CAA Chief Not Disillusioned

August 11, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — It wasn’t the amount that the Convention and Arena Authority had hoped it would get from the state this year for the outdoor music venue the board wants to develop in a northeast section of Kent County’s Millennium Park.

Board members had their fingers crossed as they wished for a number near $10 million, but they seem to be destined to get much less than that amount. The CAA looks to be lined up to receive $2 million from Lansing, as part of the state’s cultural economic development package.

Still, CAA Chairman Steven Heacock wasn’t disappointed.

“First of all, I’m delighted that West Michigan is going to be involved in this economic package. The fear was it was all going to go to Detroit and we weren’t going to be included,” he said.

“Well, they have included us, at least to some extent, and the fact that they’ve cut it across-the-board is something I understand because it is tight economic times. (But) we cannot complete the project as currently planned with a $2 million state contribution,” he added.

Heacock said the board may instead use those dollars for capital improvement projects at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place, if the state funding policy allows for that use.

The board has a $1.8 million budget this year for upgrades to both buildings, work that includes an expansion of the arena’s northwest concourse to ease the walkway congestion that arises when event attendance tops 8,000.

Heacock said using the state money for improvements would let the board set aside its capital budget for the amphitheater’s future development.

“The other thing is Rep. (Robert) Dean has been very supportive of the project, and obviously the city of Grand Rapids, and he really believes that if we don’t get it done this year, we can get it done over the next couple (years),” he said.

“That would be consistent with the strategy of trying to gather the money we can from private sources and from within the CAA to prepare to do it in a couple years.”

One idea the CAA has discussed is issuing bonds for the construction. Heacock said even if the state was funding the project to the tune of $10 million, bonding for up to $10 million might still be part of a financial package. But he pointed out that going to the bond market would be difficult for the CAA because it isn’t a taxing entity and can’t show potential buyers a steady flow of tax revenue to use as collateral.

“We only have what we can create in the arena as our bottom line, and that’s kind of tough to sell to an underwriter,” he said.

The CAA, though, does have a healthy reserve fund, one that tops $20 million. But the board has designated those dollars for capital improvements in the years to come, as both buildings, especially the arena, suffer wear and tear.

“It is a substantial reserve and we’re delighted that we have it there. But our projections show that we will spend it over the next 10 to 12 years. We have $300 million worth of buildings to take care of, and that requires a pretty substantial reserve,” said Heacock.

“The way I look at it is, we might have the ability to borrow from that reserve as long as the project could show that it would eventually pay it back.”

The current layout for the amphitheater has covered seating for up to 6,000 with lawn seating for up to 7,500 more. The venue also has a ticket booth, concession stands, a festival plaza, a staging building, a main and auxiliary stage, and parking for 500 vehicles.

The amphitheater carries a price tag estimated near $30 million. But the plan isn’t cast in stone and could be revamped to make the construction cost fit the funding availabilities.

Heacock said the entire board hasn’t had a chance to meet and react to the news that the state funding they had hoped for isn’t coming this year. But he thought the CAA should continue with the amphitheater’s design phase so the board could get a firmer grasp of how much it will actually cost to build the venue and decide whether it should be built all at once or in stages.

“We want to tighten up the numbers to see what is there and if we could do something at half the cost that could be expanded later.

“The number of seats is important from day one. If we could improve the back house, or do the plaza later, or if there are ways to phase the thing, we might consider that,” he said.

“So I want a chance to look at the whole picture now, knowing this information, before we make that decision. Then we will decide how to proceed and whether it means waiting until we know we’ve secured the $30 million, or if there is some interim way that we can proceed.”

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