Not By The Book

August 15, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Members of the Downtown Development Authority awarded $100,000 in building-reuse grants last week and ended up writing a new chapter in the popular incentive program with half of that award.

Board members gave RB Books Inc. a $50,000 grant to help owner Debra Lambers with the build-out of a new bookstore and coffee bar at 28 Fountain St. NW, an address that makes up the north side of the former Steketee’s Department Store building.

Lambers will use the funds to provide barrier-free access in the 7,600-square-foot bookstore, to install a fire-suppression system, and to make utility upgrades and façade improvements.

RB Books plans to invest up to $980,000 in the business, and the landlord — an LLC led by Rockford Development — has given Lambers incentives to move into the space. The bookstore will be accessible from 86 Monroe Center, the official address of the Steketee’s building.

“It’s a general-interest, full-scale, New York Times bestseller bookstore, with an award-winning children’s section,” said Lambers, who wants to open by Nov. 1.

Lambers said she hopes to add a student bookstore in the lower level and plans to bring notable authors into the store for book signings. She told the DDA she needs the grant to bridge the gap between available financing and the project’s cost. Lambers, a Grand Rapids native, has owned a bookstore and coffee shop in Montague for three years.

Three things, though, make this DDA award different from those the board has given in the past.

First, the request came from the tenant and not the building owner.

Second, most grants go to buildings that are largely vacant and in need of work. But the seven-story Steketee’s building was renovated last year and is nearly filled with Blue Cross Blue Shield of West Michigan and Independent Bank. When the bookstore opens, the building will be full except for some space on the lower level.

Third, the building is situated in the city’s newest Renaissance Zone — which means that many state and local taxes are exempted there through 2017 — and is already receiving public support.

The city has long considered a bookstore to be an anchor that is capable of attracting other retailers to downtown, a point supported by the Voices and Visions report a decade ago. Downtown Books, the district’s last bookseller, closed its doors about 17 years ago.

“The ground floor remains vacant and this is a good opportunity to draw retailers downtown,” said Jay Fowler, DDA executive director, who added that retail is the most difficult space to fill in the district.

Lambers said she plans to hire four full-time employees and 20 part-time workers.

The other $50,000 award went to developer Joe Neiwick, who is renovating a two-story building at 139 S. Division Ave. — former home of The Reptile House and the structure that has a mural of the city’s early furniture history on the south exterior wall.

Neiwick plans to develop the ground floor for a shoe store owned by Jason Stewart, who has a three-year lease on the space. Stewart, who hopes to open by early October, will spend about $25,000 on his build-out. Neiwick said he has invested $30,000 into the project since he bought the building from Larry Zeiser, who converted the second floor into living space.

Neiwick said the ground-floor renovation is expected to cost him $143,000 and the DDA funds will be spent on façade improvements and barrier-free access in the building.    

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