GR DDA Going Shopping

March 17, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Now that the four-month pilot program is over, the Downtown Development Authority plans to carve out a strategy to help shop owners in its district and draw new retailers to downtown.

The effort will try to increase support for existing stores, attract more new businesses and bring more cash-spending customers downtown.

DDA Retail Consultant Anne Marie Bessette, DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler and Downtown Alliance Executive Director Sharon Evoy met with 60 retailers during the fall and winter months to get their takes on what it's like to do business downtown. The difficulties varied, ranging from not enough parking to high rents for storefronts to having panhandlers scare away potential customers.

"During the four-month process, we lost two businesses," said Bessette, referring to the Flute Boutique on East Fulton, which closed, and EQ3, which moved to Plainfield Avenue.

But 76 percent of those interviewed said they were doing "very well" or "well" business-wise.

Hotel guests, downtown workers and convention-goers were named as the top three groups that make up a shop owner's typical customers. Downtown residents were part of the second customer tier, which also included college students and museum visitors.

DDA member Joseph Tomaselli, also longtime president of the Amway Hotel Corp., said conventions, concerts and downtown residences were bringing customers to the district. He said retail traffic will grow as more residents move into condominiums and apartments, and a denser downtown population will bring more businesses into the district.

"The residential piece is probably the piece of cake," said Tomaselli, who added that all the medical development and educational expansion taking place should also increase retail traffic downtown.

"I think it's going to continue to grow with all the elements that are coming," he said.

But DDA member and County Commissioner Paul Mayhue said a key issue for retail success is downtown's affordability. He felt that high-priced condos exclude the "common person" who has "daily-bread money" to spend, and that price barrier could confine their purchases to their neighborhoods instead of downtown.

"Who are you marketing to?" he asked, rhetorically.

Just a few of the recommendations the DDA will look at to increase support for existing retailers include minimizing street closures, organizing professional workshops, and creating a storefront improvement program for shopkeepers similar to the building reuse program the board offers to building owners.

Developing an initial downtown merchandising plan is one of nearly a dozen ideas the DDA will examine in its effort to draw new businesses to the district. Working with the Downtown Alliance's marketing plan and pushing the free 60 minutes of parking that is available during the day in the Monroe Center ramp are two of the half-dozen action steps the DDA will look at.

The retail study cost the DDA $11,000. The board extended its contract with Bessette last week through the end of the fiscal year by allocating $8,000 for her services.

Of the 60 retailers interviewed for the Downtown Development Authority's retail pilot project, a dozen offered clothes and shoes for sale. Here is a list of businesses by category that participated in the project.

Category

     Number    

Category

     Number    

Clothing & Shoes

12

Sporting Goods
Specialty Shop Furniture & Home
Book, News & Music Jewelry Store
Art Gallery & Framing Restaurant
Grocery Store Pharmacy
Alterations & Tailoring Shoe Repair
Florist & Gifts Spa
Museum Toys
Office Supplies
Source: Downtown Development Authority, Economic Development Retail Pilot Project, March 2008

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