Downtown: Make sure there is room for all


The Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority apparently needs to be encouraged to begin using the important information delivered by Gibbs Planning Group in a comprehensive study of the pros and cons of downtown retail. Something seems amiss, after the DDA board spent $83K to identify concerns and opportunities and used an outside consultant — Michigan based — to provide reasonable courses of action to rise above what can be a cacophony of special interests and short-term thinking.

The substance and recommendations of the Gibbs report cannot be denied, and that fact has been so stated in many ways, many times. Yet each time, such advice for growth has been dismissed. Downtown businesses and property owners who paid for the study should not let that happen again; it is their views and opinions that are reflected in the study.

Some aspects of the dissent may be in the balance of local and national retail that combine to better draw customers. National retailers are non-existent downtown, and that must obviously change. The Business Journal would not expect this to be welcome news, specifically to DDA board member Elissa Hillary, executive director of Local First, but one is charged in public duties with public trust to rise above bias and personal interest.

Some examples of such a mix already exist among local and national franchise restaurants. An example of the necessity was borne in cost by Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, which little more than a year ago finally pulled the plug on the long-beloved but rarely used 1913 Room restaurant in favor of a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The recognizable name is a draw to hotel customers. The Business Journal points out that the hotel customers also are downtown’s customers.

Consultant Robert Gibbs told the DDA that almost all current retailers in downtown said they wanted the company of national retailers to help drive traffic to the central city and believe it is to the benefit of all. The study also notes such a mix would be a bigger draw to suburban youth and the college students frequenting the taverns downtown. Gibbs also noted downtown’s current “unique, one-of-a-kind” retailers make the district unsustainable without one or more anchor stores.

Especially puzzling is Gibbs’ fact-finding that indicates a bias by community real estate brokers and policy makers to discourage national chains in the downtown. That is exactly counter to what has assisted the sustainability of other urban retail districts, Meijer among them. The Walker-based retailer created its first urban footprint store a few years back — in Chicago. The specific example of Meijer is intentional for the years-long hue and cry for a downtown grocery, and because it serves the question of the local/national mix. Such bias must be addressed — the sooner, the better.

Gibbs advised the DDA: “(Such bias) is contrary to recent trends by national retailers to create smaller urban formats for city centers similar to Grand Rapids. The city is among the most attractive and walkable in the Midwest and in itself a unique destination.”

To continue to ignore advice known to be credible — and oft-repeated — is a terrible waste of current DDA property owner money, a disservice to the larger community, illogical and unacceptably frustrating.

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