DDA Going After Retail

September 17, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Downtown Development Authority agreed last week to begin a four-month pilot program to support retailers in the district and hopefully draw more of these business owners to downtown.

Board members gave DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler the green light to hire Anne Marie Bessette to direct the new effort. Bessette previously worked for the Neighborhood Business Specialist Program and helped direct the marketing activities for a number of business districts in the city. Fowler said Bessette would be a part-time temporary employee who will work roughly 20 hours a week on the pilot project through the end of the year. The DDA allocated $9,000 to the position.

Fowler also said retail is the weakest business sector downtown, with office and housing easily surpassing merchandisers. The defunct Downtown Management Board, which ended its run a decade ago, was the last group that consistently tried to promote downtown retail.

“This is not something that anybody has been focusing on for about 10 years,” said Fowler of the DDA project.

The Downtown Alliance, which has a merchant’s council, reported there are 41 retailers in the district.

While two stores are opening in downtown soon, one left in early July. Schuler’s Books and Music is going into 86 Monroe Center, and One Girl’s Treasure is moving into the former Commerce Building at 5 Lyon St. But Neihoff Fine Art Galleries closed after a short run on Monroe Center.

Downtown Alliance Executive Director Sharon Evoy said Plenty Creative had recently put together a marketing campaign to draw people to the district. The campaign has a “Let’s Go” theme and encourages people to eat, shop and play downtown. She said the ads have been on buses for about a month.

“If you put advertising on buses, it gets into the neighborhoods,” said Evoy.

Two DDA members, though, criticized the campaign. John Canepa said the word “downtown” was printed too small on the ad, so it wasn’t clear where people should go to eat, shop and play. Cathy Meuller said just because the ad is on a bus doesn’t mean it is visible to people.

But Mayor George Heartwell described the ad as having a “youthful image.” Gwen O’Brien of Plenty Creative told the board the ad wasn’t designed for a specific demographic group, but rather for the overall characteristic that downtown emits.

“We’re trying to appeal to an exciting, youthful energy that is downtown. We’re not really targeting young people,” said O’Brien, who owns Plenty Creative with Dottie Rhoades.

Evoy said the alliance was creating opportunities for retailers to share ads in local media outlets as an effort to reduce the merchants’ marketing costs.

Convention and Visitors Bureau Marketing Director Janet Korn said downtown is being promoted as part of the Pure Michigan radio campaign. The ads have an eight-week run that goes through October.

“Pure Michigan, as a brand, is about finding things that aren’t on every corner,” she said.

“We want to have a radio campaign this fall, when so many great things are happening downtown,” added Korn.

The DDA committed $140,000 in April to promote downtown and advertise some of this year’s and next year’s downtown events. The alliance and CVB are receiving those ad dollars.

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