Small district could nearly double its stores


Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final article in a series looking at retail potential in downtown Grand Rapids.

The East Fulton business district is one of the city’s 20 neighborhood business districts, a distinction that separates it from the three other sectors Robert Gibbs, a nationally known retail consultant, felt was part of the larger downtown shopping core. He sees East Fulton as having growth potential that could possibly double its retail offerings.

Gibbs, a principal with Gibbs Planning Group of Birmingham, Mich., toured the district and met with some business owners in the East Fulton district last summer as part of an agreement with the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority to analyze the retail situation in the Central Business District.

Gibbs described East Fulton as a sector with a cluster of small businesses that serve both as a gateway to downtown and an amenity for the surrounding neighborhoods. “Surprisingly, the district has a large number of commercial vacancies, even though the area has excellent street frontage and visibility,” he wrote in his analysis. “Many of the East Fulton district’s buildings are attractive, historical structures that should be adaptable for many modern retailers and restaurants.”

Gibbs felt the small district, which runs along East Fulton from Sheldon Avenue east to Jefferson Avenue, could support another 10 to 12 stores and restaurants over the next few years. The shops could occupy another 12,280 square feet of commercial space, while the eateries could fill 4,720 square feet. The district currently offers 14 stores, including four restaurants.

A home furnishings store, an electronics or phone store, a hardware store, a lawn and garden store and a convenience grocery store were the types of businesses Gibbs thought could be added and would be supportable in the sector. He estimated the new stores could generate up to $6.7 million in annual sales.

“These businesses would serve both the surrounding neighborhoods and commuter traffic entering and leaving the downtown,” he said.

Gibbs outlined the district’s trade area as extending a mile east of Eastern Avenue and a half-mile north and south of Fulton Street into the surrounding neighborhoods. He reported the trade area has 6,500 people residing in 3,800 households. The average household income there is $34,600.

Gibbs said the district would draw most of its shoppers from the east edge of downtown’s institutional core, like the Children’s Museum, Civic Theater, the public library and St. Cecilia Music Center.

The downtown colleges, such as Ferris State University and GR Community College, would also be a traffic draw, as would the smaller theaters like Spectrum, Actors’ and Jewish. The West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology also was on his list as a potential traffic draw.

The DDA hired Gibbs in March and paid $83,000 for the retail analysis. At the same meeting, the board decided to delay contracting for the second-stage work, which would cost $49,000 and involve implementing a recruitment strategy and conducting a feasibility study as to whether the DDA should create an incubator program for start-ups. The board hasn’t taken action on the second phase.

Rather than going forward with a standard incubator program, the DDA chose to create a similar type of support program that involved partnering with the Small Business and Technology Development Center and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women. The program awards new retailers with up to $10,000 to assist with the cost of a storefront build-out. Old World Olive Press, Grand River Cigar and Central District Cyclery have received grants from the program.

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