Businesses Crucial To Cool Cities

March 11, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — A little over a decade ago, Second Story Properties President Sam Cummings helped lead downtown Grand Rapids' redevelopment charge.

He remembers how difficult it was then to attract financing, investors and tenants to his earliest ventures.

Most difficult was financing. Banks were attracted to suburban developments with guaranteed national retail tenants. Cummings felt then and now that the trend worsened sprawl and hurt local business.

One of his earliest partners, Blue Bridge Ventures LLC founder and CEO Jack Buchanan, recalls similar scenarios. BlueBridge was responsible for one of the region's greatest redevelopment success stories, The Brass Works Building.

"Everything that could be broken was broken," Buchanan said. "We had to take a snow shovel and clear away debris just to have a press conference. We cleaned it up, but initial showings were a bit scary.

"It was 'Show me, don't tell me.'"

But it turned out there was a market for that type of property and it reached 100 percent occupancy in a down market before Buchanan sold it to an investor.

"People wanted something that was new, something funky, something that they could distinguish themselves with," Buchanan said.

Today, there is no shortage of downtown development. A week doesn't go by without an announcement of a renovation, reuse or sale of a downtown property.

"We were the first. But now there is plenty of development downtown," Cummings said. "It's good for us and for the community as a whole. But it's frustrating at the same time."

De Vries Properties has been developing properties in the North Monroe area as well. While the largest recent impact was felt with Cummings and Buchanan's projects, De Vries predates them.

"We got into urban renewal in the 1960s," said President Ed De Vries. "We thought it was a great idea at the time. But we actually ended up destroying all the city's great architectural buildings, like City Hall."

The three developers were joined by Bazzani Associates President and CEO Guy Bazzani at a packed CherieInn for a panel discussion on downtown redevelopment hosted by Grand Rapids Young Professionals.

"Some of our first projects on Division were actually ahead of the market," Cummings said. "I wouldn't call them failures …"

"Learning experiences?" asked DeVries.

"It's better to be the settler than the pioneer," Bazzani saied.

Those

Division Avenue
projects have since been absorbed into the Avenue of the Arts Cool Cities project. The presentation itself was held within the boundaries of another Cool Cities project, the Uptown Business District.

The issue of CoolCities and creative class was a topic the developers felt especially relevant to the young professional audience.

DeVries, the oldest person in the room, brought the subject up first. He advised the young professionals to become involved in the schools and the community. Then he talked about watching neighborhoods die.

He said that in his youth, AlgerHeights and BurtonHeights were both great neighborhoods. Even today, the homes and architecture there are on par with Heritage Hill, he said, but the neighborhoods remain blighted.

"When they built (U.S. 131), the traffic dried up. The businesses suffered and closed or moved out, and the neighborhoods fell apart," he said.

"Think local first," Bazzani said adamantly.

Bazzani is chairman of Local First, an organization founded to promote local business. He said that of every $100 spent at a local business, $73 goes back into the community. At a big box retailer, he said, only half of that remains in the community.

Cummings added that all the major players in the community started out as small businesses.

But in supporting local businesses, consumers must be willing to pay a little more. The economies of scale don't allow local businesses to compete end to end, he said. But in order to maintain the high quality of life enjoyed by West Michigan, the community should be prepared to pay for it.

Likewise, it was tax credits and subsidies like the Renaissance Zone abatements that provided the greatest incentive for developers to renovate downtown buildings in the first place.

"A developer can have all the passion in the world, but the numbers still have to add up," Buchanan said. "You can't say to construction workers, "Guess what guys? You're making a buck an hour today.'

"People who complain about why this guy got this or that, they just don't get it," he said. "You have to support these businesses as a city."

He advised calling politicians and writing the newspapers when important issues appear.

"There are a lot of old geezers who are trying to make these decisions for you and you need to show your support publicly," he said.    

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