Grand Action 2.0 reveals study results

Document outlines next steps in increasing visitor and business attraction in Grand Rapids.
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The Grand River likely will be the focal point of future development in Grand Rapids. Photo by Michael Buck

The economic development group Grand Action 2.0 recently unveiled the results of a commissioned Venue & Attraction study, bringing Grand Rapids one step closer to becoming a destination for more events and tourism.

The Venue & Attraction Development for Grand Rapids Study, commissioned by Grand Action 2.0 and conducted by Convention, Sports and Leisure (CSL) International, was discussed at a virtual meeting of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids on Nov. 23. The discussion featured Grand Action 2.0 co-chairs Dick DeVos, Carol Van Andel and Tom Welch, as well as John Kaatz, principal with CSL, and John Shreve, principal with the international urban design and planning firm Populous, based in Kansas City, Missouri.

The goal of the study was to assist the business-based nonprofit Grand Action 2.0 and community partners in evaluating, prioritizing and planning development aimed at elevating the region as a top-tier visitor destination.

“This study serves as a foundation to assess needs and identify potential next steps and project sequencing,” said Welch, who is the West Michigan regional president for Fifth Third Bank. “By elevating our position as a visitor destination, we will ultimately enhance the region as a place to live, work and do business. That’s the goal, and we’re well-positioned to achieve it.”

The new study builds on Grand Action’s 2016 Grand Rapids Destination Asset Study, also conducted by CSL. That study investigated current assets and infrastructure and found opportunities in multiple sectors for projects and investments that could elevate the region as a top-tier visitor destination.

“At that time, we were looking back at 20 years of investment in our arena and convention center, the MSU College of Human Medicine, the Civic Theatre and Downtown Market and asked, ‘What is the next transformative project?’” DeVos said. “How could we build on the past two decades and ensure we’re not only protecting those assets, but we’re making sound investments in our future?”

The Venue & Attraction study took a comprehensive look at three of the projects identified in 2016:

  • Investment in enhancements and future expansion of DeVos Place Convention Center and convention hotel inventory to enhance the area’s competitive position in the industry
  • Development of a new soccer and entertainment event stadium designed to host a higher level of professional soccer
  • Development of a new concert and entertainment event amphitheater, designed with surrounding assets and configured to allow for year-round community activity

Given the dramatic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly on the convention and entertainment event sectors, the study also presents an overview of potential implications of the pandemic for future venue development in Grand Rapids.

While the pandemic has had an immediate and difficult impact on the regional economy, the study takes a long-term view.

“Our region must be prepared to hit the ground running when the health crisis subsides. Unless we plan now, it will be much more difficult to recover from the devastating impact of this pandemic on our local economy, businesses, workers and residents,” Van Andel said. “Our community’s economic recovery will be dependent, in large part, on the public and private sectors’ readiness to initiate new economic development activities that stimulate growth, investment and employment.”

As a first step coming out of the 2020 study, Grand Action 2.0 retained Populous, in collaboration with Grand Rapids-based Progressive AE.

The firms are soliciting community input to help create a vision for future development along the Market Avenue corridor from Wealthy Street to Fulton Street. The study will consider two available sites — the privately owned property at Market and Fulton and the city of Grand Rapids’ property at 201 Market — as a single development opportunity. They have been charged with presenting designs for a dramatic riverfront that could include an amphitheater, greenspace and other year-round community-based amenities and attractions. Their work is slated for completion in January 2021.

Kaatz showed the Econ Club attendees a presentation with several case studies from around the country that could inspire possible waterfront-activated concepts for the Market Avenue development, including:

  • The Ascend Amphitheater in Nashville, Tennessee, an open-air venue with a year-round green space activity zone outside the theater that can be used for festivals, farmers markets, fundraisers, graduations, political rallies, sledding and skating
  • The District Wharf in Washington, D.C., with activities right on the water, waterfront shops, restaurants, concerts and more
  • The Proxy, a two-block shipping container park in San Francisco with pop-up retail, restaurants and food entrepreneurs testing new concepts
  • The Maggie Daley Park on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, which has a climbing wall, fieldhouse, picnic areas, play garden, ice skating ribbon, mini golf and more
  • The Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has a kayak launch, restaurants, an inclusive play area, art installations and murals
  • The Adventure Forest along the South Platte River in Denver, Colorado, an adventure course and recreation park
  • Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park on the West Riverfront in Detroit, which, when completed, will feature a water component, sport house with basketball courts, play garden with an array of animal structures for kids to climb in and around, and a large lawn that will be used for special events and programming
  • The Robert C. Valade Park along the Detroit River, which features a sandy beach with chairs and umbrellas, a children’s musical garden, colorful playscapes for kids, a community barbecue pavilion and Bob’s Barge, which is Detroit’s only floating bar each summer. The park also is home to The Shed, a 3,600-square-foot building for food, events and programming, and in the winter, Valade Park features oversized outdoor fireplaces, hot drinks, marshmallow roasters, sledding, synthetic ice curling and more

Shreve, of Populous, said one of the goals with Grand Rapids’ riverfront development project is to activate the many bridges across the Grand River.

Welch, speaking in an interview with the Business Journal after the presentation, said while the above case studies “are all great ideas,” the partners engaged Populous to analyze the possibilities and say, “Based on what we see and based on what we’ve seen across the country, here’s what makes sense (for Grand Rapids).”

“One of the attributes of Grand Action is relentless due diligence and attention to detail, and it’s so important to get this right,” Welch said.

For the Venue & Attraction study, CSL interviewed a long list of diverse stakeholders, and Populous and Progressive AE also are conducting focus groups with leaders representing people of color in the West Michigan community to ensure the projects meet the needs of the widest range of people as possible. Populous also has retained Skot Welch, from Global Bridge Builders, “to conduct outreach to numerous underrepresented populations in order to capture a diversity of voices reflective of the West Michigan community,” according to a Grand Action 2.0 spokesperson.

While it’s too soon to identify what projects will happen in Grand Rapids or a timeline, Welch said the goal is for the projects to be funded through a mix of public and private financing, just like Grand Action’s projects beginning in the mid-1990s through the group’s hiatus in 2017. Major downtown Grand Rapids economic development initiatives of Grand Action included Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, MSU College of Human Medicine and the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. It provided independent evaluation, advocacy, private fundraising and planning services for those projects, which had combined construction costs of $420 million, of which $130 million was raised through private philanthropy. The projects have since spurred billions of dollars in economic development.

DeVos said conversations already have begun with the city of Grand Rapids about preliminary steps that need to be taken before any development can happen at the Market site, including relocating the city sewer that runs underneath the property.

He said the Grand Action 2.0 board is not letting the economic “hiatus” caused by COVID-19 to get in the way of planning a “grand and bold” future for Grand Rapids.

“We want to be in a position as a community to move forward when things do allow that possibility. This is a perfect time for us as a community to step back, to do this kind of work and planning, so that we can emerge with a direction, and when it’s time to step on the gas, we’re ready to go.”

The Grand Rapids Venue & Attraction Development for Grand Rapids study executive summary can be downloaded at grandaction.org.

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