Minority Report Draws Attention

September 3, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Convention and Arena Authority Chairman Steven Heacock said it is time for the board to act. And with that directive in mind, CAA Executive Director Rich MacKeigan said he would return to next month’s meeting with an idea of how the board should make its first move.

“We now owe them,” said Heacock. “Our commitment will drive their action.”

Heacock was referring to African-American and Latino residents who participated in four focus group interview sessions held last December and May, an initiative driven by Heacock, MacKeigan and CAA member Clif Charles.

The purpose of the sessions was to find out how the CAA could get these two minority groups more involved with events at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place, most notably the performance hall located inside the convention center.

“Quite honestly, it’s dollars and cents — that’s the business question,” said Skot Welch of Diversity Management Strategists.

Welch answered the question himself by pointing out that African-American households have raised their annual entertainment spending by 29 percent over the past five years, to $1,124. He said over the same time Hispanic households have spent 24 percent more on entertainment, reaching an average of $1,409 per year.

“This is an ongoing trend, something that is increasing,” he said.

Welch and Joe Jones of Strategic Communications Group conducted the sessions for the CAA and recently reported their findings to the board. After those sessions were held, Jones said they brought leaders of both groups together in a separate meeting to make sure they didn’t miss anything.

“We’re trying to connect the dots between what’s done here and the rest of the community,” Jones said to board members.

Welch and Jones said the interviews revealed four recurring themes that, if enacted, would get these groups more involved with events at the buildings. Here are those themes:

• Make the staff at both buildings more reflective of the minority population, as they could offer daily input to management on how to reach other minorities. Having more bilingual workers would help, as would a larger number of minority ushers and concession servers for events that appeal to blacks and Latinos

• Spend more money to bring top-notch talent here.

• Begin a diversity program for vendors wanting to do business with the buildings.

• Develop a community reinvestment strategy that would, for instance, reward minority students who show leadership qualities. Tickets to events would be a good reward.

Jones and Welch felt each theme would take a minimum of one year and a maximum of two years to enact. But Heacock pointed out that last year’s passage of Proposal 2, which bans preferential treatment in the public sector, would likely make it difficult to create a diversity program for suppliers because the CAA is a public body.

Additional considerations that came from the interviews were to allow minority youth to advise management, encourage downtown restaurant owners to hire more minorities, and make the CAA more reflective of the community. The seven-member board currently has one white female and one black male.

“We want to move this at a pace that we can actually get something done,” said Charles.

CAA member Lew Chamberlin said more information is coming, as is the final report that DMS and SCG will submit. Board member Joseph Tomaselli said a good way to get young minorities involved with the buildings would be through internships, as he felt that educating young people about the business is vital.

Gary McInerney, also a board member, said the CAA should attend minority-oriented events held in the buildings as a group to gain more understanding of the culture and to meet members of those communities personally in an informal setting like a concert.

“I’ll have to work on my Spanish,” he said.

Heacock made a keen observation. He said when he attends minority events with Jones, whom he called a friend, he is welcomed in a different way because of whom he is with. But Charles, the board’s only African-American, explained that minorities also need to attend events not in their ethnic base to get a better understanding of white culture.

“Part of that is being at events you normally don’t attend. I have to make that initial effort to go to something,” he said.

Welch and Jones are also conducting focus groups for the Convention and Visitors Bureau and SMG, the firm that manages daily operations at the arena and DeVos Place. Jones told the CAA that SMG was a great help during the interviews.

“It’s a real nice feeling to come to the arena when an event isn’t on,” he said, “and get that much attention.”

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