Center Changing Skyline Economy

    GRAND RAPIDS — The news is good for those who own restaurants, nightclubs, hotels and entertainment venues in the metro area.

    The Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) recently made it known that it has already booked more than $21.5 million worth of conventions and trade shows for the new $220 million DeVos Place convention center, and the building is still more than two years away from a ribbon cutting.

    “These recent bookings indicate that DeVos Place will truly become the economic engine that we predicted,” said CVB President Steve Wilson.

    “We’ve really established a momentum for future bookings and letting the meeting industry know that Grand Rapids has an exciting new convention center, as well as a very good overall convention product,” Wilson told the Business Journal recently.

    “Most of these conventions could not have been booked previously in Grand Rapids due to space limitations at the Grand Center,” he added.

    The Midwest Woodworkers will unofficially christen the building when Tradeshows Inc. brings 7,800 of its members to town for a show in December 2003. Sixteen groups will meet here in 2004, with 18 more scheduled for the following year. Eight conventions are booked for 2006, and four are on the books for 2007.

    In all, 47 meetings have been booked. The CVB estimated that these bookings will have an economic impact of more than $21 million and bring over 121,000 visitors here.

    Wilson gave his sales team, the SMG staff, Amway Grand Plaza Hotel officials and other lodging proprietors, along with area residents who belong to a number of the groups that are coming here, the credit for the great start the building has had in drumming up business.

    “We’ve really made it a team effort,” he said.

    The annual meeting of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association is the largest group committed to the building so far. In August 2007, 3,200 members will be here for 11 days, occupying more than 8,000 hotel rooms and spending an estimated $2.2 million.

    “The city’s downtown with its nightclubs, theaters and dining options within walking distance of the new convention center helped to convince the delegates that Grand Rapids was the place to hold this future national convention,” said Dann Werner of the Michigan Rural Letter Carriers Association.

    It took a village to close the sale at the national level for this event.

    “With the Rural Letter Carriers, we had the entire Michigan delegation up at the podium with Maria Brondyke, our state convention sales manager, to make the pitch,” said Wilson. “So this wasn’t the convention bureau alone, it was really a team effort.”

    One of the building’s smaller meetings will take place in the spring of 2005 when the Michigan School Food Service Association holds its annual convention at DeVos Place. The four-day gathering will still bring 600 people to the city along with an estimated economic impact of $126,000.

    Wilson reported that two-thirds of the booked business is coming from state groups, and that another 25 potential clients were here for the Celebration on the Grand festivities over the weekend. Richard DeVos, who with his wife Helen donated $15 million to the private fund-raising effort for the convention center project, officially greeted those clients.

    Wilson said the CVB wants to reach a room-night mark of 80,000 for the upcoming year, then break the 100,000 mark in 2004. The current list of bookings accounts for more than 76,000 room nights.

    “The design of the building is starting to sell itself,” said Mayor John Logie.

    Kent County is funding the sales effort. Commissioners agreed three years ago to back the marketing of DeVos Place prior to its opening by allocating $1 million in lodging excise tax revenue to it over four years.

    The county gave the bureau $250,000 two years ago and upped that to $333,333 for each of the last two years. Commissioners will hand over the final installment of $83,334 next year.

    “That is what the hotel-motel tax is for: to enhance our ability to attract conventions to the Grand Rapids area — and it’s working,” said County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio.

    The CVB has budgeted the $1 million to last until the end of 2004, when construction on DeVos Place will be finished. The bureau has a total budget of $3.2 million for next year.

    Once the ribbon is cut and the building hits its stride, the bureau feels DeVos Place will add $105 million to the local economy each year — a figure taken from a 1997 study that also includes growth in the local hotel industry. But at least 14, and possibly up to 17, of the 47 events already booked will take place before the building’s grand opening.

    “I think it’s a credit to the CVB and its foresight to be able to say the proof is in the pudding,” added Delabbio. “It sure is. It’s working,”

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