It Takes A Village


    GRAND RAPIDS — Jade Pig Ventures has its nose in two big development projects. The Grand Rapids real estate investment firm with the ubiquitous, stylized pig-nose logo will be investing up to $100 million in the “re-ignition” of East Grand Rapids’ Gaslight Village and the reinvention of Breton Village shopping center.

    Work has just begun in East Grand Rapids on a multi-use, planned unit development that will feature retail, professional, dining and residential space, as well as a $50 million to $60 million price tag.

    A mile and a half south, construction is underway on the re-envisioned Breton Village shopping center.

    For Jade Pig President Scott Wierda, both sites represent exactly what the company looks for in an investment.

    Wierda said that the trend in recent decades has been toward homogeneity in retail environments. The major players have moved out of urban areas into the suburbs. The same stores can be found in just about any market in the country. Quality and originality have been sacrificed for the sake of low prices. Wierda said that his company is betting on the fact that a growing segment of the market is looking for a unique, authentic shopping experience — and is willing to pay a premium for higher quality.

    “Things are cyclical. I think the biggest challenge to (growth in mid- to high-end retail) happening is people’s demand for being the low-cost provider. That’s why Wal-Mart is what it is,” he said. “But I think retailing is so much more than (low cost). I think environment is very important. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be for everybody.”

    Nor should it be, according to Wierda. The type of retailers found in East Grand Rapids and Gaslight Village are archetypical of the philosophy of serving a niche market. Women’s specialty store Leigh’s is a prime example.

    “There’s been a lot of media coverage on the closure of department stores. You know, ‘The local merchant can’t compete,’ and those things. But, here’s Leigh’s. They’ve been in business 25-plus years. (They have) continuously rising sales, continuously rising profits while everyone else is contracting. Again, there’s somebody who’s been focused on mid- to high-end and has not deviated from that. They haven’t tried to be all things to all people.”

    The first phase of the Breton Village redevelopment will focus on the construction of Leigh’s new facility. Around the time of the new “anchor-type” store’s completion in September, Jade Pig expects to conclude its interior remodeling throughout the shopping center.

    Wierda said that the company had originally planned to “de-mall” Breton Village, creating an indoor/outdoor “lifestyle center” instead of the traditional enclosed shopping center concept. That idea didn’t fly with either tenants or the consumers Jade Pig surveyed. Because they will have to build within the current mall structure, and focus more attention and funds on the interior spaces, Wierda said the price for the project jumped “significantly.”

    Faced with a drastically increased budget, some developers might look for a way to control costs, such as toning down some of the major interior renovations: new ceilings and lighting packages, koi (Japanese goldfish) ponds, leather seating, a massive “floating” glass elevator and a stone fireplace in the central concourse. Removing such high-ticket items from the development plan might be considered a shrewd financial move.

    “We actually don’t believe that. I think we’d go the opposite,” Wierda said. “In order to create a niche for this, we actually have to go above. Doing something average isn’t going to cut it. Putting a Band-Aid on Breton Village is not going to cut it. So we have to reinvent it with a focus on mid- to high-end.”

    That means increasing the center’s interior square footage by nearly 20 percent. In the second phase of the project, Jade Pig will add two new “lifestyle center” buildings, incorporating the indoor/outdoor feel into a home for multiple retail operations as well as three restaurants.

    Wierda said he and Jade Pig partner Brian DeVries feel that their investment in Breton Village can only increase what has already proven successful.

    “One thing we don’t have to create: We have great demographics. The income levels are fantastic around there. The density of population is fantastic. So that is another reason why we invested in it. Great sales-per-square-foot, great demographics, great traffic counts. All those things we didn’t have to create,” he said.

    The same is true in East Grand Rapids, where Jade Pig is investing even more capital in a major redevelopment plan. The site of the former Jacobson’s department store and the Ramona Medical Building will be turned into a multi-use facility that will feature condominiums, office and medical space, as well as additional retail and dining facilities.

    The plan was contentious among local residents. In February, however, the citizens of East Grand Rapids voted in favor of approving the planned unit development, allowing Jade Pig to proceed with its plans. Wierda does not dismiss those who opposed the project, but he is confident that they are far outnumbered.

    “I think there was pretty overwhelming support for it — that doesn’t mean it was unanimous,” he said. “We had unanimous approval from the planning commission, all but one on the city commission, we had the full endorsement of the planning consultant that the city hired — to me that’s pretty significant.”

    Wierda said that he has already received the blessing of some of his earlier critics and expects more to come around once the project is finished.

    “Even the opposition people — I think they’re going to smile when they walk by,” he said.

    Creating that reaction, he said, means once again going beyond the ordinary.

    “The city definitely wanted to maintain a higher standard for the development,” he said. “And I believe that we’re going to far surpass that.”

    That means using imported Belgian block where requirements call for brick. It means adding extra touches like water features and sculptures. These features aren’t required under the development plan, but they are necessary, Wierda said, to promote the feeling of class and quality that will attract high-end shoppers, residents and, eventually, other real estate investors.

    “We never intended to do this on our own,” Wierda said. Instead, Jade Pig would provide the catalyst, and — while others rush to join the redevelopment — sit back to watch the investment grow.    

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