GRAND HAVEN — It’s not that things are bad or are expected to get worse. The question is more of trying to make things a lot better.
Working under that premise, a group of business leaders in Grand Haven wants to emulate Holland’s accomplishment of the past 13 years and launch a major initiative to revitalize downtown. Their goal is to recruit investors who are willing to put up a collective $3 million to buy downtown buildings as they come up for sale, renovate them, and then lease or sell the properties to parties who share their vision.
“We feel we need to bring downtown to the next level. We need to raise the bar,” said Roger Bergman, owner of Borr’s Bootery downtown and a member of the Grand Haven City Council.
The City of Grand Haven, the Association of Commerce and Industry, and Downtown Grand Haven Inc., a downtown marketing and promotion organization, have joined forces to form the for-profit investment group Heart of Grand Haven LLC.
While organizers hope to eventually generate a small return on investors’ money, their efforts are not rooted in a desire to make money. A vision to improve the central business district, and with it the overall community, is instead the driving force behind the Heart of Grand Haven LLC.
“This isn’t going to be an investment in a typical sense,” said Todd Anthes, an attorney with the law firm Scholten & Fant in downtown Grand Haven.
“This is philanthropy at its base, and it could be profitable,” Anthes said at a meeting last week with potential investors. “A lot of this is really taking ownership on your community and making it a better place.”
In forming Heart of Grand Haven, organizers hope to replicate Holland’s successful downtown revitalization effort that has earned national recognition.
Like many small-town downtowns, Holland was in trouble in the mid-1980s. Large retailers had moved out and the Westshore Mall was being built on U.S. 31, north of town. Westshore’s construction came following a failed effort to develop a mall in downtown Holland.
Out of the failure came the formation of the Riverview Advisory Committee, a private-sector think tank consisting of business leaders who explored ways to use the land as a way to trigger downtown’s renewal. The committee also went to work formulating a vision for downtown.
The committee’s work led to the creation of the Riverview Development Limited Partnership, a group of 30 business leaders, led by the late Edgar Prince, who put up nearly $3 million of their own money to buy key parcels in downtown and hold them until the “right development” came along that met with the vision being forged for downtown.
Today, that effort is credited with spurring more than $110 million in private- and public-sector investment in downtown Holland since the late 1980s. Riverview Development, its mission accomplished, dissolved earlier this year.
Driving the success of downtown Holland’s revitalization was the willingness of governmental and business leaders to unite to breathe new life into the central business district and make it the cultural and commercial focal point of the broader community, said Mike Lozon, a free-lance writer who chronicled downtown Holland’s revitalization in the 1994 book “Vision on Main Street.”
Overall, the success of downtown Holland’s revitalization effort can be credited to an ongoing commitment of time and money on the part of supporters in both the public and private sectors who share a singular motivation. They are determined to help downtown retain its historic status not only as a major retail player in the marketplace, but also as the heart of the greater Holland community,” Lozon said.
That effort didn’t always consist of “deep-pocket” investors such as the Prince family and other prominent business leaders, Lozon said. A large portion of the success stems from the countless number of businesses and business people who gave of their time to strategic planning efforts.
“If you were to sum up downtown Holland’s revitalization in one word, it would be cooperation,” Lozon said. “It really was a collective effort. It really went beyond the people with deep pockets.”
In Grand Haven, organizers of the investment group say they plan to use Holland as a model for their efforts, but first they need the help of investors. Without the private sector’s help, the revitalization initiative “isn’t going to work,” Anthes said.
“We’re simply putting the ball on the tee and expecting this community to hit it,” Anthes said.
Downtown Grand Haven largely consists of specialty shops and professional offices. The Heart of Grand Haven envisions the district adding residential uses to the mixture of retail stores and professional offices, while generating increased foot traffic and creating new open spaces or parks for people to gather.
The group’s effort will initially focus on Washington Avenue, between Harbor Drive and Third Street, although it could expand in the future, Anthes said.
While $3 million won’t go far, the group’s hopes are that others will follow the example and begin investing in downtown on their own, said Karen Benson, economic development coordinator with the Association of Commerce and Industry.
“You can catch the excitement and other people want to be in the arena,” Benson said. “If we can be a spark to others, that’s part of the game.”
While Grand Haven does not have some of the elements Holland had in its downtown revitalization — namely Ed and Elsa Prince, who poured millions into downtown Holland over the years through the family’s property management company, Lumir Corp. — it does have geography on its side.
Downtown Grand Haven has the city’s adjacent waterfront, a resource and lure that the Heart of Grand Haven organizers plans to leverage as much as possible. While downtown Grand Haven is not in a state of deterioration, it has lost some key destination businesses in recent years and backers of the initiative say it has the potential to become a far better business district.
“You can’t ever rest on your laurels. Things are fine but they could be better,” Benson said. “We already have a gem here, we just think it needs some polishing.”