2006 A Year For The Mystery Lover

December 22, 2006
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Everybody likes a mystery, and whether it was Duane Faust's spectacular RiverGrand proposal, the downtown location of the new MSU medical school, Cabela's, or the donors behind George Heartwell's legal defense fund, this was a year of whodunits for all.

January

The curtains opened on 2006 with a call for cultural organizations and performing arts groups to play a major role in the new economy. At center stage was the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries with a strategy to leverage the state's creative talent and cultural assets — already worth a collective $2.5 billion annually — into economic growth.

But the spotlight belonged to Mayor George Heartwell's New Economy Task Force. The diverse group of residents and stakeholders evaluated the city's policies toward economic development over the course of two years, forming a broad list of recommendations ranging from tax abatements to regionalism and neighborhood investment.

Exiting the stage were Grand Valley State University President Mark Murray and Taubman Centers Inc. Murray was named president of Meijer Inc., kicking off a six-month search for a successor that ended with the July selection of Thomas Haas, then president of the State University of New York's College of Architecture and Technology at Cobleskill. Taubman Centers sold Woodland Mall for $177.4 million to Pennsylvania Real Estate Trust.

Michigan remained a "high outbound" state, according to the 2005 migration study by United Van Lines. Moving in the other direction was the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, as its WestMichiganMedicalSchool expansion was named the 2006 Newsmaker of the Year.

Saint Mary's Health Care purchased 12 commercial lots from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. adjacent to its

Jefferson Avenue
campus. The land was to be used for future expansion and possibly as a home for the MSU medical school. Eleven months later, the med school's home is still a mystery, but it won't be on Jefferson. In the fall, MSU said it would prefer a site on
Michigan Street
's Medical Mile, and subsequently purchased a lot at the corner of
College Avenue
for contingency purposes.

The Grand Angels investment network made Jason Pliml and Mock Draft Central LLC a first-round draft pick. Pliml's firm is a provider of fantasy sports drafting technology and operates a multi-player, real-time, live-draft Web site.

From left field, Independent Bank's Standale location became the first stand-alone bank branch open for business on Sundays.

A furor erupted between the Grand Rapids City Commission and its Parking Commission as city officials bypassed the auxiliary commission during months-long negotiations with Jack Buchanan's Split Rock Development LLC for an underground parking structure in the Monroe North Business District.

"That we weren't approached absolutely blows my mind," said Parking Commissioner Daniel Barcheski, who would later leave the panel.

The criticism did little to diminish the mayor's enthusiasm. A week later, Heartwell laid out some ambitious goals in his third State of the City address, including a plan to create sustainable business hubs within the city, a campaign for state tax incentives to benefit knowledge-based industries, and an initiative to forward this agenda called the Horizon Committee.

The green business park concept nearly came to life with New York real estate firm Ashley Capital's proposal for the 206-acre former Steelcase campus in Grand Rapids, but later proposals concentrated on commercial uses.

Heartwell was in the news more than any local leader this year, but not for his early-year priorities, as he largely abandoned those for social issues such as strip clubs, smoking and affirmative action.

February

Just after the New Year, city officials began discussing the possibility of selling roughly 19 acres of city land at

201 Market Ave. SW
, commonly known as the Public Works Island.

As it turns out, this piece of riverfront land — believed by many to be the largest downtown development opportunity of the modern age — was the key parcel in a massive redevelopment plan with the potential to represent one of the largest investments ever in downtown Grand Rapids. For well over a year, an unknown developer had been working with property owners and high-ranking city officials on what would become known as the "mystery development."

The project, which was the handiwork of Deborah Shurlow, a broker with then Grubb & Ellis|Paramount, captured the imagination of a community in desperate need of some good news. Within a week, rumors of casinos, NFL stadiums and major record labels were rampant. Shurlow went on TV and fanned the flames, calling it a multi-billion dollar development worth thousands of jobs.

"They indicated it was something huge. I didn't question it, but they were talking 10,000 jobs," said strip-club owner Mark London, whose Showgirls Galleria adult-entertainment complex sits within the mystery development footprint. In the coming weeks, London rode the interest to unlikely celebrity.

In all the excitement, the North Monroe parking ramp proposal quietly died.

Elsewhere, the Van Andel Institute and GrandValleyStateUniversity became partners in a 5,000-square-foot Good Manufacturing Practice lab slated to open in June 2007 that could boost the region's life science industry as a center of development and human clinical trials for new drugs and treatments.

Grandville color expert X-Rite Inc. struck a partnership of sorts as well, announcing a merger with Swiss firm Amazys Holding AG for $280 million.

March

Rumors of a local presence from Cabela's, the nation's largest specialty retailer of hunting, fishing and outdoor merchandise leaked on the heels of the mystery development. Walker Orchard Land Partners, a consortium of out-of-state and local interests, had hopes to carve out a 70-acre portion of its huge 240-acre development on Walker's northwest side for the shopping destination, renowned for its ability to attract tourists. The Dundee location is purportedly the No. 1 tourist attraction in Michigan, with more than 5 million visitors a year.

Now known as OrchardPark, the massive "New Urbanism" community has since been granted the necessary rezoning to proceed, but construction is not yet underway. Cabela's is indeed interested in locating there — this month it requested $15 million in tax incentives to do so.

A "blood feud" developed between the American Red Cross Great Lakes Region and MichiganCommunityBloodCenters, as the two organizations battled over the life-saving resource. Flaunting a long-standing agreement, the Red Cross had begun staging collection drives for the purpose of exporting blood out of KentCounty

The Black Hills Citizens for a Better Community announced it had raised $100,000 in partnership with the Michigan Decency Action Council to pay any legal fees the city incurs in enacting a ban on erotic entertainment. Likely the most controversial ordinance in a year pockmarked with questionable city legislation, the ban was upheld by a federal judge in October. The donors to the legal defense fund were never identified.

London was the most visible of three landowners negotiating with Shurlow and mystery development attorney David Minkin of Atlanta firm Powell Goldstein LLP. An agreement was reached and London paid a $100,000 deposit, but the deal fell through, leading to widespread speculation that the then-legendary mystery development had fallen apart. London's strip club opened in the fall, and has struggled under the new regulations.

OttawaCounty named Grand Rapids firm Broadbreeze Communications the vendor for its countywide wireless broadband Internet initiative. A wholly owned subsidiary of SourcIT, the information technology division of accounting firm Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter, Broadbreeze also submitted a proposal to the city of Grand Rapids wireless Internet initiative. In November, the city chose a competing technology to Broadbreeze's 3G cellular standards — WiMAX — when it selected Washington-based Clearwire as its program vendor.

Revenue sharing was a hot issue among local municipalities, who railed against the state's continued cuts. State legislators did not expect the cutbacks to be restored.

Film industry professionals across the state were hopeful that a bill for a series of substantial tax credits for producing feature films, TV programs and commercials in Michigan would be approved by the State Senate Finance Committee.    

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