Arts & Entertainment and Government

Shootings put Arena District on edge

BarFly Ventures meeting with police and DGRI results in increased patrols.

June 20, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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The most prominent bar owner in the trendy Arena District in downtown Grand Rapids is putting pressure on police and DGRI, the city’s downtown business support organization, to prevent street violence from continuing amid the nightlife crowds there.

Police responded with increased patrols in the Ionia Avenue SW corridor and surrounding areas, among other things.

After a shot was fired in the midst of crowds in the district Saturday night, June 14, Mark Sellers of BarFly Ventures met the following Monday morning with the acting chief of police and the head of DGRI, asking that weekend patrols be stepped up.

Less than 48 hours later, however, two boys, 16 and 17, were shot in public in the district, leaving one in critical condition. The shooting took place about midnight June 17 at 8 Ionia Ave. SW, in front of the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant.

On Thursday, City Hall announced the police department would redouble efforts to enforce existing curfew ordinances for minors. The GRPD also has established rewards through Silent Observer for information leading to the resolution of the two incidents.

Interim Grand Rapids Police Chief Dan Savage said serious crimes are down by one-third over the last decade throughout the city.

“The downtown area has one of the lowest incidents of crime in the entire city, and we will take all the necessary steps to ensure that our residents, workers and visitors continue to enjoy a safe experience in our downtown,” said Savage.

Chris Knape, marketing and communications director for BarFly Ventures, accompanied Sellers when he met June 16 with Savage and Kristopher Larson, president and CEO of DGRI.

“We are looking to the DGRI and the Grand Rapids Police Department to be proactive, to solve these issues and make sure that we maintain a safe and vibrant downtown area,” said Knape.

Sellers is the owner of BarFly Ventures, a holding company that owns HopCat, Stella’s Lounge, McFadden’s and Grand Rapids Brewing Co.

Knape said the intent of the meeting was to ensure police were aware of the “random groups of people that seem to be gathering” after dark to hang out on the sidewalks and parking lots in the entertainment district.

Knape emphasized these individuals are not patrons of the bars and restaurants and not necessarily residents in the district. Many are under 18 with “no intention of patronizing any of (BarFly) businesses or other businesses,” according to Knape.

“If we can’t get a hold of this problem, and these types of incidents continue to happen, it’s going to hurt every business downtown,” said Knape.

The DGRI, under Larson’s leadership, created Downtown Safety Ambassadors last year. The uniformed individuals are “out patrolling that area every night (except Sunday) until 2:30 a.m.,” according to Larson.

They are not armed or acting as security guards but rather are “extra eyes and ears for the police,” said Larson. The safety ambassadors also offer friendly help and advice to local patrons and tourists drawn to the numerous dining and entertainment venues and to concerts at Van Andel Arena.

The DGRI employs eight people who put in a total of about 250 hours a week as Downtown Safety Ambassadors. The proposed DGRI budget for the coming year includes $300,000 for the program.

“We are fully in support of the DGRI,” said Knape. “Obviously, we fund it as downtown investors.”

“Downtown investors” is a term used to describe businesses in downtown Grand Rapids, which help support DGRI programs through the city’s Downtown Development Authority.

The bars in the district have their own security on premises, but the violence is taking place in public areas.

“We don’t want to be the police on the street,” said Knape. “That is not the business community’s responsibility.”

“It is not, by any means, a reflection of the safety of downtown, which, over the last decade, has become an increasingly safe environment,” said Larson.

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