City Works With Downtown Merchants

March 24, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — One reason most ethnic festivals and city-wide celebrations have been held downtown for all these years has been to deliver potential customers to merchants in the district and give them a chance to pump up their receipts on days the office workers are gone.

But often weekend-event organizers have brought along their own sellers of goods and food items, which cuts into sales opportunities for the everyday downtown business owner who pays taxes in the district.

And streets often are closed to accommodate those events, resulting in regular customers and event-goers not being able to easily reach a merchant’s storefront, which means more lost chances to increase sales. Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema said downtown retailers told her that they’ve “had their toes stepped on” because of closed streets.

But City Special Events Coordinator Todd Tofferi recently told Ritsema and the Parking Commission that those situations are beginning to change.

“Things have gotten better with the merchants,” he said, while adding there still is work to be done to strengthen the relationship.

As an example of how relations have improved between event sponsors, the city and retailers, Tofferi pointed to last September’s Celebration on the Grand. He said the two-day event didn’t hire outside food caterers to serve the thousands who came downtown for music and fireworks. Instead, the event’s organizers asked downtown restaurants to participate, and a “Taste of Grand Rapids” type atmosphere became part of the celebration.

Tofferi, who heads the city’s Office of Special Events from an office in the police station on Monroe Center, said he regularly attends the Downtown Alliance’s Merchants Council meetings to get the business owners’ views on the events and make them aware of what is going on in the district.

He also said organizers of the newer events are more willing to work with downtown merchants than are the groups that have put together the longer-running ones.

Tofferi said the city issued 185 permits for events last year, and 120 of those were held in the downtown district. He said most of the events that were cancelled a few years ago when the city cut funds to the Parks and Recreation Department, which once oversaw the events, returned last year.

In 2007, the Office of Special Events received $14,295 in permit fees; $32,295 for equipment rentals like bleachers, stage and sound equipment; and $10,185 for special fees for “special event permits,” large-group fees and street closures. The office issued 40 street- closing permits last year and that revenue was worth $2,000.

Total earned revenue to the office was $56,765 for all of last year. The city’s parking department annually contributes $80,000 to support the office, while the Downtown Development Authority provides $94,000 each year.

Parking Commissioner David Leonard suggested Tofferi create sort of a one-stop virtual calendar that would list all the upcoming events being held downtown, including concerts, conventions, sporting events, and the city’s ethnic festivals and celebrations. He said having everything listed at one location, which isn’t being done now, would make it easier for businesses and organizations to plan their downtown meetings.

Tofferi said he is trying to bring more events downtown, like the German Festival, which had been a Calder Plaza fixture but last year was held at John Ball Park. He also said a major event is in the works for Calder Plaza and Rosa Parks Circle in early July.

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