Bike event could be windfall for downtown

February 2, 2011
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Organizers of the proposed River City Bike Week, which could add as much as $30 million to downtown’s economy, will soon have a better sense of how city officials feel about hosting the event next summer.

Event organizers will meet again next week with city commissioners as well as make their first trips to the Downtown Development Authority and the Parking Commission.

River City Bike Week would potentially take place in July in a restricted, outlined area of downtown. Its promoters have said the event is likely to bring 50,000 motorcycles and 60,000 enthusiasts here. They said each attendee is likely to spend an average of $500 on food, lodging and merchandise. If those figures are correct, the event’s total payout could reach $30 million.

In effect, it’s a convention of sorts, as organizers said the event’s purpose is to “have fun, make money and change the world.”

Downtown tavern and restaurant owners could sorely use the additional traffic the attendees would provide, as July is usually a slow business month for them, with few events being held in Van Andel Arena. In fact, they’ve already asked Experience Grand Rapids to host a second Restaurant Week during July to pump up sales, in addition to the November event.

Concerns about the event, however, include excessive noise, interruption of business activity and a potential increase in alcohol-related incidents. The length of the event — eight days — is seen as too long for an outdoor gathering that would normally be held in a larger and more rural location. Another concern is that these types of events normally draw vendors that would compete with business interests in the downtown district.

But last week a spokesman erased what were likely some of the biggest objections.

“We are prepared to compromise,” said Bob Struyk, one of the event organizers, before city commissioners. “We think a three- or four-day event is doable, with the bikers leaving on Sunday.”

That means the bike “week” would become a half-week. It would begin Thursday, July 21, as a four-day event instead of beginning Sunday, July 17, as an eight-day event.

Struyk also said beer tents and outside food vendors wouldn’t be allowed to set up during the event. He felt those two restrictions would drive business to downtown and near-downtown restaurants and bars. “The type of vendors that will come in will not compete with your downtown businesses,” Struyk told commissioners. Normally, he said an event of this size has about 100 food and merchandise vendors serving attendees.

Downtown Alliance Executive Director Sharon Evoy said her organization, which represents downtown business owners, hasn’t taken a position on whether the event should be held. But she said last week that the e-mails she has received are 2-to-1 against allowing it to take place downtown.

Evoy added that most business owners who attended an informational meeting held by the alliance prior to last week’s commission meeting were opposed to hosting the event. At the same time, though, she noted that some business owners she knew were in favor of the event didn’t speak at the meeting. Evoy said the alliance is meeting this week and board members are expected to spend much of their time discussing the event.

Bike week organizers must meet with the DDA and the Parking Commission because the event wants to lease space in some of the city’s downtown parking lots south of Fulton Street. Organizers also are expected to meet in a few weeks with the Arena District, a coalition of 18 downtown bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

The City Commission will need to approve the area designated for the event for it to go forward, but can’t do that until 30 days before its start date.

“The event has to pay the full cost of overtime,” said Todd Tofferi, special events manager for the city, of additional costs the city would incur from hosting bike week.

Second Ward City Commissioner Ruth Kelly did some digging on her own and contacted city officials in Knoxville, Tenn., to learn how a similar motorcycle event impacted that city, which is roughly the same size as Grand Rapids. She was told that attendees will spend money and was advised by Knoxville officials to strictly control the event, especially the entertainment elements.

“We have to prepare, prepare and prepare,” she said. “So this will give us something to think about before Feb. 8.”

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