Downtown Improvement Area Creates 'Momentum'

July 21, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — A mid-summer survey of assessment payers in the downtown improvement district reveals that 82 percent perceive downtown as clean, 79 percent perceive it as safe, 79 percent believe downtown’s appearance has improved through the efforts of the Downtown Alliance, 78 percent would like to see additional beautification efforts, and 70 percent agree that downtown Grand Rapids is cleaner than other cities of its size.

Bob Herr, chairman of the Downtown Improvement District board, said at the Downtown Alliance annual meeting Monday that the board is considering going from an annual assessment against business owners in the district to a multi-year assessment, a move that would require some city ordinance modifications.

Up until now, only business owners in the district have had to pay an annual assessment for the maintenance and beautification services provided by the Downtown Alliance via contracts with OneSource and Creekside Landscaping. Kurt Hassberger, immediate past chair of the Downtown Alliance, said the organization would like to bring residents of the district into the fold, as well. 

“We all recognize there’s a limit to how much we can raise through assessments. We don’t have any desire to raise assessments higher,” Hassberger said. “For the last few years, we’ve been looking at a couple of opportunities to raise money outside of assessments that we can use for further beautification downtown. We’re working on a resident membership program and have gone to all the condo associations. Downtown condo owners aren’t subject to the assessment that all the businesses and restaurants pay, so we’re trying to gild some of those folks into contributing to our organization.”  

The recent survey showed that 77 percent of those who pay assessments to the district believe that it’s important to market the downtown area, and 83 percent think festivals and events make the downtown more vibrant. Hassberger acknowledged the district’s marketing program has been a series of fits and starts over the years, but said the board believes it finally got it right.  

“We really have momentum going,” said Joe Tomaselli, vice chair of the alliance. “The tourism piece of it is very, very, very important. The merchants are the heart and soul of the downtown and they really convey in a strong way the flavor of Grand Rapids. Now we need to start creating more events, and Rosa Parks Circle should be the center of it.”

To that end, the alliance, in collaboration with the Downtown Development Authority, has instituted a downtown events and promotion assistance program that provides civic groups and businesses with funds of $100 to $1,000 — limited to reimbursement for actual expenses — to help coordinate and stage downtown events. As part of the deal, the alliance will e-mail notice of the event to all downtown businesses and list the event on the downtown Web site, as well.

“We’d like to see more things that showcase the cultural elements of downtown, and we’d like to find more ways to bring merchants together, such as in sidewalk sales,” said Downtown Alliance Executive Director Sharon Evoy. “We can help with the cost of the small event production costs.”

Evoy said maintenance and beautification, marketing and advocating for downtown have been the priorities since the district was established seven years ago, and they remain the priorities of business owners and the board today. She noted that maintenance crews are out and about the district six days a week.

There are currently about 4,000 to 5,000 people that reside downtown. Jay Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said the final component of a great downtown is the residential element and that it will take another 15,000 to 20,000 residents to locate downtown to achieve that.

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