Grant granting an issue for DDA

April 30, 2012
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All of the goals of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority can be lumped into one: to bring more people downtown.

The best-case scenario to accomplish that is through housing, but everyone can’t live in the district. The next-best option is to give people an array of reasons to come downtown — and two more of those reasons take place over the next week.

First, Experience Grand Rapids will celebrate National Travel and Tourism Week May 5-13 with a community-wide Instagram photo contest that will reward one winner with a prize package valued at $300. On Tuesday, May 8, the bureau will host a “PhotoWalk” beginning at noon at Rosa Parks Circle that will leisurely move through the downtown district.

“Grand Rapids is a picturesque and vibrant city fueled by community pride for all that the area has to offer. This contest is a perfect way to showcase Grand Rapids and celebrate the importance of our travel and tourism industry,” said Doug Small, Experience GR president, in a release about the new event.

The second event is also a celebration, not of Grand Rapids directly but of its Mexican heritage and pride. The Arena District, a coalition of 18 downtown restaurants, taverns and coffee shops, is hosting Cinco de Mayo Fiesta GR 2012 on May 5. The event will take place outdoors on Ionia Avenue SW, between Fulton and Weston streets, and will feature live music, dancing, ethnic food and salsa lessons from 4-10 p.m.

Both the PhotoWalk and Cinco de Mayo are welcomed by the DDA. “Our goal is to bring people into downtown,” said DDA Vice Chairwoman Kayem Dunn.

Having so many events in the district has left the board with a dilemma. About 100 events are held downtown in a year’s time, and many organizers approach the DDA for funding. The board can’t fund all of them, so it has to decide which events will receive financial support and which won’t.

“This is a very difficult job, to decide which events should be funded,” said Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, which promotes the district and its businesses.

Evoy served with DeVos Place Manager Eddie Tadlock and Arena District President Dennis Moosbrugger on a panel to help the DDA establish funding criteria for events. The board offers grants of up to $25,000 and can cover up to 20 percent of an event’s budget, or up to 50 percent if an event is being organized by a group of downtown merchants.

At the board’s last meeting, the discussion primaryily focused on three grant guidelines, but one drew the most attention: to provide funding for “new and emerging events that can demonstrate the ability to produce a quality event.”

“The idea is, we’re going to help people to get on their feet,” said DDA member Jane Gietzen.

However, DDA member Elissa Hillary felt differently. She said “new and emerging events” don’t come with a track record of being able to draw people into the district, and awarding grants to some of those events could be a mistake.

“I think there are other events that provide less risk,” said Hillary. “I think some of the criteria aren’t clear.”

Mayor George Heartwell, though, said the criteria should encourage organizers to come up with new events.

“There are 100 events that would love to have money from the DDA, and probably 90 percent are tried and true. I think we should encourage new events,” he said.

Gietzen said going through the board’s grant application will help first-time event organizers have a better understanding of what they need to do to pull off a successful one.

“Some of the best evolution happens when they’re focused to evolve. We’re not going to subsidize events that the market doesn’t want to have,” said Jim Dunlap, a DDA board member.

“We don’t want to put money into an event that doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen successfully,” said DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler.

DDA Chairman Brian Harris felt more work was needed on the criteria and application. “We will improve on this. I’m trying to get this moved and approved so we can get working on it,” he said. “I don’t believe we’re calling this a policy. I consider it a guideline.”

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