Developers Top DDA Priorities

February 20, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — At a recent Downtown Development Authority strategic planning session, members agreed that their top fiscal priority was to continue to support economic development in the district.

"We've done extraordinarily well in that area," said Mayor George Heartwell, who has a seat on the board.

A survey of members revealed they felt that 51 percent of the board's revenue should be spent on furthering economic development downtown.

Topping the list of funding activities in that category were entering into agreements with private sector developers and continuing to award building reuse grants for the renovation of older structures within the district.

"We see ourselves as taking an active role in downtown," said DDA Chairwoman Kayem Dunn.

DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler said that since 1980, the year the board was formed, the state-chartered agency has pumped more than $120 million into a variety of projects that has helped leverage over $1.9 billion in private and institutional investment in downtown.

"This is the most successful DDA in the state. It has captured the most money and done the most good," said Dick Wendt, counsel to the DDA.

"I think we've been fairly careful in how we have used our money," added DDA board member David Cassard.

Board members said their second funding priority was to continue making infrastructure improvements, with wayfinding signs and snowmelt systems at the top of the grouping that would get 19 percent of the total spending.

Making streetscape upgrades was third at 16 percent of total spending. Reconstructing streets and backing beautification projects along the most visible downtown streets headed that category's project list.

The board's fourth and final priority was parks, open spaces and cultural enhancements. The DDA felt 13 percent of its spending should go into that category; increasing recreational opportunities along the Grand River and improving public walkways were the top items chosen.

Issues that were not related to funding also drew attention.

"Is there a big project like the arena that we should be thinking about?" asked Fowler.

Another issue was whether the DDA should expand its boundary because downtown has grown since the board came into existence. Members felt the current border has a tendency to create "winners" within its boundary, while leaving others just outside in the cold.

There seemed to be plenty of support among the members for expansion. But the local economy was seen by all as a legitimate barrier to any extension in the immediate future, as the city and county would have give up more property tax revenue to the DDA.

"The likelihood of being able to expand the boundary in this economy," said Heartwell, "is slim to none."    

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