Bigger Could Very Well Mean Getting Better

January 7, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — An old adage claims that the proof is in the pudding. Well, in this case, the pudding is all the activity in downtown Grand Rapids.

A little more than a decade ago, during the pre-Van Andel Arena era, there were just as many vacant or nearly vacant structures as there were occupied buildings dotting the core blocks of downtown. That meant there often were more squirrels than people scurrying along the district’s streets after the workday was done.

Then the Downtown Development Authority swung into action.

Not only did the board, chaired at the time by the late Verne Barry, agree to a bond package that paid for most of the arena construction, which was a catalyst for multiple millions of investments, members also created a program to assist building owners in the district. The Building Reuse and Improvement Program, or BRIP, awarded qualified applicants grants for upgrades like façade enhancements, new elevators and fire-suppression systems. Essentially, the DDA became a silent partner in these redevelopment projects.

“When discussing the environment at the time we began the BRIP program, I often recall that we did a windshield survey of the downtown area in 1995, and we found over 70 buildings that were vacant or substantially underutilized,” said Jay Fowler, executive director of the quasi-public body.

“A task force studied this problem and recommended that the DDA establish a program along the lines of the BRIP program. It has been successful beyond our expectations.”

Since the program’s creation, the DDA has awarded 80 BRIP grants totaling $2.3 million, and those awards have helped leverage at least $70 million worth of investments in downtown buildings. Fowler said he believes the actual figure is much higher, as the reported number comes directly from the grant applications, while owners normally end up putting more money into their projects once work gets going.

“I think the redevelopment in downtown Grand Rapids is so remarkable. You can walk all over the downtown area and see the benefits. You can point to specific buildings that have had a grant, or some sort of support, and have improved because of DDA funds,” said Kayem Dunn, DDA chairwoman.

At the midpoint of this fiscal year, the board had awarded $300,000 in grants for another $6.2 million worth of investments. And next year the BRIP awards could be even larger, as the DDA recently got bigger. When city commissioners amended the board’s district last month, they doubled the DDA’s reach and influence to 677 acres and paid homage to downtown’s continued economic growth for the long term. The expansion plan, which the DDA approved in the fall, holds promise for the future based on the board’s past performance, exemplified by the arena bonds and BRIP program.

There are two schools of thought behind what leads to long-term economic growth. One is that good jobs must be available in an area in order to bring talented individuals to it. The other says the talent must come first; that having talented individuals in an area will lead to the creation of good jobs, and economic growth will follow. Expanding the DDA district could very well lead to having more places for the highly-sought-after creative class to live, work and play in downtown. A continued remaking of an expanded downtown certainly could deliver jobs and economic growth — not just to the district, but also to the larger region.

“We are creating economic vitality and, therefore, creating a stronger tax base,” said Mayor George Heartwell, also a DDA member.

“When downtown Grand Rapids is strong and vital, the impact of that is property values and surrounding communities are stronger. If downtown fails, then that has a rippling effect into our neighboring cities and townships.”    

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