Downtown entertainment complex unveiled

April 13, 2012
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What was called the “next generation of state-of-the-art entertainment facilities” just may park itself behind Van Andel Arena on a downtown parking lot.

Jackson Entertainment LLC, an offshoot of the Celebration Cinema group, entered into an option agreement  last week with the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority to buy the Area 5 parking lot, which is just south of the arena on Cherry Street.

The firm’s goal is to build a 60,000-square-foot entertainment facility on the site that would house a movie theater and meeting space for conventions, businesses and educational institutions. The plan is to have retail on the ground floor, possibly a restaurant. “It will be a significant draw for a whole array of people,” said DDA member Elissa Hillary.

“What we are focused on is trying to build the right project correctly,” said J.D. Loeks, a principal in Jackson Entertainment. “It’s our intent to collaborate. There are a lot of things to work out yet.”

The option is for two years at a price of $50,000, and Jackson Entertainment has to invest a minimum of $8.5 million into the project. The company can extend the option for another year for an additional $50,000. The DDA will pay the firm $1 per year to continue to use the lot for public parking until a sale closes. The board also will offer incentives to the project, if it goes forward.

The purchase price for the 1.6-acre site is still to be determined, and if Jackson Entertainment finds the price unacceptable, the company can terminate the option agreement.

“I anticipate this will bring a couple of hundred jobs to downtown,” said Loeks, adding that he expects about 400,000 people will go through the facility on an annual basis.

Experience Grand Rapids President Doug Small said the facility would offer convention delegates and other visitors a better audio and visual system than currently exists downtown, and that is a feature that medical groups embrace. “This is very exciting for us,” he said.

The DDA listed the parking lot from Feb. 20 through March 30 and DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler said Jackson Entertainment was the only party that responded.

The board acquired the Area 5 lot from Parking Services in exchange for the Area 1 lot, a smaller parcel on Ottawa Avenue just west of the arena, and $1.13 million that will be paid to the department over 10 years. But if the lot is sold, then the DDA will have to make the payment then. The cash payment covers the difference in the lots’ appraised values. Gross revenue from the Area 5 lot, which has 165 spaces, totaled about $165,000 last year.

The DDA wanted Area 5 because it also owns the adjacent Area 4 lot. Tying the two lots together gave the DDA roughly a 5-acre parcel in downtown’s entertainment district to offer for development. “We would expect in a year or two we would flip the property,” said Fowler of the lot last year. City commissioners approved the lot swap in December.

Blue Cap Entertainment leased the Area 4 and 5 lots last summer for its inaugural Rock the Rapids music festival and is doing the same again this August. The weeklong event is set to take place from Aug. 20-25 this year. The firm primarily used Area 5 to stage the event, while the concerts took place on Area 4.

Blue Cap Vice President Dan McGrath said he and his partner, Dennis Baxter, were aware that the DDA had listed the lot and he added that the interest Jackson Entertainment has expressed in it is a good opportunity for the city. But if the option is picked up, then Rock the Rapids will have to find another downtown location for its festival.

“I think we’ll still try to keep it downtown. It belongs there,” said McGrath. “Grand Rapids deserves a good music festival and it belongs in the heart of the city.”

By the way, Jackson Entertainment isn’t the first company to take a close look at the lot. Back in 2006, KG Development of Farmington Hills told the DDA it wanted to develop both the Area 4 and 5 lots. The firm, a joint venture between Gershenson Realty and Investment and Kirco Development, wanted to build a 14-screen multiplex with retail space and parking on Area 4 and then a mixed-use project with condominiums on Area 5. But the development never panned out, as the housing market crashed the following year.

Pam Ritsema, director of the city’s enterprise fund, said if Jackson Entertainment does develop the lot, there is enough parking available in the nearby ramps to accommodate the current monthly parkers in Area 5. She added that the DDA will negotiate a development agreement with the firm and that contract will include some incentives to help the project go forward. “We don’t know what those (incentives) are yet,” she said. “With the announcement of this, might that make something happen to Area 4? But it’s a very exciting project.”

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