Significant investments made in downtown GR

February 12, 2011
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According to an activity report released last week by the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, more than $1.1 billion was invested in construction projects that were completed in downtown from 2007 through last year.

“It’s a very significant number. We were happy to see that investment,” said DDA planner Eric Pratt, who tracks economic activity for the board.

“Our methodology is to report a project when it’s completed,” said DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler.

The DDA report noted that construction over those four years resulted in 1,147 new housing units, 3.5 million square feet of new space, and 1.7 million square feet of renovated space. Most investments were made in 2007 and 2008, and the bulk of that investment figure — $499.9 million — came from the private sector. The medical sector finished a close second by investing $473.5 million, while nonprofit organizations spent $140 million on downtown construction during those years.

“They’ve played a significant role in improving Grand Rapids,” said Pratt of the nonprofit sector, with organizations such as the Grand Rapids Ballet Company and Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids making key investments. “For the most part, there has been a steady investment from the private sector downtown,” he said.

But Pratt added that private investments began tailing off in 2009 after the Great Recession tightened its grip on the economy, and lending dried up in 2008. He also said the nonprofit sector is responsible for much of the current construction being done in the district.

“There is little private-sector development going on right now,” he said. “I think the majority of new development will be mixed-use and new construction.”

Of course, one difficulty with developments being done by the medical and nonprofit sectors is those projects are exempt from property taxes, which is revenue the DDA thrives on and reinvests in the district. But Mayor George Heartwell pointed out that residential, medical and higher-education projects in the sector add revenue to the city’s income tax roll.

Heartwell also noted the DDA has invested $37 million in downtown over the past seven years. Part of that investment was made in public improvement projects: The board spent $6.9 million on 11 such projects from 2007 through 2010. Fowler said realigning Cherry Street at Division Avenue and the rebuilding of Commerce Avenue were two of the board’s bigger projects last year. In 2010, the DDA spent $2.7 million on improvement projects that were completed.

DDA Retail Specialist Anne Marie Bessette said the board has approved 11 building-reuse grants for retail operations, and 13 new shops, restaurants and bars opened in downtown last year. Bessette said the DDA has approved 19 development and tax reimbursement agreements with developers. She said six of those are completed and four are under construction, while the rest remain active.

“We have very high-quality businesses coming in,” said Bessette of retailers like Craft Revival at 16 Ionia Ave. SW and Lee & Burch at 50 Louis SW. “And we have start-ups like Pikosito’s.”

While 13 new businesses opened in the sector last year, eight closed and two relocated. Bessette said three more are set to open this year.  “We’re working with businesses to resolve their issues,” she said of meetings held with owners that often include other city agencies such as the police and fire departments.

“All of our businesses are looking to see how they can improve themselves.”

Bessette noted the DDA provided financial support for ArtPrize and Restaurant Week, two major downtown events that brought thousands of people into downtown last fall.

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