Proposed downtown market project plays well here for CVB

March 26, 2010
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Every time Doug Small goes to Boston, he visits the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. It’s a 6.5 acre market with 49 shops, 44 pushcarts, 18 full-service restaurants, 35 food stalls and a comedy club located in the heart of Beantown that captures 18 million visitors annually.

“It has that appeal to me, as a tourist, to buy local products and to experience the gathering of people — whether it’s to buy a lobster roll or shop for a sweater made by a local vendor,” said Small.

While Small, president of the area’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, doesn’t expect the downtown market that the Grand Action Committee proposed last week to have that big of a tourist draw, he does think it has the potential to become an attraction that will increase visitor traffic to Grand Rapids and make it easier for his sales group to compete against other cities for tourism and convention dollars.

“I think our visitors are looking for something unique. As we go out to market a destination, you really have to have something unique to cut through the clutter. Albeit we have good restaurants, we have good retail — but we don’t have that really unique experience to draw visitors, and I think this is a great opportunity for us,” said Small.

“This is like getting a new air service. I’ve got a better chance of competing with Milwaukee and Columbus,” he said. “I’ll do anything I can to help Grand Action with this.”

Although the proposed downtown market would be about half the size of the one in Boston, it would still offer many of the features year round that Faneuil Hall does, across roughly 147,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space. A goodly portion of that square footage would be dedicated to selling locally grown produce, locally made food items and merchandise, and locally crafted art pieces.

According to Market Ventures Inc., the Portland, Maine, consultant Grand Action hired to conduct the market’s feasibility study, a downtown market would return $775 million to the region’s economy in its first 10 years and create nearly 1,300 jobs. Food sales alone would reach $20 million annually. By its third year, Market Ventures predicted the market would generate $2 million in rental income and fees and cost $1.5 million to operate annually.

The project would run $27 million to build, not including the land cost, and Grand Action has created a special committee to look into all potential public and private funding sources for its construction. The market has been proposed to be developed on 3.5 acres on Ionia Avenue just south of Wealthy Street, land that is owned by the Downtown Development Authority.

The DDA bought the property about two years ago from Sohogo Inc. and West Michigan Leasing Inc. for a little more than $2 million. The site contains eight buildings, two of which are made of metal and are to be razed, while the remaining six would be renovated for the market. When the DDA announced the sale, the board said the site would be made into a park-and-ride lot for the downtown shuttle service. But now, the DDA will discuss the proposed market and the property’s use on April 14.

“We will be talking about the DDA’s interest in pursuing this project. The board hasn’t talked about it yet, and so they will need to be brought up to speed with the same information that was presented about the feasibility of the market,” said Jay Fowler, DDA executive director.

“Then I presume they will be asked to make a commitment to reserving the land for this purpose while we put together the financing package. They’re looking at all six buildings. The metal buildings on the north side will be torn down soon,” he added.

Grand Action co-chairmen John Canepa and David Frey said last week that a decision hasn’t been made as to who would “own” the market once it is operational, which could be in 2012. They said it could be a nonprofit organization or other organizations in the community such as the Convention and Arena Authority. The CAA oversees daily operations at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place, two buildings that Grand Action played key roles in getting built. The CAA also has an ongoing contract with management firm SMG.

“Our enabling legislation doesn’t include outdoor markets, so we’d have some work to do to do it, and it has to make financial sense. It can’t draw down from our ability to support the convention center or the arena — our responsibilities to date. But if we can work it out, we’re certainly situated well to be an ownership entity and a public voice for a management team and for the people that are using a public entity like that. So in that sense, it makes great sense,” said CAA Chairman Steven Heacock, who added that he thought the market would be a catalyst for development in that sector.

“We’re certainly going to talk about it. Whether (ownership) is the end result or not depends on a lot of factors to be determined.”

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