Downtown retailer very interested in DDA study

June 25, 2012
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Brian Cousins thought it was great that the Downtown Development Authority hired Gibbs Planning Group to analyze the retail market in the district and then plan to follow up with recommendations as to what type of merchants could be successfully recruited to enhance the sector’s offerings.

But Cousins also feels current downtown retailers can have just as much of an influence in determining who locates here.

“Everybody is talking about driving retail downtown, and I think it’s very important to do so. But I also think it’s important that existing retailers maximize what they have in front of them. In doing so, I think it will help attract more retailers to want to come downtown,” said Cousins, the proprietor of the nine-month-old Wolverine World Wide shoe store at 40 Monroe Center.

Robert Gibbs heads the Gibbs Planning Group of Birmingham, Mich. He made his presence known during his recent visit, spending most of a week hosting seminars, holding workshops, asking and answering questions and touring the district. Near the end of his initial visit here, he said there is room for more retail and restaurants in the district. He added that more shopping opportunities would lead to higher property values for owners of downtown residences and office buildings.

Gibbs visited about a dozen stores to give the shopkeepers free, 30-minute consultations. The company store of Wolverine World Wide, a leading manufacturer of footwear whose store has won design awards since it opened in September, was one that Gibbs visited.

“Fortunately, we’re an international award-winning store, so he was very, very impressed with the store. The biggest thing that he would have liked to have seen is maybe a larger presence of us downtown,” said Cousins, who felt the study Gibbs is doing will help the sector become stronger.

Gibbs, an urban planner and retail specialist, also made an appearance at the last DDA meeting, where Mayor George Heartwell told him the city has put its support behind locally owned businesses. But he acknowledged that national or regional merchants would likely have to be recruited to grow downtown’s retail sector. Heartwell wondered whether that would hurt or help local merchants.

Gibbs answered the mayor’s query by pointing to downtown Birmingham. He said the district saw its retail sales fall by 30 percent when Jacobson’s, a regional clothier, closed its store there. He said a regional or national merchant can draw customers to a district where most of the shops are locally owned.

Gibbs then used Portland, Ore., which he said is similar to Grand Rapids, as a primary example of how the two types of retail can be successfully mixed. He said downtown Portland captures 30 percent of the city’s retail spending, while downtown Grand Rapids snags about 2 percent. Gibbs said adding a bigger retailer or two could pump up that number. However, the thought of landing, say, a Target might not sit well with everyone because chain retailers have a reputation for stealing sales from local sellers due to their buying power and marketing advantage.

That issue was on Cousins’ mind when he joined other retailers, the mayor and members of the DDA and Experience Grand Rapids at a dinner meeting with Gibbs.

“It is important to me when you talk to a consultant that you are prepared for what they have to say. If you have a preconceived notion of what you’re expecting to have here in Grand Rapids, is that really right for Grand Rapids?” said Cousins. “So I think it’s important that when we talk with him, we’re open-minded to what he shares. Maybe what he shares is in the same direction as what retailers or residents want, and that’s great if it’s in that direction. If it’s not, let’s be open-minded because there might be a better alternative for us here,” he added.

Cousins wondered whether a national retailer could sustain a store downtown. He thought that instead of a Target store, maybe an urban version of a Meijer store might be better. He felt that would fill an existing retail hole and satisfy those who favor a local presence. After all, he said, Wolverine World Wide is a local company with a global reach and it chose downtown Grand Rapids for its most recent outlet.

“Wolverine made a commitment by bringing not just a Wolverine company store down here, but also to GRid70 and being involved with Amway, Meijer and Steelcase over there,” said Cousins of the design partnership those firms created a few years ago at 70 Ionia Ave. SW.

“And those commitments to downtown Grand Rapids are just going to help all the way around. I’d love to see Meijer make that commitment. Why do we need to bring Target in when we have a shop right here from our hometown that could do the exact same thing?” he added.

What Gibbs has in mind for Grand Rapids, or at least his general inclination of what direction downtown should take, is likely to arrive next month when he files a report with the DDA.

“So far, we are about 80 percent complete of our analysis,” said Gibbs. “We’ll be doing sales forecasts and we will give you actual names of national and regional retailers that are sustainable here.”

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