GR Merchants Council Making Strides

March 30, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The word on the street, and in the shops, is the Downtown Merchants Council has become a solid and unifying voice in a very short time for its retailers, restaurant owners and service providers.

Formed as a committee within the Downtown Alliance in 2006, the council has been able to have a strikingly positive impact on issues that largely have had little but negative effects for these small businesses over many years.

Those issues include street closings, detours and parking restrictions enforced during the lengthy road-repair season, during construction projects and during special events that are held downtown. Then there are the events themselves, which often haven’t included the everyday downtown merchant and restaurant owner in the celebrations. In fact, organizers often have brought in outside vendors for their events that directly compete with some of the tax-paying merchants for business.

“We knew we wanted to have a Merchants Council because we knew we wanted to give a voice to the merchant businesses,” said Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Downtown Alliance.

“By merchant, I mean the consumer-oriented businesses like retail, the restaurants, the hair salons and services like that. We wanted to give them a voice so they would have a way to participate,” she added.

Although some of these business owners have served on the Alliance’s board since its inception in 2001, Evoy said the board felt the merchants required their own organization because their needs are different from the business-to-business services that also populate downtown.

“So they could say, ‘Here are some of the things that we want to work on, here are some things that we want to improve,’ and they would have the ability to do that,” said Evoy.

The council drafted a work plan last year that has focused its members’ attention on five areas they want to positively affect.

One area of focus is becoming more involved with the events that are held downtown each year: About 120 are expected to take place this year alone. The council has met with event organizers to see how merchants can have more participation, and some of those get-togethers have produced encouraging results.

“Celebration on the Grand is a great example,” said Evoy

“They added a new part to the event last year they called ‘A Taste of Downtown,’ where downtown restaurants had booths. For the downtown restaurants, it was a great marketing tool. It gave people a chance to taste some of the things that they have in their restaurants and, hopefully, that taste will bring them back to the restaurant.”

Evoy said the Merchants Council is also working with event organizers and the city’s Office of Special Events, headed by Todd Tofferi, to ensure that any street closings take place as late as possible to minimize the loss of revenue a closure can inflict on a business owner.

But Evoy said the council is also looking at the other side of the event coin and working to figure out what it can do to draw event-goers to the member stores and restaurants. With the annual Fifth Third River Bank Run just around the corner, council members started to form their strategy for that event a few months ago.

“These events are coming into downtown as more of a partner with the downtown businesses than before. We’re working with them in trying to coordinate activities so they’re not harmful to the businesses, but, in fact, are beneficial.”

Other issues council members are working on include making sure that residents have comprehensive and accurate information about the businesses, as listed on the Alliance’s Web site, www.downtowngr.org, and working with the Alliance’s Marketing Council to get the word out about what they have to offer.

Members are also investigating what joint advertising ventures could do for their shops and restaurants. Some have already enacted those agreements. And the council is trying to ensure that all communications made to the public have a unified voice.

“I have been so impressed with the progress that the Downtown Alliance has made in the last year and a half,” said Mary Tolsma, a customer experience specialist at Custer Workplace Interiors who also offered special praise for the work Evoy has done.

“I really feel that we are now having an impact on decisions that are being made relating to the businesses in the heart of the city.

“What a change from the earlier meetings,” she added. “I appreciate the Alliance and being able to personally participate.”

Dan Gelder, president of San Chez Restaurants Inc., chairs the Merchants Council, and Evoy said he is the right person for the post because he can see the bigger picture.

“Dan doesn’t come in as the owner of San Chez, but as a merchant business,” said Evoy.

“Occasionally, we will talk about an issue that some businesses may have that Dan is not having, and he is more than willing to make sure it gets properly discussed and to go to bat on something like that,” she said.

Gendler told the Business Journal that the Merchants Council has been helpful for its member businesses and is headed in the right direction. He said that the new avenue of communication the council has established with the city for event planning and parking is one big accomplishment. Another, he said, has been the co-op advertising and promotions the businesses have employed.

“The interaction with festivals such as the Celebration on the Grand and the new bicycle race has been great and continues to get better each year,” said Gendler.

The strides the Alliance and its Merchants Council have been able to make in such a short time are noteworthy, especially in the improved relationship the businesses have with event organizers. But it’s only the beginning.

Evoy said more work needs to be done and for a very good reason.

“The businesses here are crucial to the success of downtown,” she said. “At the same point, we need all the events; they’re vibrant and they bring new people downtown. So we need to find a way to make this really beneficial for both sides, and I think the Merchants Council is doing a great job with that.”

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