis works in the public sector, too. She helps direct the Wyoming branch of the Kent District Library. As for their free time, they both try to stay active.

“I like to run three or four times a week,” said Fowler.

But he isn’t just your casual before-work jogger, even though he does run a few workday mornings each week and takes part in an eight-mile Saturday morning scamper with a group of runners. No, Fowler is also a marathoner.

He has completed five of those grueling and muscle-straining races so far, including last year’s New York City marathon. He has also finished marathons in Traverse City, Detroit and Chicago, twice, but none are penciled in his planner this year.

“It really takes a tremendous time commitment to train for a marathon. If you want to do other things in life, you have to put the marathon away,” he said.

“I also like to bike ride. Cathy and I do that together. She’s not a runner, but we do ride our bicycles and walk through the neighborhood. And we like to do gardening in our yard,” he said. “We just bought a new old house in Heritage Hill about a year and a half ago, and there is some work we have to do on the house.”

It’s easy to see that Fowler is into things for the long haul, both on a personal level and professionally. So don’t expect him to walk away — or run away, for that matter — from either the DDA or the city’s planning department anytime soon. And that means he will likely have to order more of those double-sided business cards.

“I expect to be here for a few more years,” he said. “I’m really excited about this arts and entertainment district the DDA is working on. That will give us, I think, a whole new list of projects to tackle in terms of promoting the downtown area as an arts and entertainment destination and building new features that will attract people to downtown.

“It really is an exciting process to envision what we need next, when we have accomplished so much.”           

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