DDA dives into Framework Plan

March 20, 2011
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Establishing incubator space for new retail businesses is only one aspect of the Downtown Development Authority’s Framework Plan, but that element of this fully encompassing strategy for the district may have jumped to the top of the to-do list.

“There are folks out there who want to get on this train,” said DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler of the response he has received since the board announced the retail incubator as an initiative in January. “I don’t think we want to wait another two or three months to do this.”

The DDA plans to invest $150,000 to create the space. The first incubator will likely be on Monroe Center, with others eventually going to Division Avenue and East Fulton Street. New retailers would be bundled in specific locations and for a specific reason.

“I think retail is more successful when you have a cluster of people. I think Avenue of the Arts has been very successful at doing that,” said Fowler of the artists and galleries that clustered in a few blocks of South Division Avenue following a renovation project by Dwelling Place Inc. for that particular purpose.

Those interested in incubator space will have to submit a thorough business plan to the DDA, which the board will likely call for soon. One likely commitment selected businesses will have to make is to be open on weekday evenings, because Fowler said half of all downtown retail sales occur between 5 and 8 p.m.

Fowler said the DDA has to decide whether to develop a support program that offers mentoring to the chosen business owners or hire a professional to do that. “This is a little bit different than the traditional incubator a DDA might do,” he said.

As it now stands, the support would last for 18 months, after which a business would have to leave the DDA’s nest.

“I don’t think it would be fair to opt someone out if they’re adding to the retail downtown,” said John Bultema, DDA member.

Joseph Tomaselli, also a board member, asked if the private sector could help fund the effort. “Yes, it’s feasible. I’d be tickled to have a private partner,” said Fowler.

Bultema, president of Fifth Third Bank, said he thought it might be worthwhile to look at creating a loan program for the effort, with the money for it coming from local banks. “We can talk about that later,” he said, adding that the program wouldn’t operate like a venture capital fund.

Fowler said he has spoken with downtown retailers and building owners to get their feedback on the incubator plan, and he hoped to have something for the board to review at its April meeting. He also said the funds to start the program weren’t in this year’s budget and he would have to do some shifting to get funding before the end of the fiscal year, which is June 30.

“I think it’s important that we move forward on this,” said Mayor George Heartwell, also a board member. “We’re going to try to live in both worlds — reacting and planning,” said DDA member Brian Harris.

The DDA also decided to move ahead with another element of the Framework Plan. The board agreed to start a study it hopes will give members a better idea of how traffic circulates, what the parking patterns are, and where pedestrians are challenged the most in the district. “It’s a huge undertaking,” said Fowler. “If we end up with Chicago-style congestion, people aren’t going to be happy.”

Board members will get this effort going with what Fowler called “a quickie study” that will focus on Division Avenue. They agreed to sign WilburSmith Associates to a one-year contract for $80,000. The firm is an international transportation and infrastructure consultant with a Lansing office. “We should engage a traffic consultant right away and get some low-hanging fruit,” said Fowler.

The DDA also delved into a third Framework aspect by agreeing to staff a trio of action groups that represent the main structures of the plan: the economy, the environment and the experiences that make up downtown. Each group would have up to seven volunteers and include one or two DDA members, with the remainder having an interest in downtown.

The DDA is expected to recruit some individuals from its steering committee, which was part of the Framework Plan, as a number of them have expressed interest in serving on the new panels. The groups will advise the board on which directions to take in their respective areas.

“It’s a way to add some expertise to this body. This is a small body,” said Harris of the nine-member panel. “I think the meat of this matter here is the action groups.”

Fowler said he will add a graduate-student intern to the DDA’s four-person staff to help with the effort. “We’ll use this as an experiment, sort of a bridge to get us where we want to go,” he said, adding that the first round of selections for the action groups could come as early as next month.

“This is a pretty big change in the way we operate.”

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