Regions food industry expected to grow with new market

Downtown Development Authority Vice Chairwoman Kayem Dunn said construction on the $30 million Grand Rapids Downtown Market, being developed by the DDA and the Grand Action Committee, is on budget and on time, meaning the much-anticipated market should open next July.

Dunn was exuberant about the project’s progress and pleased that the wooden beams that were once part of the original Sonneveldt Co. buildings on the site are being used to anchor the market’s shed.

“I did offer to ride the (final) beam up as a symbol of our commitment to the market, but they wouldn’t let me,” she said, smiling.

Dunn said recycled materials are being used as much as possible in the project and the goal is to seek LEED Silver certification when the work is completed.

“There are rooftop greenhouses on the second level,” she said.

Since its introduction several years ago, the project has drawn quite a bit of attention for its economic potential, including from those familiar with the state’s food industry.

“The new Grand Rapids Downtown Market will play a major role in helping food producers, processors and consumers connect, increasing regional food commerce and innovation, and providing new food business opportunities as well as opportunities in supporting sectors,” said Rich Pirog, senior associate director at the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, to the DDA.

Dunn reported the market’s financing team was in the process of identifying and securing commitments for $30 million in New Market Tax Credits that the development’s for-profit management entity can use to help defray construction costs. She said the PNC Bank Community Development Corp. has verbally agreed to provide a part of that allocation and is helping the DDA to find those credits.

Dunn also said Grand Action is going after public grants from the state Department of Agriculture and others, and the committee’s capital campaign was making headway toward its $12.5 million goal.

“The fundraising effort is continuing. Grand Action has a good track record, and I’m confident,” she said.

Besides the all-important financing for the development, another key element Dunn said is making progress is the search for the market’s tenants. Chris Muller, a commercial real estate broker and principal of M Retail Solutions in Grand Rapids, is working on that search with the market’s leasing committee.

“We’re looking for local vendors and producers, and we’re looking to have food produced on the site,” said Dunn.

The plan is to have two restaurants at the market. But the search is also looking for tenants not directly involved in the food industry. “The length of leases varies according to the type of space that is leased. Offices are for 10 years, but less for vendors in the main hall. We’re hoping to announce some of our tenants soon.”

Dunn said an education foundation is being formed for the market in hopes of getting grants to fund ongoing educational programming on nutrition and healthy living. The market will have a community room on the second floor for classes and other meetings.

Both the DDA and Grand Action see the market as an economic catalyst, not just for the food industry but also for that underdeveloped section of downtown and for the Central Business District, in general. So far, three housing projects are planned for the sector, with one under way, and a new prep academy is set to go in just two blocks south of the market’s site.

The DDA bought the market’s 3.5 acres along Ionia Avenue near Wealthy Street in 2008 for $2 million and is leasing the property for 99 years at $1 annually to Urban Market Holdings LLC, the for-profit entity the DDA and Grand Action created for the project. A feasibility study Grand Action commissioned in 2010 found that the market would have an economic impact of $775 million over its first decade and create about 1,000 new jobs.

The DDA is conducting a nationwide search for a CEO to oversee daily operations at the market. “Hopefully,” Dunn said to board members, “we’ll have some names on the list in September.”

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