DDA May Do Kitchen Duty

May 9, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Members of the Downtown Development Authority will decide Wednesday whether to pay for a catering kitchen for the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.

Museum officials have asked the DDA for nearly $205,000, money the nonprofit would use to build and equip a commercial kitchen in the Van Andel Museum Center at 272 Pearl St. NW. The museum created an in-house catering service as a pilot project two years ago and last year the business had gross sales of almost $500,000 through catering contracts with outside suppliers.

But the museum is now looking to handle the catering operations on its own.

“This pilot program was developed as an experiment using makeshift facilities. In order for in-house catering to become a permanent part of operations and the earned revenue stream, the museum must now construct a fully equipped catering kitchen,” co-wrote Museum Director Mary Esther Lee and Museum Board Chairman Dan Gaydou, also publisher of The Grand Rapids Press, in a memo to the DDA.

The museum’s director of hospitality, Robert Vandermeer, said the museum hosts 150 events annually and can cater up to five a week. “Surprisingly, 80 percent of our clients wanted the catering done by the museum,” he said.

Vandermeer also said that the catering service would only be available to museum customers and wouldn’t compete with commercial entities for business.

DDA Chairwoman Kayem Dunn asked Executive Director Jay Fowler if the board could legally fund the kitchen’s construction, as the panel hasn’t authorized the spending of public monies in a manner quite like this before. Fowler said he thought so because the DDA would be financially supporting a cultural improvement within its district.

“It’s not a public improvement in the usual sense, but it is a public entity,” he said of the museum. “It is an unusual request.”

Vandermeer said the museum’s current kitchen is more suitable to warming food, not creating dishes, and that the museum wants to begin construction next month.

“We’ve worked with a couple of contractors to make this as affordable as possible. We’re buying some used equipment,” he said.

Funds for the kitchen likely wouldn’t be allocated until July, if board members approve the museum’s request this week. Those dollars will be part of the new fiscal year budget, which starts July 1, and would come from the local tax increment fund — the account that captures revenue from improvements that property owners made in the district.

“It seems like this is something that will help the museum become a viable entity,” said Mayor George Heartwell, who represents the City Commission on the DDA.

The city cut its ties with the museum a few years ago, resulting in a loss of financial support for the museum from the city. Former DDA member Thomas Wesholski, who headed the museum’s recent reorganization, said the nonprofit lost $2 million in city funding and has cut $1 million from its operating budget.

Board members will also be asked Wednesday to help fund the reconstruction of Lyon Street from Division to Lafayette avenues, a three-month project that began last week. The DDA is being asked to pitch in with $608,000 for the duct-work portion of the $2.9 million project.

“It doesn’t make sense to do the roads and not what’s underneath,” said board member David Cassard.

“It’s a matter of getting all our ducts in a row,” added Fowler.

The DDA had been asked earlier to help fund the project but couldn’t, as that stretch of Lyon Street wasn’t in the board’s district then. But since the city expanded the DDA district in February, those blocks are in the board’s boundary.

“It’s a very good project to get done. I would like the DDA to do it because the city can’t afford to,” said Heartwell.

There is another problem, though. The DDA doesn’t have enough unallocated funds left in this fiscal year to pick up the tab and will have to take the money from the 2009 budget, which the board will vote on next month. That likely means the DDA will have to delay funding another project, possibly work that has been scheduled for Ionia Avenue, in order to meet the Lyon Street request.

“Most of the unallocated (money) has been set out for future years when we know we have a project,” said Fowler.

The DDA is also likely to be asked to help fund two other street projects in the very near future. One is the reconstruction of Wealthy Street from Division to Lafayette avenues. The other is rebuilding Jefferson Avenue from Wealthy to Cherry streets. The DDA would help pay for the purchase and installation of decorative street lights along Wealthy and help fund the new landscaping and street lighting on Jefferson.

Fowler said both projects would enhance the work the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids, the Inner City Christian Federation, Saint Mary’s Health Care and Mary Free Bed Hospital are doing in that section of the city, which is just southeast of the downtown core.

Fowler told members of the DDA’s Priority Committee that he wasn’t certain how much money the board would end up allocating to the street projects.

“I think it would be an improvement to the appearance of the street,” he said. “It seems like if we’re going to do it, this would be the time.”

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