Alliance Program on tap


    The Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority will share a success story at the West Michigan Alliance Program March 2 at DeVos Place.

    The DDA’s retail specialist, Anne Marie Bessette, will co-anchor a roundtable discussion with her counterpart from Downtown Kalamazoo Inc., Rob Peterson, on what it takes to recruit retailers to an urban core. 

    “I’m going to be presenting the retail brochure and sharing with people how we worked on it — the collaborative effort in working with the representatives from the brokerage firms,” said Bessette.

    The DDA created a retail recruitment program with brokers two years ago, and Bessette has directed it since its inception. The effort has been successful, and the 12-page brochure the board developed with Plenty Creative, a local marketing and graphics firm, highlights that success and announces there is room for more new businesses.

    The brochure, “We Are Ready For You,” is filled with information about downtown in particular and the city in general, including consumer spending habits. It has been given to commercial realtors to help them fill vacant retail spaces in the central business district.

    “The whole point is to drive people to our storefronts that are available,” said Bessette.

    Another point Bessette has already made is that those storefronts have remained fairly filled — remarkably so, during one of the worst economic years in decades.

    “I really think this indicates that we are ready,” said DDA Chairwoman Kayem Dunn.

    Bessette recently told the DDA that 22 new businesses set up shop downtown during 2009, while 13 closed and two others relocated outside of the district, with one going exclusively virtual. Of the 13 that closed, two opened just last year and five had been in business two years or less. Three others expanded their presence within the district last year and two more have opened this year.

    “We have been very fortunate to see that kind of growth,” said Bessette.

    “For us, we want to find stores that are very attractive to people but aren’t just around the corner. So people will want to come downtown for those stores.”

    Fourteen new businesses opened downtown in 2008, while seven left the sector, so there has been a net gain in new businesses for the last two years. The DDA committed $8,000 last year to create the new brochure.

    Every time a new business opens downtown, Bessette puts together a ribbon-cutting ceremony that draws media attention and welcomes the new owners. It might seem like a small gesture, but it isn’t to those who are setting up a new shop in what may be, for them, uncharted territory.

    “These are really important, so when a business comes in there is some noise about it to let people know that they are there. Sometimes people are aware that a business is coming, but are not sure exactly when it’s open,” said Bessette. “And from what we hear when we do this, it has had an impact for these businesses.”

    Downtown has an estimated 185 businesses within its boundary. Bessette said 44 percent are restaurants, 30 percent are retailers and 25 percent are service businesses.

    The new brochure is available online at and will be on display at next week’s event, which is being hosted by the International Council of Shopping Centers in tandem with eight participating organizations.

    Peter Varga will give the keynote presentation. The CEO of The Rapid will discuss development opportunities associated with the Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit System, which has been proposed to run between 60th Street and downtown.

    Grand Valley Metro Council Executive Director Don Stypula will moderate a panel discussion on how to make business collaborations work. Jeff Lobdell, Mark Cory, Mark Griffin and Charlie McCown are the panelists. Fifteen discussions on topics ranging from franchises to incubator space to public incentives also are on the agenda.

    The West Michigan Alliance Program is in its eighth year and gives the private and public sectors a forum to discuss collaborative efforts and a chance to network. The session runs from 7:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. The cost for nonmembers is $75 at the door. Members and public officials pay $60 at the door. More information is available at

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