Downtown GH Could Be Better

    GRAND HAVEN — Playing to the strength of the adjacent waterfront and continuing the course of the past decade, albeit in a more focused approach, are keys to downtown Grand Haven’s future, says a planning consultant who analyzed the business district.

    Doyle Hyett, of the firm Hyett-Palma, generally has high praise for downtown Grand Haven’s progress since the last time he studied the business district 11 years ago.

    The downtown has begun a necessary transformation from a primarily retail shopping hub to a district of residential dwellings above storefronts, professional offices and specialty retail outlets.

    Yet the downtown could do far more to reach its potential and fend off emerging competitive threats, both in town and out, Hyett said.

    “Even with a prosperous community like Grand Haven, you’re going to have to do something about it,” Hyett said during a recent presentation of his “blueprint” for downtown Grand Haven.

    “You should feel lucky having a downtown as healthy as you have, but you’ve got a constant challenge keeping it going,” he said.

    Downtown Grand Haven Inc., a marketing association of downtown businesses, and the city’s Central Business District Development Authority are undertaking the $40,000 analysis to better position the business district for the future. Funding for the study comes from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Loutit Foundation.

    The organizations will use Hyett’s study, as well as the results of ongoing separate studies of infrastructure and parking and traffic issues in downtown, to better plan for the future.

    “Things will start happening that you have not seen happening,” Downtown Grand Haven Inc./DDA Coordinator Cherie Hall Talbert said.

    The studies come on the heels of the proposed City Place redevelopment project that would have transformed a large area of the downtown and has become a major issue in this year’s mayoral campaign, as well as amid emerging and growing retail competition locally and regionally. The Home Depot Inc. is building a new store in Grand Haven and Wal-Mart has plans for a store just south of town, in Grand Haven Township, across U.S. 31 from Meijer.

    The major retail corridor 20 minutes south along U.S. 31 in Holland continues to creep northward, and a similar corridor is growing rapidly along Harvey Street, around U.S. 31 and Sternberg Road, just 10 minutes away in Muskegon.

    To differentiate themselves from new retail destinations, downtowns have to become far more than a place to shop, Hyett said.

    Over the years downtowns have generally evolved from shopping destinations to eclectic districts that offer specialty retailers and dining, entertainment venues and cultural attractions, apartments and condominiums to live, and professional offices for service-sector businesses, Hyett said.

    Downtowns, he said, are “not going to be what you used to be in the past.”

    “It’s not simply a commercial district anymore,” he said. “It’s become specialized and it’s likely to become more specialized.

    “That’s the essence of good revitalization today, the multiplicity.”

    To further that process in Grand Haven, Hyett urged downtown leaders to look for ways to make the district more of a year-round destination point, encourage building and facade improvements, put greater emphasis on business retention, and recruit developers for in-fill development within the core business district and around the periphery. A number of parcels in and around downtown Grand Haven “are ideal candidates” for redevelopment, Hyett said.

    Business leaders also need to get “very serious” about making downtown Grand Haven a more attractive place to live, Hyett said.

    Downtown needs to put more efforts into promoting the business district for “boutique” specialty retailers, restaurants, professional offices and residences, as well as a regional gathering place for the community — a push that began with Hyett’s first study in 1992.

    “We’re pretty much telling you to stay the course,” he said.

    Businesses could also make life “much easier for themselves” by giving even greater attention to customer service as a way to differentiate the district from other retail destinations, and look at doing more to stay open later in the evening and on weekends when people have more time to shop.

    Perhaps the biggest thing downtown Grand Haven could do is to finally connect the city’s popular waterfront with the adjoining business district. The goal is to lure people strolling along the river, particularly out-of-town visitors, to wander into downtown, anchored on one end by the waterfront and a city park on the other end.

    “God doesn’t give everybody a waterfront like He’s given you. This appeal is priceless,” Hyett said.

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