GRAND RAPIDS — A trio of seemingly unrelated events are helping to bring a multi-million-dollar entertainment district proposed for Ionia Avenue closer to reality. Two have already happened, while the third is set for next week.
First, the Downtown Development Authority will amend the option it has with the Rockford Development Group on the Area 3 parking lot on Ionia between Weston and Oakes streets. The Belmont developer and property manager is expected to exercise that option fairly soon and eventually put up three, two-story buildings on the lot. A few of the company’s targeted tenants are in the entertainment industry.
Board members will amend the option to allow Rockford to buy the property in stages, instead of in a single swoop, and let the developer exercise its rights with only 45 days worth of notice, instead of having to give the DDA a six-month heads-up.
“We are looking at plans that are moving along quite quickly,” said Rockford COO Kurt Hassberger to the DDA last week.
It’s likely the firm will develop the southern third of the parking lot first.
Second, city commissioners agreed last week to let the DDA spend $40,000 to match a $40,000 grant the board got in June from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The money will be used to study how to best develop a downtown entertainment district.
City Economic Development Director Susan Shannon, Downtown Improvement District Director Sharon Evoy, DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler, Design Plus CEO Vern Ohlman, and DDA Chairman Verne Barry are searching for a consultant to spend that $80,000 with.
“It’s very important that we pick the right firm to do that and what we’re looking for is someone that has done something similar or identical, hopefully, in the past with other cities and has a pretty good track record,” said Barry.
“We could pull on their experience with other projects and I think we will have that defined, probably, within the next 30 days,” he added.
Last, but certainly not least, is the demolition of the former Milner Hotel. Over a year ago, Rockford CEO John Wheeler cited the unsightly and unsafe structure at the corner of Ionia and Oakes as being the major obstacle to development along Ionia Avenue and to the Cherry Street Landing project, just east of Ionia.
The Milner was approved for razing in May and could come tumbling down as early as next week. But this week the decaying structure still stands across Ionia from the parking lot on which Rockford has an option.
“Private enterprise hasn’t been able to do anything with the building since 1981. They haven’t even protected the building,” said John Weiss, president of Design Plus, last fall, when the movements to develop the district and demolish the Milner began in earnest.
“It’s just a blight that sits there,” added Weiss, whose design company has partnered with Rockford in the entertainment project.
Their goal is to fill Ionia Avenue with new development from Weston to Williams Street. Their plan includes a music venue that could seat up to 400, and Rockford has been trying to entice the House of Blues management to consider locating there.
Apartments, commercial space — possibly for a bank — and a parking ramp are also in their plan for Ionia, as are a restaurant or two. So not everything on the books for those blocks is show business oriented, but it does look like that industry has been tabbed to play a starring role in its future.
“We now can begin to figure out what is the best way and best approach to bring the private entrepreneurs and the city together in developing some kind of an entertainment district — or districts, plural,” said Ohlman.
The plural part of his comment is Bridge Street, which is west of the Grand River and downtown. Ohlman said a few nightspots along the street have become popular with the college crowd and those blocks will get looked at as another potential area for entertainment.
“I would see that, and everybody does, as a really positive thing,” said Ohlman.
“To have diversity in terms of multiple districts, that could certainly broaden the appeal and make the Grand Rapids metro area an entertainment destination, which is certainly one of our big goals,” he added.
Although various issues still need to be resolved, three key factors are already known.
First, the Van Andel Arena, DeVos Performance Hall and DeVos Place should draw a steady stream of customers to an entertainment district or districts.
Second, both the public and private sectors have expressed an interest in developing the district.
Fowler and Evoy attended a recent conference in Cleveland that offered sessions on that topic, and the DeVos family joined forces with Rockford in April on the Landing project that spills into the Ionia district.
“I think an entertainment district would help us attract young people. We need something other than the arena to draw people downtown,” said Rick Tormala, commissioner for the city’s 2nd Ward.
Third, action by both sectors continues to move forward.
“We didn’t want this just to be a study,” said Shannon of the money set aside for a consultant. “We want this to be an implementation plan.”