CAA Wants Downtown To Be More Active

April 14, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — One reason why the Convention and Arena Authority chose a site in the northeast portion of Millennium Park for its proposed outdoor music amphitheater is that the parcel was the closest to downtown of the five that were considered.

The site is roughly three miles west of Van Andel Arena, and the proximity of the venue’s site to downtown was an important consideration for CAA Chairman Steven Heacock.

Heacock wants the board to be more involved with downtown, even to the point of possibly sponsoring street musicians, mimes and jugglers on the streets near the convention center, the arena and other parts of downtown.

“Is there a way we can make use of Rosa Parks Circle and Monroe Center during conventions?” he asked out loud.

“The thought is, can we do it? Would the restaurants appreciate that?”

Heacock said downtown’s streets need a boost during the summer months when fewer concerts, sporting events and other shows are held in the arena, while the convention center is fairly busy. The idea is that by having an active street scene, it might leave enough of a positive impression on convention-goers that they wouldn’t think twice about making a return trip to the city.

“It’s the entire package that meeting planners are looking for,” said Rich MacKeigan, regional general manager for SMG, which operates DeVos Place and the arena, and CAA executive director.

Heacock said the extra activity could also result in more revenue for downtown restaurant owners and shopkeepers. Only a single event was held at the arena last July, and it drew 4,593 ticket buyers.

“In July, it’s nearly empty and very quiet. We’d like to find a way to make downtown a destination in the summertime,” he said.

So Heacock and MacKeigan are meeting with members of the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Alliance and the Downtown Improvement District to determine what they can do together to make downtown more active in the summer.

“The vibe we’re getting from the board is to get more involved,” said MacKeigan of the CAA.

Once the bruskers, or street entertainers, are established, the thought is to try to tie some of that downtown entertainment to the concerts and other shows that will play from May through September in the park’s amphitheater.

“The bumper-sticker goal is to make downtown an entertainment destination,” said Heacock.

The CAA is getting more involved with downtown. Last June, the board promoted its very first commercial event by bringing the children’s show “Thomas the Tank Engine” to DeVos Performance Hall. MacKeigan said the board will promote another family show in May with the Backyardigans at the arena.

The CAA is also putting together its third charity event, a 1950s and ’60s music review set for the arena on March 19. And the board has partnered with Showspan Inc. to bring the first Wine and Food Festival to DeVos Place, a three-day event that will run from Nov. 21-23.

“We hope to begin with excellence,” said Heacock. “We’re getting a great response.”

As for the amphitheater, it’s a few years away, and that gives the CAA time to work with the other groups to add more entertainment downtown. If the venue does get built, it will likely seat from 13,000 to 14,000 and cost somewhere around $30 million.

Heacock said the board is looking to outside sources for funding, but may also borrow from its reserve fund and pay the account back from operations at the amphitheater. The reserve fund stands at $20.8 million.

But both Heacock and MacKeigan noted that building an outdoor music venue only works if it makes a long-term economic contribution to the CAA and downtown.

“We need to explore options for funding and options for partners,” MacKeigan said of the next step in the amphitheater process. “We have a strong market in the eyes of performers and promoters. We’re one of the communities that they look to because of our ticket sales.”

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