Arena still rockin’ after 20 years


More than 20 years ago, a group of Grand Rapids visionaries with deep pockets and a love for their city set out to change the downtown landscape.

They wanted to build a convention center and an arena in hopes of re-energizing the city.

Today, Van Andel Arena, the first of the two projects to be completed, is celebrating 20 years of concerts, sports and family entertainment, as well as a vibrant downtown community that continues to see cranes in the sky.

Rich MacKeigan, Van Andel Arena regional general manager, said the arena has much to celebrate, including its biggest year in 18 years. (The 12,000-plus capacity Van Andel Arena is managed by SMG.)

“We have 30 concerts this current year, which is tremendous,” MacKeigan said. “We probably average around 22.”

He said Van Andel Arena averages about 130 live events on an annual basis.

The record number of concerts is particularly satisfying given there were plenty of naysayers who thought the venue wouldn’t be successful when the Van Andel Arena project was first announced.

“Basically, the feeling was, ‘Who would come to Grand Rapids for a tour that would be worth seeing?’” MacKeigan said. “And the fact that the venue is all the way south on Fulton, where at the time, the downtown core was the hotel, the government center and Monroe Center. To have this facility built on what was seen as the outskirts and the shady part of town caused even more negative comments.”

But MacKeigan said the members of Grand Action, as well as the city of Grand Rapids and a handful of other ardent supporters carried on with their plans.

“Mr. and Mrs. (Jay and Betty) Van Andel provided a significant private donation and the city donated the land,” he said. “They hoped they’d see some success.”

He said the results were exponentially better than those early investors in the arena and the initial restaurants that opened with “high hopes” expected.

He said the naysayers underestimated how much Grand Rapids wanted live entertainment. He also said at that time, the data was limited when it came to finding out how many community residents were driving to Detroit, Kalamazoo and other nearby cities to see live entertainment.

Signs were good from Day 1 the members of Grand Vision were right, and Van Andel Arena would provide an answer to a pent-up demand for entertainment.

“The first show was a skate show featuring Kristi Yamaguchi, the first concert was a sold out Neil Diamond show and the first Griffins hockey game was also a sell out,” he said.

In the years that followed, Van Andel Arena proved itself a formidable opponent for venues and markets of its size.

“We continue to fight above our weight class and compete against much larger venues and markets for events,” MacKeigan said.

He said Grand Rapids is well positioned geographically for attracting tours, which make their decisions based on the almighty dollar.

“It’s a connect-the-dots game,” he said.

He said promoters and agents are looking at an eight-hour radius when they are booking shows and not only does Grand Rapids’ proximity to Detroit and Chicago help it, but the city also is within an eight-hour drive of many other great concert markets, such as Cleveland, Columbus and Milwaukee.

“It’s amazing how many good concert markets are within that eight-hour drive,” he said. “If we are one city in the middle of A to B, we get one chance to be considered, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. In our case, we get a lot more looks than many other venues.”

MacKeigan said the other factor is the nightlife that has sprouted up around Van Andel Arena. From the earliest restaurants and bars to take a chance to the most recent, downtown Grand Rapids offers a full night-out experience many other venues don’t have as an advantage.

MacKeigan said part of going to a concert is the entire experience, getting there, finding parking, walking to the facility, meeting up with friends, before or after.

“I maintain we have one of the best experiences in North America, because we’ve got a great downtown that’s friendly, walkable and safe, and with a wide variety of options from a bar and dining perspective,” MacKeigan said.

He said concerts are the bread and butter of the arena.

“The concerts are what are sexy and drive the impact on the facility’s financials and on the community. They are more apt to go to dinner or drink before or after a concert than before or after another event.”

MacKeigan said looking forward, he expects Van Andel Arena still has its best years ahead of it.

“I’m bullish on where I see things going in the next couple of years,” MacKeigan said. “I think the fact that we had one of our most successful years ever this current year screams to the industry. I think it’s a scenario where SMG continues to grow as the leader in the industry.”

He added, “It’s been a very cool time to be in Grand Rapids the last 20 years, and it appears a number of building blocks are in place setting us on another 20-year positive course, and it’s my plan that Van Andel Arena will play a major role.”

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