West Michigan’s ‘wow list’ is in place, now what?


Nearly 90% or respondents rated Grand Rapids as an excellent or good place to live. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Grand Rapids got a preview of several potential multimillion-dollar projects last week, including a $40-million soccer stadium, 500-room hotel and $83-million DeVos Place Convention Center expansion that could garner investment dollars from Grand Action.

The business-based nonprofit, which is responsible for Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place, Civic Theatre, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Downtown Market, hired Conventions, Sports and Leisure International (CSL) of Minneapolis to identify opportunities for projects and investments that could “elevate” Grand Rapids and Kent County as a “top-tier visitor destination.”

John Kaatz, author of the CSL Grand Rapids Destination Asset Study, presented the results during a meeting of the Economics Club of Grand Rapids at the JW Marriott Hotel following an introduction by David Frey, co-chair of Grand Action, who said, “This is not a time to pause. We are determined to build on our past successes.”

Recommendations included a 115,700-square-foot expansion of DeVos Place Convention Center with an accompanying development of a 350- to 500-room hotel attached to or adjacent to the convention center; attraction of a United Soccer League franchise and construction of an 8,000-seat soccer stadium; and a 12- to 20-field sports complex to support enhanced amateur sports offerings, the cost of which would be approximately $20 million.

The study also calls for aggressive support for the GR Forward river restoration plans, at a cost of $35-40 million, including the development of a River Destination Center near Lyon Square, river access points and transportation options to support river access; support for initiatives reinforcing Grand Rapids as an outdoor and adventure city, such as visitor-friendly trail heads, development of an app providing an interactive map of trail routs, real-time weather conditions, trail closures or under construction information, ability to create daily itineraries and opportunities for social media sharing; visitor-friendly transportation options, such as trolleys or a gondola system; and destination awareness and diversity and inclusion initiatives centered on opportunities in the hospitality industry.

Following the presentation, Frey said it was too early to say which projects might be most likely to receive backing from Grand Action, but he did say a natural fit likely would be the convention center expansion since Grand Action was involved in its original development.

“Certainly, the expansion of the convention facility and a new hotel would be a great sequence to our efforts to raise money for DeVos Place, so that would be a natural transition, but at the moment, we have not identified those two. It’s a little early,” Frey said.

During the presentation, Kaatz noted limited options for a convention center expansion. He said potential locations would be to expand north across Michigan Street or east across Monroe Avenue with a skywalk connecting the buildings.

But both of those locations pose challenges, as each already is home to existing buildings.

The U.S. Post Office has been a long-term resident on the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue, and previous efforts at acquiring the location for development have been unsuccessful. The location east of Monroe Avenue is home to the Vandenberg building, which houses offices for the city of Grand Rapids, Kent County and Calder Plaza.

Frey said he would prefer to see the convention expansion go east and is hopeful the post office will be able to relocate in the future, freeing up the riverside location for private development.

“I think they (the post office) are willing to move,” he said. “We just have to find a mechanism that allows them to move with no increased costs to the U.S. Postal System.

“In my view, that site screams for a large spike in the sky,” Frey said. “I think it deserves a 20- to 25-story residential and retail building, a partner for the renovated Rowe apartments and condos.”

Frey said he thinks expanding the convention center to the east would be more manageable and is in line with original plans that had the convention center connected by a skywalk across Monroe Avenue.

Kris Larson, president of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., said recent work on design plans for Calder Plaza would not limit the space as a possibility for a convention center expansion.

“Calder Plaza is not just one idea, it’s a collection of I’d say a dozen ideas that are all individual retrofits of elements of the plaza,” Larson said. “In the next two to four years, if there was more clarity provided about, ‘Hey, the convention center is going to go east,’ and so we need to make room available on the plaza, we want to make sure we aren’t designing out that opportunity, because of some short-term retrofit improvement.”

Larson said with the uncertainty, the likelihood is that retrofit projects will begin around the plaza exterior initially, leaving room for the convention center.

Doug Small, president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, said he thinks an expanded convention center adjacent to an improved Calder Plaza would provide a unique selling point for Grand Rapids.

“How cool would that be if you have what you are planning on Calder Plaza and you have the convention center? If you are a delegate to a convention and you have that outside, that is cool, you don’t see that anywhere,” Small said.

Finding the perfect location for a hotel to support expanded convention center crowds also will be key.

Small said the main thing is making sure the distance is walkable.

“You heard John say the best location was right in the convention campus there,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is not a lot of room on the convention campus, unless there is a repurpose of the current building.

“Personally, knowing our customers, if it’s within a reasonable walking distance to the convention center — and reasonable would even be down by the Van Andel Arena — and is the right style hotel with the right amount of meeting space, it will be a big advantage for us.”

Frey said next steps will include several public meetings between Kaatz and stakeholders.

“CSL is going to do outreach with all sectors of the city and metro Grand Rapids,” he said. “Following those meetings, you will start to see certain organizations, like DGRI, Experience Grand Rapids and others, start to identify the projects most in line with their interests and start to see coalescence around the projects.”

Frey said projects might also get bundled where it makes sense to do so.

He said some projects might get off the ground quickly, while others are looking at longer multi-year timeframes.

Kaatz said if the convention center expansion project were to begin tomorrow, it likely would be 10 years before it was completed.

“This is a big deal,” Frey said. “This is a catalogue of what is next for Grand Rapids and West Michigan. It’s the ‘wow list’ and game-changing stuff.

“You have to take an inventory before you can start to organize it, and you’ll see very soon, in the first quarter of next year, an organized pattern for most of these projects, some of which are already underway.”

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