Downtown Retail Drawing Attention

May 20, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The success that one of downtown’s newest retailers has had is just the type of news the Downtown Development Authority wants to hear.

David Guertin, owner of One Girl’s Treasure, which opened on the ground floor of 5 Lyon St. NW in November, recently said business has been brisk for his resale clothing boutique that largely caters to female students.

“We’ve had such tremendous support from the local student body and the community in general. This relationship keeps high-end, affordable women’s clothing in the store and serves as a resource for students looking for a little money on the side,” said Guertin in a release.

“It’s sustainable, it’s relationship-oriented and it’s an attractive concept in Grand Rapids,” he added.

Retail growth and sustainability are two factors the DDA has begun to look at since the board recently completed a survey of downtown shop owners. DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler said his board has decided to pay closer attention to retailers in the district because no other group has focused on economic vitality at the street level on a consistent basis.

“We initially decided that we need to get to know our retailers better,” he said.

That decision led Fowler and Anne Marie Bessette, who is leading the retail effort for the DDA, to speak with about 55 storeowners in the district to find out how they were doing business-wise and what they needed to improve their businesses.

“I think the report is a good example of where we stand today and where we have to go,” said Fowler.

Fowler and Bessette learned that nearly three-quarters of the owners they surveyed said things were going either “very well” or “well” at their businesses, with an even response between the two “wells.” But 10 percent said things weren’t going well at all.

“Some people did very well and had their best year in years,” said Bessette. “Some people didn’t do very well.”

More marketing efforts, events and parking were prominent items on the most-wanted list retailers gave Fowler and Bessette. In turn, they met with parking commissioners recently to share what the shop owners had to say about parking and to ask them if they could rearrange the signs at the downtown ramps and lots.

“This turns out to be a complicated issue,” said Bessette of the parking responses.

Third Ward City Commissioner Elias Lumpkins, also a parking commissioner, suggested to Fowler that the DDA should consider adding the word “parking” to the wayfinding sign system the board installed downtown a few years ago to help point visitors in the general direction of nearby ramps and lots.

Parking Commissioner David Leonard, though, pointed out that marketing parking by itself can be a pointless exercise.

“People don’t come downtown to park. They come downtown to do something else and need a place to park,” said Leonard. “I do think it’s a coordinated marketing effort and not a solo one that has to be done.”

To that coordinated effort, Ritsema said she and her staff are in the process of identifying when and where the city could offer free parking or discounted rates to help encourage retail traffic downtown. Fowler said the DDA has mapped out a plan of its own to do the same.

“The attempt to fill vacant storefronts is the role that we’re going to be playing,” he said.

For Guertin, location and the idea of sustainability have played big roles in his success. One Girl’s Treasure is in the former Commerce Building at Lyon and Ionia Avenue.

Once an office structure, the building now offers student housing a few blocks from two college campuses.

The Rockford Development Group, a majority owner of 5 Lyon, is planning to convert the building’s remaining two floors into more student housing.

Of the 18 employees Guertin has hired for One Girl’s Treasure, seven live in the building.

“Everyone involved wins. One Girl’s Treasure is a part of the urban renewal movement to bring business and commerce downtown. We are giving new purpose to old products, then selling them at an affordable price — and we’re employing our neighbors,” he said.

“That’s sustainability at its best.”

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