Street closings for events a concern

May 20, 2011
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Grand Rapids parking commissioners recently gave the city’s Office of Film, Music and Special Events $80,000 for its annual budget, an award board members have made since 2006. But they may increase that funding amount at their June meeting if they find that the small office can become more involved with business owners in the neighborhood districts.

Parking Commissioner David LaGrand, also a business owner in the Wealthy Street district, talked about the closing of streets for special events at the board’s last meeting. LaGrand said the city needs to do more than simply tell businesses when streets will be closed. He thought owners should be asked before an event how the closings affect their bottom lines. He also said a cost-benefit analysis should be done in a district prior to closing streets for an event.

As an example, LaGrand said Wealthy Street was closed a few years back on a Saturday for a charity walk that drew roughly 30 participants. Business traffic was slow that day — normally the biggest day of the week for merchants — and revenue was lost.

At the same time, LaGrand said speaking with business owners before every event would be a big task for such a small office. Parking Commission Chairwoman Lisa Haynes said the office needs more help, such as a community relations person who could make regular rounds to the business districts.

Todd Tofferi, who directs the office and has one staffer, said he works closely with the Merchants Council, which is part of the Downtown Alliance, and the Arena District, a coalition of 18 restaurants, taverns and coffee shops, on special events that take place downtown. Tofferi said he was already doing the job of the two employees he replaced when the city reduced the office’s budget five years ago. Back then, he said, there were fewer events on the schedule.

Forty-four downtown events are on the schedule from mid-April through mid-October this year. After those, the New Year’s Eve gala closes out the schedule. So he said getting into the business districts would be a difficult task for him to take on.

“With all the events going on, I just can’t pick up and leave my office,” said Tofferi. He added that it would take another $30,000 to add a seasonal employee to help with the workload.

The office’s budget for the coming year is $306,200, down from this year’s $312,543, while expenditures are listed at $319,100. The Downtown Development Authority, the Parking Commission, and charges from various permits and fees make up about 60 percent of the office’s operating revenue. Another $70,000 comes from groups that rent equipment and facilities. The office is part of the city’s police department. Tofferi had asked parking commissioners for $90,000 for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

Parking Commissioner Joan Rosema-David told Tofferi the city needs to communicate better with the business districts. She said she doesn’t get any event information from the city’s website and a “one-stop shopping” site for organizers and participants is needed. Tofferi said he is working to create one.

One area where the special events office is seeing its workload lessen is fewer production companies are coming here to shoot movies and commercials. “We have greatly diminished in the last year,” said Tofferi of the film permits his office issues.

He expects about 1.5 million people to visit downtown during the event season this year.

“ArtPrize, in particular, brings 500,000 people into downtown,” he added.

Parking Commissioner David Leonard suggested the board approve the $80,000 award, which it did, and discuss whether the office should receive more money at its next meeting, one that Tofferi is expected to attend.

“I think it would be helpful to understand what is the return on investment,” said Leonard.

Parking Commissioner Michael Ellis told Tofferi to make the process of checking in with merchants inclusive.

“I think we can do it and shift the resources,” said LaGrand.

At the same meeting, parking commissioners joined the DDA in approving a lease contract with Bluecap Entertainment for the Rock the Rapids concert series that will be held in two city parking lots on Oakes Street behind the Van Andel Arena. City commissioners also ratified the agreements for the event, which will take place August 8-13.

“What we have is a one-year opportunity to put this on and see how it does,” said Dennis Baxter, who founded the West Michigan Whitecaps with Lew Chamberlin and started Bluecap Entertainment with Dan McCrath. The first two concert series were held at Fifth Third Ballpark, home of the Whitecaps.

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