Street projects in DDA's game plan

November 29, 2010
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When the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority receives the final report on its Framing the Future plan in January, board members should have a better idea of where they should invest the agency’s tax dollars. But the report won’t determine all their investment decisions.

A case in point surfaced at the last board meeting. The city engineer’s office secured a federal grant worth $260,000 that will partially cover the cost to rotomill and resurface Fulton Street from the Grand River to Division Avenue. Fulton is one of the district’s main arteries.

“We plan to do this next summer and be done by September before ArtPrize,” Rick DeVries, an assistant city engineer, told the board. “As the city’s finances have gotten worse, more requests have come to the DDA.”

The engineering department asked the DDA for a local match of $200,000, which is necessary to capture the federal grant. But DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler said this project is different from others the board has funded over the years. He said the project doesn’t rebuild the street or add infrastructure to it like the Cherry Street and Division Avenue projects, for instance. Those projects also improved the look of the streets and were generally thought of as improving the economic activity on those blocks. Resurfacing Fulton wouldn’t do either.

Still, the board awarded the match for the Fulton work, but not without some criticism.

DDA member Brian Harris said he couldn’t support spending the board’s money on the project because, unlike the others he has supported, this one didn’t have an economic connection to it.

“I don’t believe this falls within the DDA’s wheelhouse,” said Harris, president and CEO of H&H Metal Source and a key player in the board’s planning process.

Fowler said he agreed with Harris, but he added that if the DDA didn’t provide the match, the resurfacing work wouldn’t happen.

DDA member John Canepa agreed with Fowler, saying, “I don’t like it, but …” Canepa added that the streets are in poor condition and the city doesn’t have any money. “I think this is going to be a policy issue for the DDA,” he said.

Board member John Bultema also felt the DDA needs to take a closer look at this type of funding and do so as a policy issue. “The city’s finances aren’t going to change in the next few years,” he said.

Harris offered a suggestion as to what a DDA policy might look like down the road.

“Maybe we can support this type of project up to a certain amount on a first-come-first-served basis. So come and get it while it’s there,” he said.

Harris was the lone member to vote against funding the Fulton Street project.

DDA Chairwoman Kayem Dunn said the board’s comments indicated two things to her: that a policy has to be developed and a determination has to be made as to how snugly that policy fits with the panel’s mission. “So I take this as a willingness to discuss some matters after the first of the year,” she said.

The Framing the Future effort is winding down. Meetings have been held with city leaders and downtown business owners to get their ideas on the district’s future. Harris said the board has received a “ton of input from a great variety of stakeholders.” An online survey is available for others to make comments; a link to it can be found at grcity.us/dda.

Brad Segal, president of Progressive Urban Management Associates of Denver, has been orchestrating the $135,000 effort. A preliminary report is expected to arrive next month with the final edition due in January.

“The community meetings were very strong. The online survey has been soft,” said Harris. “I am kind of concerned that (the final report) is not going to be black- and-white, like an engineer’s report.”

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