Commission Cool To A and E Strategy

November 19, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — A downtown arts and entertainment plan presented to city commissioners last week got a lukewarm reception at best.

Toronto-based Urban Marketing Collaborative conducted an “intensive” market analysis between April and November this year and came up with an action plan to capitalize on downtown’s arts and entertainment venues and attract a wider variety of audiences.

The Downtown Development Authority paid $40,000 and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. pitched in another $40,000 to finance the study.

The core city has already benefited from heavy investment in concrete ventures such as the Van Andel Arena and streetscape improvements, the consultants pointed out. They recommend the city now start investing in downtown marketing and promotions to paint the town as an evolving arts and entertainment niche with “attitude” — make that several “attitudes.”

Outlining the Arts and Entertainment Strategy for Downtown Grand Rapids at Tuesday’s city commission meeting, UMC senior partner Maureen Atkinson said one of the concerns consultants have is that one-third of the ground floor space in downtown is vacant, which she said is “significant.”

“We think that you’re really not maximizing your return on investment,” Atkinson told commissioners. “You have invested a lot of money in a lot of exciting facilities and we think that there is now an opportunity to really capitalize on them.”

The strategy for downtown is based on development of three major “attitude” districts — Arts Axis, Entertainment District and Avant Garde — each offering both a distinctive and culturally diverse experience.

Arts Axis would focus on the arts, performance spaces and the visual arts, would serve as the hub of events and festivals and offer a mixture of cultural experiences. Arts Axis would be centered on Monroe Avenue and Monroe Center, north of Louis Street.

The Entertainment District would serve as the hub of progressive restaurants and arena activities and would sport a “progressive, hip, happening” attitude. It would be located south of Louis Street between the Grand River and Commerce Street.

The Avant Garde district would be characterized as an “edgy, innovative, young, vibrant” area that “celebrates diversity” and serves as the trendsetting hub of West Michigan. It would cover the area from Fulton and Division south, including Sheldon Avenue.

According to UMC, to achieve a more “animated and enlivened” downtown, the focus should be on increasing the number of visitors, intensifying downtown residential development, developing commercial concepts that draw people and building blocks of arts and arts-related retail.

“The idea here is to promote multiple use,” Atkinson explained. “We really want people to do two, three or four things when they come down here. It really creates a much more committed user of downtown.”

Retail is an integral part of the plan for all three districts, she noted.

“We actually see that retail is a lot about entertainment. But it is a particular kind of retail and it’s not going back to being everything to everybody. We don’t foresee Wal-Mart being an entity down here.”

Commissioner Rick Tormala suggested free parking nights to help small businesses deal with off nights when there is no special event or performance going on downtown.

Mayor George Heartwell brought up the question of downtown signage and the identification of downtown areas.

“There’s been some controversy around what we call these various areas. Our way-finding program has been in the design stages for a couple of years,” Heartwell said, noting that some downtown districts, such as Heartside, already have names and identities. “You have different names you’re suggesting. Let’s not further muddy the waters by renaming areas.”

Commissioner James Jendrasiak questioned whether there was really a need for different districts at all.

Tormala said he didn’t want to see any more money spent on signs, given the money the city already has spent.

“I would hope that we’re not going to change the names of districts now that we’ve finally paid for those signs,” he said. “If a district is thriving, it will get a name. I have a problem with anybody placing labels on these neighborhoods. They (names) should be spontaneous, not something that comes from the top down.”

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