Hoped for downtown project may be a no show

August 10, 2012
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Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority Chairman Brian Harris welcomed the board’s new Executive Director Kristopher Larson to its meeting last week. “We’re delighted to have him aboard,” said Harris.

But at Larson’s very first meeting, the first agenda item cast a dubious shadow over the gathering when DDA treasurer Jana Wallace reviewed the board’s monthly financial statements. While going over the balance sheet, Wallace noted that city Comptroller Donjio De Jonge told her one of the board’s assets should be moved into the liabilities column.

The asset was a $50,000 deposit paid to the DDA as part of an option agreement to buy the Area 5 parking lot the board owns directly behind Van Andel Arena. The deposit was made a few months ago by Jackson Entertainment LLC, an offshoot of the Celebration Cinema group.

Jackson Entertainment told the DDA in April it was thinking about building a new entertainment facility on the lot that would include multiple movie screens. However, Wallace said De Jonge indicated the DDA would likely have to refund the deposit, which places the future of the $8.5 million project, one for which downtown has waited decades, in serious doubt.

Despite that unsettling news, Larson learned that a key downtown agency was pleased with the activity going on in the sector. Downtown Alliance Executive Director Sharon Evoy filed a long list of successful events and campaigns that occurred over the past year as part of her annual report to the DDA.

One of those — the second annual Grandwich competition — is under way now and comes to a conclusion Friday when judges select their favorite sandwiches. The public also has voiced its opinion in online voting. Twenty-eight downtown restaurants are entered in the contest that was created by the alliance’s Nicole Weichelt.

“It’s an inexpensive event, and the restaurants love it,” said Evoy.

“We want to find different ways for people to engage downtown,” she added. “We’re creating an environment where downtown businesses and restaurants can be successful. We’re trying to draw a diverse group to downtown.”

After Evoy finished her report, the DDA agreed to the alliance’s annual funding request, which is $175,000 this year — $5,000 more than last year. Evoy said the money will be used for advertising, the alliance’s mini-event grant program, marketing tools and promotions, and staff salaries. Although the board’s vote was unanimous, it also came with a caveat.

“The $175,000 is probably well spent,” said Harris. But he added that the board needs to have more proof than the anecdotal evidence it receives to ensure that the money the DDA awards is being spent effectively.

“We really do need to look at not just this, but at all of our expenditures. We need to ask the question: What is our return? Not just for the Downtown Alliance funding, but in all matters.”

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