Developer Takes Decision In Stride

June 6, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Even though the timing of the decision may not help their cause, Blue Bridge Ventures LLC stressed that the action a Kent County committee took last week hasn’t changed its plan to build a 400-room hotel on Calder Plaza — home to City Hall and the county administration building.

“It’s not a setback at all. In fact, I consider it a step forward,” said John Helmholdt, a senior consultant with public affairs firm Jones and Gavan LLC.

The county Finance and Physical Resources Committee agreed last Tuesday to support a recommendation made by a facilities management task force not to move from Calder Plaza and not participate in a plan proposed by Blue Bridge and Hines Interests LP, as the Gallium Group LLC, to put a hotel on its space.

Task force members said the current building has another 15 years of useful life and felt the leaseback deal that Blue Bridge offered for a new building required a public subsidy. But Vice Chairman Roger Morgan, part of the task force, said the county might be interested in selling the building outright to the developers.

Helmholdt, representing Blue Bridge, felt the county didn’t completely close the door on a deal. He based his reaction on a remark made by Kent Chairman David Morren after the committee acted.

“I don’t think that this precludes them from coming back with another proposal in six months,” said Morren. “If this is going to work it will have to be a collaborative agreement between the city and the county.”

But Helmholdt said the county rejected a concept and not a proposal, as the developers haven’t made an official offer to the county yet. He also said they haven’t met with county officials for over a year and never had an opportunity to talk with members of the task force, who met three times.

Helmholdt told committee members that Blue Bridge remained committed to giving the county a new building, reportedly on the site of the old probate court building on Ottawa NW, at no additional cost to the county’s operating budget. He asked the committee to table their vote on the recommendation, but didn’t get the delay he wanted.

That request was important because Blue Bridge has a tentative date to appear before city commissioners in two weeks and present the deal they have been working on with city staff since late last summer. The city owns the plaza and the underground parking ramp, and the developers have an exclusive option to buy the plaza — an option that expires in October.

Helmholdt told the Business Journal that they weren’t pleased with the timing of the county’s decision, that it came out of the blue, and he hoped it wouldn’t have an effect on their upcoming meeting with the city.

“It was our understanding that the city would be taking the lead in looking forward, and no one gave Blue Bridge an indication that the task force report would be coming out,” he said.

“This is something that really doesn’t take into account the existing negotiations with the city and how the proposal to the city is going to be different than the one for the county.”

Morren said he was impressed with the hotel plan submitted by the developers, noting it was a good model that could fit on the plaza. He also said he wanted to “level the playing field” to give others with plans for the site a chance to make an offer on it.

But Helmholdt wasn’t aware that anyone else was interested in building a hotel there.

“I have not heard of any other developers that are interested in this particular site. Blue Bridge is clearly, out of all those interests talking about a hotel, best positioned to move forward,” he said.

If the city agrees to a deal after the county has said no, what happens then?

“If we can get this secured with the city, then I think the city will be crucial in helping us make it work with the county,” said Lisa Young, public relations counsel with Jones and Gavan.

Blue Bridge is a local real estate broker and developer founded by Jack Buchanan. Hines Interests is a worldwide developer based in Houston. The hotel project proposed by the Gallium Group has been estimated as costing $95 million, and, if built, would be across the street from the new $212 million convention center going up on Monroe Avenue.           

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