Will Calder Host Hotel

January 10, 2003
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(Editor’s note: One of 10 stories profiling the finalists for Thursday’s Business Journal Newsmaker of the Year Award.)

GRAND RAPIDS — Two unrelated events in the recent past have produced one of the most compelling and controversial business stories of the past year.

Nearly six years ago, June of 1997 to be exact, Deloitte & Touche LLP released the results of a study that showed the city was woefully lacking in hotel rooms to properly support the planned expansion of the Grand Center.

The finding made many feel that more hotel rooms were needed downtown — some said up to 1,000 — to justify investing $220 million in a new convention center and to ensure solid business results for DeVos Place.

Three years earlier, commercial realtor Jack Buchanan looked at Calder Plaza, home to City Hall and the Kent County Administration Building, and saw a great site for a hotel.

“It was something that hardly anybody was using and it is probably the most focal point of the city. It really lacked people,” said Buchanan, president of Blue Bridge Ventures.

“It was intended to draw people to it. It had our most visible piece of art and it didn’t show any vitality on a daily basis. Looking at it, I didn’t think it was hitting its best use,” he added. “We were drawn to the site because of the plaza, not really the convention center.”

Six years later, Buchanan took his idea of Hotel Calder Plaza to city commissioners and they shot it down in less than an hour on a Tuesday in March of 2000. But a resilient Buchanan came back for more in July 2002.

This time Buchanan armed himself with the financial clout of world-class developer Hines Interests LP of Houston and the artistic touch of high-rise architect Richard Keating of Los Angeles. This time commissioners gave him more than an hour. This time commissioners instructed city staff to work with the developers.

Then last October five of the seven commissioners rewarded the Gallium Group LLC, the firm Blue Bridge and Hines formed for the project, with a one-year option to buy the plaza and its underground parking ramp in return for new homes for the city and county.

Now, many people may have come up with an interesting idea. And most have a degree of perseverance. But only a few have enough grit to carry on when their idea and perseverance upsets some key people.

As for the latest between the city and the developers on the proposed 400-room Marriott hotel estimated to cost north of $50 million, representatives didn’t fly to L.A. to meet with Keating as planned last month. No, Keating came here instead — twice in December — to go over what the city needs in a new City Hall.

Talks also continued on a new site for City Hall.

“Now we’re trying to narrow the list to five or six sites. We’ve talked about them in terms of zones,” said Buchanan.

Gallium Group said it has invested more than $1.5 million in the difficult endeavor that requires them to convince the city and county that both can be moved at no additional cost to taxpayers before even the thought of a hotel can go up.

“These are the best meetings we’ve had,” said Buchanan of the three held with the city last month. “Everyone has been very upbeat, very open and very positive. The tone of the meetings have changed quite a bit.”

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