Entrepreneur fills a void downtown

March 18, 2012
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Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell recently completed a task that easily qualifies as one of his personal favorites. With one snip from a pair of scissors, he officially welcomed Central District Cyclery to downtown when he cut the shop’s grand-opening ribbon at 52 Monroe Center.

“I love nothing better than cutting a ribbon on a start-up business by a young entrepreneur willing to take a risk in following his passion,” said the mayor. “Nate Phelps has a vision, a drive and a great marketing sense. He will succeed.”

Phelps actually signed a lease for his space with Rockford Development in September and quietly opened Central District Cyclery there two weeks ago, where he sells, rents, repairs and maintains bicycles and offers biking accessories that include brand-name cycling clothing.

And the mayor may be on to something about Phelps succeeding because a predecessor did just that on nearby South Division Avenue before he decided to go in another direction. Daniel Koert opened the Commute Bicycle Shop at 120 S. Division Ave. in June 2009, but closed his store about 15 months ago, which created a void in the downtown market.

“He had quite a successful business and almost sold it to someone instead of closing, but he decided to go back to school,” said Anne Marie Bessette, a retail specialist with the GR Downtown Development Authority, of Koert.

Bessette said Phelps’ store is well-situated logistically as it’s in the heart of downtown, sandwiched between Division and Ionia avenues. She also said his operation comes at a time when the bicycling community is more visible and growing. “It is a definite advantage to have an entrepreneur like Nate who is an expert in his field, and that the store will carry unique lines of bicycle products,” she said.

Phelps is a mountain biker who has been active in the Michigan Mountain Bike Association, the West Michigan Mountain Bike Association and other groups. He also brought his cycling expertise to the committee that helped to create Green Grand Rapids, which recently was added to the city’s master plan. His shop carries the Linus Town Bike of San Francisco, Surly of Minneapolis, Seattle’s Trader Cycles and 616 Bicycle Fabrication of Rockford, Mich.

“An added plus is that Nate will have a large quantity of stylish apparel for men and women that is attractive to non-cyclists as well, so his store caters to the broader community and complements the neighboring retailers,” said Bessette. “Central District Cyclery is the 10th new store on this block of Monroe Center since last September and is a significant addition to downtown retail.”

Phelps said he chose the downtown address — the former home to at least three clothing stores and most recently to a food market — because he primarily considers himself an urban cyclist. Even though he races and often rides mountain bikes, Phelps commutes from his home in Eastown on a bike and he said he wanted to have an urban shop that would appeal to others like him. He felt that many who either work or live downtown would fall into that category. Plus, Phelps said, it’s become cool to be downtown.

“I’m really certain that people are going to go where it’s the easiest to get service and I’m already hearing that. The condo owners are already coming in and saying, ‘We’re glad you’re here.’ I’m getting a lot of great spring tune-up work from that. We’ve been able to sell some bikes and accessories. We’re getting a lot of walk-ins and we’ve been able to talk to a lot of people,” he said of his store that is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9-3 on Saturday.

“So I’m really, really sure the support will be there, especially on the repair and service side, and now that they’re aware that we offer rentals.”

Phelps told the Business Journal now is a good time to be selling, renting and servicing bikes because higher pump prices have convinced more people to park their cars and get around on a non-motorized bike. He believes gasoline prices will continue to go up, which will draw even more people to cycling.

Phelps said his business will get a boost because elected city officials and those who serve on public boards, like the DDA, have thrown their support behind the cycling trend by adding bike lanes to street projects and bike racks to city properties and to buses operated by The Rapid.

“On top of all that, I think Grand Rapids is just bike crazy,” he said, and he doesn’t see that ending any time soon.

“I think more people will be living in Grand Rapids over the next decade because it has just become a more vibrant place. Part of that vibrancy is just great bicycling facilities, and that is starting to happen.”

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