Those who can remember downtown Grand Rapids when Monroe Center was a pedestrian mall can also remember rows of empty storefronts. Former three-term Mayor John Logie noted time and again that, back in the early 1990s, he counted more than 70.
Well, that was then, and we have a new now — one with “pinch-me” growth.
“The collaborative efforts of all the downtown interests, working toward the same goal of fostering a vibrant and distinctive downtown, are paying off,” said Kayem Dunn, vice chairwoman of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority.
“More and more people of all ages are discovering that it’s the place to be — for lively arts, good food, all kinds of entertainment or just strolling around — and this critical mass of people supports retail growth. It’s fun to watch happen,” she added.
Nine new businesses have opened downtown since the beginning of this year — only four short of the total that opened in 2010. The latest opened last Saturday when Blue, a Goodwill boutique, went into business at 40 Monroe Center.
“We are very excited about all the new projects downtown and the increasing amount of retail. This has been a great quarter so far, with nine new retail businesses already this year,” said Anne Marie Bessette, retail development specialist with the DDA.
Two new businesses opened earlier this month. Lindsey Norton unveiled the BANG Blow-Dry Bar at 3 Oakes Ave. SW. Norton said she was inspired by hair boutiques she saw in London and decided to bring the design elements here.
“There is a huge inner connection with the esteem of your mind and hair, and they have to match. Look your best, feel your best,” said Norton, whose mother, Carmella Loftis, owns Sanctuary Folk Art with Reb Roberts just down the street.
“There is this whole energy on the street. Everyone in the area is so supportive and wants to help,” said Norton.
Just days after Norton opened her business, Patrick Lelli opened his at 136 S. Division Ave., a live-and-work location on the Avenue of the Arts. The Miscellany Retail Store and Art Gallery is a unique hybrid — half traditional retail shop and half art gallery. The shop’s merchandise includes vintage clothing, electronics and art books.
“I’ve wanted to open up a retail and gallery space for years now, and this place makes it possible. I like living in this part of town; it’s so central to everything,” said Lelli, a photographer and graphic designer.
Subs-N-More made its debut in McKay Tower at 146 Monroe Center in March, but owners Ryan and Heather Johnson held a grand opening pizza party a few weeks ago. It’s the Johnsons’ third business.
“This property is a key retail location, and we are pleased to see it filled by Subs-N-More, a proven entrepreneur who is offering the community a great product,” said Jay Fowler, DDA executive director.
Central District Cyclery, 52 Monroe Center, and Off the Cuff, 40 Monroe Center, also opened in March. February saw Buffalo Wild Wings make its debut at 8 Ionia Ave. SW, while The Back Forty Saloon, 48 W. Fulton St., and Haworth/Interphase, 40 Monroe Center, both opened in January.
“The entrepreneurs coming in nicely complement our existing retail. The new shops at MoDiv, at 40 Monroe Center, are a huge addition,” said Bessette. “One entrepreneur, Sarah Ables, opened Chai Boutique in September, and she and her husband, Lenny, just opened a second store last month: Off the Cuff.”
And others are coming. Kilwins Chocolates is getting ready to open in ground floor space at McKay Tower. Kilwins will offer ice cream and 75 handmade chocolate and fudge products. The DDA recently awarded the business two grants worth $9,160 to help make the restrooms barrier free and to install its sign.
“This will be a new retailer in the downtown area,” said Eric Pratt, a planner with the DDA.
Another is the Grand Rapids Brewing Co., which Mark and Michele Sellers are reviving at 1 and 7 Ionia Ave. SE.
“The ground floors will require a full renovation because the brewery will occupy both,” said Pratt. The Sellers hope to have the microbrewery open in August.
The possibility that Jackson Entertainment, part of Celebration Cinema, may park a multiplex downtown has created a lot of anticipation. Having a movie theater in the district was, perhaps, the crowning retail achievement for Logie, who imagined one being built someday on top of a parking ramp. The former mayor was close because this one, if built, would go on a parking lot behind Van Andel Arena.
“The mixed-use multi-screen movie theater and entertainment facility recently announced by the Loeks family will be a game-changer, and several new housing developments and renovations will help retail development,” said Bessette.
Another game-changer will be the Urban Market being built by the DDA and Grand Action Committee on Ionia Avenue SW near Wealthy Street. Right now, the market, which has been estimated as costing between $27 million and $30 million, is set to open in about 15 months and is projected to bring more development to that largely undeveloped sector of downtown.
The business growth that downtown has experienced didn’t start yesterday — it’s the product of years of collaborative efforts that Dunn mentioned. From 2009 through 2011, 55 new businesses opened in the district, while 28 closed and three relocated. Over those three years, the sector gained a net of 24 new businesses. The nine new ones for this year push that gain to 33.
“Along with the larger projects are many small, talented entrepreneurs who have been inspired by boutiques in major U.S. and European cities and are coming back home to Grand Rapids to add charm and even more vitality to downtown,” said Bessette. “We have a lot to celebrate and a lot to look forward to.”