Downtowns bestkept secret to be revealed

July 29, 2012
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What actually makes downtown great is a subjective decision, and that’s why the Downtown Alliance is largely leaving that determination to be made by those who work, live, shop and play in the district.

For the second time, the alliance is offering its Downtown Awards. The awards feature 45 nominated businesses and organizations competing across seven fairly encompassing categories. The public can choose its favorites by voting online through the end of August at

The categories are: Making Downtown Great, Events Bringing the World to Grand Rapids, Adaptive Reuse of a Building, Small Project with a Big Impact, Sustainability, New Construction and — quite possibly the most unusual — the Best Kept Secret in Downtown.

“The one thing really interesting about downtown is people have things that they love about downtown that other people may not know about and they consider it a best kept secret. For example, it could be a restaurant that has a fabulous fireplace or something like that. So we created that category because we really wanted to have a lot of fun with the awards,” said Sharon Evoy, executive director of the alliance, which held the first biennial awards program in 2010.

“So there are really traditional categories that we have like exterior renovation and new construction. But in addition to those, we wanted to have some fun categories,” she added. “It gives a little more personality to the competition and it tells a deeper story about downtown Grand Rapids.”

Here are the nominees for downtown’s Best Kept Secrets:

  • Fifth Third Bank Vault. It’s a restaurant and a sports bar located at the northeast end of Van Andel Arena. SMG’s Chris Simpson is the arena’s executive chef; he won Chef of the Year honors from the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation. The same group tabbed his able assistant, Andrew Eggert, as Chef Professional of the Year.

  • Conduit Studios. This branding, graphic and interactive design studio 7 Ionia Ave. SW was started by Tim Carpenter and John O’Neil. Its lengthy client list includes very recognizable names, such as Amway, Haworth, Siemens, Steelcase and Wolverine World Wide.

  • Dog Story Theater. An all-volunteer, nonprofit venue at 7 Jefferson Ave. SE, it offers affordable performance space for writers, directors, musicians, dancers, comedians and just about anyone else. Jay Harnish and Josh Farmer opened the theater in 2007.

  • Grand Rapids Zen Center. It’s also a Buddhist Temple that follows the Korean Buddhist Taego Order, at 156 E. Fulton St. The Venerable Deokwun Russell Pitts is the center’s abbot. He is a former naval officer, attorney, college professor and high school teacher — sort of a man for all seasons.

  • Mexicains Sans Frontieres. Hugo Claudin founded this venue, which is also his live-work address; he calls it an “alternative art space.” At 120 S. Division Ave., the site has been home to modern music, jazz, sound art and a host of indy bands since it opened about five years ago. Some of its concerts have received air time on WBLU, Blue Lake Public Radio and on the Community Media Center’s WYCE.

  • Adtegrity & Operation Spotlight. Adtegrity is an advertising firm that specializes in trafficking and optimizing ad campaigns in the digital realm at 38 Commerce Ave. SW. Scott Brew is president and CEO. His firm does a lot of work with website owners to maximize their revenue. Operation Spotlight is a free $20,000 ad package that Adtegrity creates each quarter for a business and a nonprofit group, both of which can be nominated at the firm’s Facebook page.

  • The Space/LiveSpace. The Space is a performance venue that Brian Williams also uses as a demo space for LiveSpace, an audio-visual and lighting integration at 50 Louis St. NW. The venue showcases artists, weddings and a host of other events.

  • Vue Design. It’s a design boutique at 40 Monroe Center where Shannon Gales “makes a girl’s dream come true” with her high-quality, custom-made bridal gowns. Gales also designs and makes dresses for other special occasions.

“There is a lot of diversity in the types of businesses we have downtown,” said Evoy.

The diversity found downtown even extended this year into a traditional category: New Construction. The nominees showcase some major projects such as the MSU College of Human Medicine at 15 Michigan St. NE, the Gallery on Fulton and UICA at 2 W. Fulton St., and the second phase of the Van Andel Institute at 333 Bostwick Ave. NE.

Also found in the category is the expansion of Van Andel Arena at 130 W. Fulton St., the new Cherry Street Health Services clinic at 100 Cherry St. SE and the revision of Division Avenue, which narrowed the key downtown street to allow for the parking and bike traffic merchants wanted.

“So there is a lot of variety in the awards and there are a lot of smaller projects. The other category I enjoy is Making Downtown Great, because, again, it’s based on what your interpretation of what makes downtown,” said Evoy.

The nominees in that category are the renovation of the Ambassador Ballroom in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel; the arrivals of Buffalo Wild Wings, The Pyramid Scheme and Ruth’s Chris Steak House; and the steadying influences of Founders Brewery and The Intersection.

“Another thing that I love about this is we really encourage self-nominations, so we get nominations from customers and from people that are downtown. But we also get nominations from people that are so proud of the work that they’ve put in, and I think that’s really cool. We have people that are saying, ‘Look at what I did. We’ve put our heart and soul in to work that we’ve done,’” said Evoy.

An awards committee will add its choices to the public vote, and the alliance will make the winners and the honorable mentions known at its annual meeting in October.

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