Promote Retail What A Concept

September 17, 2007
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It’s like an episode of “Twilight Zone.” Suddenly, a dark cloud lifts and there arises a beam of bright light, focused squarely on Grand Rapids’ downtown. Not only that, it hones in on the poor stepchild — the retail sector in particular. There is a plan, a concept born of an awakening like none seen here before. Oh, hogwash.

Better late than never was the theme of the day as the Downtown Development Authority agreed last week to begin a four-month pilot program to support retailers in the district and initiate efforts to draw more of their kind to downtown (see story page 3). In addition, the Downtown Alliance, which has a merchant’s council, pointed to a marketing campaign called “Let’s Go,” encouraging shopping traffic, particularly younger audiences, to anchor in the downtown. It involves putting an ad on busses, a strategy not likely to encourage prospective new retailers to showcase their wares in the central city.

The DDA hired a part-time employee who will concentrate her 20 hours a week on the endeavor with a grand total of $9,000 allocated to the effort. This hardly seems like enough of a commitment to make the spotlight on downtown retail efforts do any good — at a time when such efforts must be at their best.

DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler acknowledged that retail is the weakest business sector in the downtown, with office and housing easily leading the economic development pack. There is something drastically wrong with that picture, a dilemma that isn’t likely to be solved with a meager marketing effort that lacks full financial clout and support from downtown advocates and stakeholders, existing merchants, and quite possibly taxpayers.

News also came that Neihoff Fine Art Galleries has closed after a short run on Monroe Center, a curious circumstance in light of the pending opening nearby of the new Grand Rapids Art Museum, one of the cultural, entertainment and convention venues that promise to attract herds of potential shoppers to the downtown area in coming years. But gallery CEO James Neihoff said “there just isn’t the retail traffic needed to support an outlet such as ours.”

West Michigan-based Schuler Books & Music recently announced plans to locate in the 8,000-square-foot space on the first floor of the Steketee’s building, 86 Monroe Center, taking the place of River Bank Books & Music which departed early this year after owner Debra Lambers could not make a go of it. She said she closed the store because the outlook for retail in downtown didn’t look as promising to her as it did a few years ago. She didn’t anticipate enough new merchandisers to help make downtown a retail destination.

However, Cecile Fehsenfeld, president of Schuler Books & Music Inc., is “very excited to become an integral part of the growth and vitality of this downtown community.”

The key word in her statement: community. Long has been the lament that retailers won’t locate and thrive in downtown Grand Rapids because there were not enough residents living there. That dynamic certainly has changed and can no longer be used as a valid obstacle to retail growth. Projections are for occupied downtown condominium units alone to likely approach 2,000 by the end of this decade. The influx is ongoing, and so is the potential base of retail shoppers.

More efforts at promotion are essential. The spots aired as part of the Pure Michigan radio campaign do shed that attractive light on a downtown Grand Rapids in a way seldom seen in other marketing efforts. Why can’t there be more?

The will and the way must be present. Short-term “pilots” must yield to long-term strategies. If it can’t be done effectively through the public sector, private commerce must take hold. There’s simply too much at stake and doing it halfway obviously does not work.    

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