Insiders Speak Out

March 31, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — With first-time developer Duane Faust unveiled as the leader of the RiverGrand project (see related story), the legitimacy of the project has been questioned and a few of  the project area’s current property owners wonder whether the large corporate backers and corporate household names they were told had interest are still involved.

Tom Dowling, principal of Grand Rapids-based Design Pinnacle Inc. and RiverGrand’s lead architect, said Faust’s ambitious project is very much a reality.

“There are always going to be a few nay-sayers out there,” he said. “But I assure you that his ability to do this project is there. He has the financial wherewithal behind him and I know who the investors are. This is still a huge project.”

Dowling did not reveal the identity of those investors, nor did he say whether their involvement was tentative. He reiterated Faust’s statements that the project is still evolving, and that no drawings were under way.

“We wouldn’t have gotten involved and made the investment we have thus far without a number of groups who were looking forward to creating something terrific in Grand Rapids,” Faust assured.

Dowling — no stranger to controversy himself with his involvement with the Salvation Army Community Center once planned for Garfield Park — first met Faust two years ago through mutual friend Delain Roberts, the Los Angeles record executive and Grand Rapids native who introduced Faust to the region. The architect said that the community response has emboldened the development team.

“I’ve lived here all my life and never seen so much enthusiasm,” he said. “Everyone wants something really big to happen in Grand Rapids, they’re encouraged that something of this magnitude is happening here.”

Several insiders were surprised to learn that Faust — with no development experience — was the driving force behind the project.

Deborah Shurlow of Grubb & Ellis/Paramount, the broker spearheading the land acquisition, had been hired by David Minkin, the Atlanta attorney representing Faust.

Eric Wynsma, one of the most vocal supporters among the landowners, had never heard of Faust.

“When this thing was pitched to me, there were some very notable names attached to it,” he said. “If they had mentioned Duane Faust, I would have done a Google search on him and found out everything we’re learning now. … What I want to know is why they’re not saying any of these big names to let people know this is for real.”

Now, Wynsma fears that perhaps the national players once connected to the project were never involved. He did point out that Minkin — easily a $400-an-hour attorney — had spent a lengthy period working on the option of his

Grandville Avenue
property. Wynsma said that fact, and the involvement of reputable brokers Shurlow and Bill Bowling, was proof to him that RiverGrand had some legitimate financial backers.

“But I think they may have fallen in love with the same things I did, this list of people that were supposed to be doing this project,” he said of the real estate agents. “We were given some names to think it was believable, and now all the brand name horsepower guys have faded away. I don’t know if it ever had merit or if this whole thing was just somebody with a dream.”

Faust has a letter of interest from a Beverly Hills, Calif., investment firm dated April 2005 that indicates the firm would be “interested” in contributing $37 million to the project once it was farther along, according to WXMI FOX-17 News, but that such a letter should in no way be construed as a commitment.

Wynsma said he did do his own due diligence, but the original pitch in no way included Faust. He did not divulge the entities that were originally attached to the project.

Peter Secchia, who has been the behind-the-scenes backer on numerous downtown revitalization projects, believes the scenario is not out of the ordinary. Nearly all projects start with a “soft money” phase, he said, with investors and partners still settling as the developer forwards a general concept.

Grand Rapids works because people have dreams,” Secchia said. “And then they have good partners and Grand Rapids makes altruistic contributions to good projects sometimes. … I don’t think they’re that far yet.”

Wynsma, who has yet to receive a deposit for the option he granted on his property, doesn’t believe that is the case.

“I was told the financing was there, the money was in place, and the only way this wouldn’t happen is if there was a collapse of the worldwide economy,” he said. “That was a lie, and now this whole thing looks like a hoax. … Frankly, I’m grateful to (Mark) London, he forced it down their throat. If he hadn’t, we’d still be waiting on this for months.”

Secchia noted development projects begin with “soft money’ for options, and confidentiality to prevent overblown pricing on properties of interest. “Then comes the hard money,” he said, “London tried to force them to ‘hard money’ but the hard cash is probably not ready yet or all secured.”

The development group did not address the breakdown last month of the purchase of

234 Market Ave. SW
, the former factory slated to open as Mark London’s Showgirls Galleria. London, one of the earliest and loudest skeptics of the project, had set strict terms on his property’s option, including a 15-day time limit.    

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