Economic Development and Real Estate

Downtown Market director envisions new district

June 13, 2014
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Before the dust had settled around the newly opened Downtown Market at the end of last summer, predictions were being made regarding the impact the market would have on development on the southeast side of Grand Rapids.

Expected to serve as a catalyst for additional development in the nearly deserted area, the market had already spurred two affordable housing projects — Baker Lofts and Klingman Lofts — and excitement was running high about what else might follow. 

Not quite a year later, there is still a lot of dreaming taking place, and Mimi Fritz, president and CEO of the Downtown Market, said one of her hopes is to see the neighboring blocks transformed into a market district.

A market district is essentially a destination area filled with retail, restaurants, and arts and cultural attractions.

She pointed to Cleveland’s more than 100-year-old Westside Market as an example of what Grand Rapids’ southeast side could see in the future.

“The neighborhood around the (Westside) market has developed into complementary businesses, (including) brewpubs, restaurants and art galleries,” she said. “They also have green spaces and events that started happening in those spaces.”

By creating complementary businesses and events, people are no longer just visiting the Westside Market, they are visiting the entire area.

In Grand Rapids, Fritz pointed to Monroe Center, saying people generally don’t just visit that destination, but also patronize a surrounding retailer, restaurant, outdoor vendor or attraction at the same time.

“If you go to a destination you are also going to go to one or two other locations in the area, but they have to be there for you to go to,” she said.

Between the Downtown Market and the Baker and Klingman lofts, Fritz thinks the southeast side is poised to begin the evolution into a vibrant market district in the next five to 10 years.

“It is no secret that there has been a lot of talk about development in this area and we’ve already seen it happening with Baker Lofts and Klingman Lofts,” she said. “With us moving here, investors and developers felt it was important and worth their while to invest in this area, and I think we are going to start seeing more of that.”

Fritz said she doesn’t know of any specific development plans for the area at this time.

When asked what types of businesses downtown still needs to attract, Fritz pointed to more retail first and foremost.

“There is a lot of retail here, but it’s spread out,” she said.

With more people moving downtown, the city needs to be able to cater to their basic everyday needs within a walkable environment.

“A lot of these folks don’t have cars,” she said. “They are young or retiring and they want the (downtown) core to be their home and neighborhood. I think it’s critical to have all of the things that people need, whether that is a full-blown grocery store or a pharmacy.”

She emphasized while the market is trying to serve people’s food needs, it isn’t planning to become akin to a Meijer or Walmart.

“We are food-based, so some of those other essentials we don’t carry,” she said.

As the anchor for the southeast side’s future development, Fritz said the Downtown Market, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary over Labor Day weekend, is doing well and is meeting initial expectations.

She pointed to several vendors having had their best sales reports in April or May, and said attendance has reached expected levels.

The vendors are focusing on three key areas, which Fritz said are necessary for them to succeed in the downtown space: retail, catering and wholesale.

“The model to succeed at the market (includes) those three components, but when you are a new business, you can’t jump in and do all three at once,” she said.

She said more vendors have moved into catering and now several are dipping their toes into wholesaling.

Vendors have all signed one- to five-year leases with the Downtown Market.

The market has not been able to attract a restaurant or brewery yet, but Fritz said that is still the goal.

“We are actively talking to people,” she said. “We have folks extremely interested.

“It’s a huge investment for a restaurant to come into any new location. It's seven figures. It’s not something just anybody can do, and then you add onto that we are being very particular. We feel whoever comes in here has to benefit the community, the existing tenants, and it has to fit with our mission. So that limits us greatly.”

In addition to the remaining vacant space within the Downtown Market, the commercial spaces available for lease in both Baker Lofts and Klingman Lofts remain vacant at this time.

Still, Fritz remains optimistic that in a few years downtown Grand Rapids will have a growing southeast side business district.

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