Finding The Right Site

October 22, 2008
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Convention and Arena Authority Chairman Steven Heacock wants an outdoor amphitheater to be a “landmark structure” for musicians and music fans and a “postcard venue” for visitors and residents, if the proposed $30 million facility gets built.

The building plan has covered seating for up to 6,000 and room for up to 7,000 more on the venue’s spacious lawn, along with parking and possibly some VIP suites. The blueprint, which hasn’t been finalized, shows a ticket booth; concession stands; a brick plaza that could hold separate events, like ethnic festivals, of its own; a staging building; a main stage; and an auxiliary stage. Everything would be built to meet LEED standards.

All that is needed to set a starting date for an estimated 18 months worth of construction is the facility’s final design and $30 million — not exactly a trivial matter. But one big hurdle has already been cleared: the amphitheater’s location.

“Millennium Park is proud to have the amphitheater, and the amphitheater is proud to be in Millennium Park,” said Rich MacKeigan, SMG regional general manager and executive director of the CAA.

Millennium Park sits on 1,500 acres in northwest Kent County and is owned by the county. A $50,000 site study commissioned by the CAA, paid for by SMG, and conducted by Progressive AE and FTL Design Engineering Studio revealed that a northeast corner of the park was best suited for the “postcard venue.”

That section lies in the city of Grand Rapids and is the portion of the park closest to downtown, which is home to Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place — two buildings the CAA operates.

“One of the core aspects of the project is to help to grow downtown — to help to synergize the other entertainment venues and restaurants and things like that,” said Brad Thomas, president and CEO of Progressive AE.

The search took Thomas and his crew across four separate sites in the park. Another nearby option — land in the county-owned Johnson Park — was eliminated from consideration before Progressive AE got involved in the project.

Thomas told CQ the selected site best fit the criteria that were set for an amphitheater. It was the closest to downtown — about three miles west as the crow flies — and the land provided the best natural barrier to control sound emissions. It also offered the easiest access routes for getting in and out, with the I-196 expressway nearby.

“Access was a major concern. Not so much for the beginning of an event, because there is a staggered arrival. But when an event is over, typically everyone is leaving at the same time. The concern was about traffic impact on the adjacent roadways and neighborhoods,” said Thomas.

“What we were quite excited to identify was an extension of Wealthy Street behind the Coca-Cola property along an old abandoned railway bed that we could actually get underneath. On that old railway bed there was a highway overpass that currently has a Kent County trail on it that we could bring an entryway into Millennium Park. That really gave us very nice access to Wealthy Street all the way out to U.S. 131 and I-196,” he added.

Right now, Wealthy ends on the city’s west side near Indiana Avenue, not far from the bottling plant. But Thomas is confident that Wealthy can be extended a few more miles west to the park through a somewhat industrial area, and the extension would be wide enough to handle the amphitheater’s outgoing traffic load. An extended Wealthy could also redirect some of the semi-trailer traffic that currently travels through nearby residential areas.

“So it really worked out nicely — how we get people in and out of here without disturbing all the adjacent neighborhoods,” he said.

Thomas said the more technical engineering issues also checked out, with respect to wetlands, flood plains and soils. Soil was a key issue because gypsum mining once was the dominant business use of that parcel, and the ground had to be firm enough to securely hold the development and all its expected activity.

“Much of Millennium Park is down in the river valley. When we looked at the proposed orientation of the amphitheater, it’s such that the sound will be projected first out over the river, then the highway, then the railroad tracks,” he said.

“So it just creates a very nice setting. It’s lower. It’s going to allow us to contain the sound within non-residential areas that could otherwise be impacted.”

The hunt for a location took about 18 months. It began in June 2006 and ended late last year. It was restricted search, because the CAA wasn’t able to buy 40 acres of farmland on the open market. Instead, the board had to look for a site that was publicly owned and, in this case, by the county, in order to have enough money to build the venue and then have a shot at operating it successfully.

“We could not go out and buy a multi-million-dollar site to suit the spaces needs of this particular project. So that is what drove this almost immediately to what public land is there that we can obtain for next to nothing,” said Thomas.

“We were restricted almost out of the gate to free sites large enough — 40 to 50 acres — and close to downtown. That drove us immediately to Millennium Park,” he added.

Kent County Commission Chairman Roger Morgan said the county will lease the land to the CAA for a minimal amount, somewhere around $1 a year, and those words were music to Heacock’s ears. He called the county a “partner in the project” and said having the county involved was critical if the amphitheater is to be a financial success.

“We are very conscious of costs,” said Heacock. “We want it to be a revenue source for the long term.” CQX

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