Grand Haven City Council members last week had an encounter that most city leaders only dream of.
A trio of businessmen hopes to invest $20 million to $25 million in the community’s downtown. (See story, page 3.) The developers — Steve Loftis, Ross Pope and Ira Green — have proposed Grand Haven City Place, a development that would bring major changes to the character of the community’s downtown business district.
To accomplish their vision, the developers need the city to close off a downtown street, vacate two public parking areas (which would be replaced with an underground lot), and create a tax increment financing district to pay for a streetscape project that many believe is direly needed.
The city could receive much — most notably a way to finally improve downtown and connect its popular waterfront with the central business district. With the exception of a lone City Council member, the mayor and council reacted with disdain, and offered no reason for such rudeness. When city leaders become so bureaucratic as to lose sight of the fact that they represent a constituency of individuals and businesses — rather than themselves and a limited perspective — the fundamentals of community government are severely compromised.
Rather than engage the developers in an earnest and candid discussion about the possibilities that could evolve from the proposal, a majority of the Grand Haven City Council last week seemed to grasp for reasons not to work with the developers and not to pursue the idea.
Partnerships like that proffered in Grand Haven are certainly not unique. From Holland and Muskegon to downtown Grand Rapids, every city sees the need to revitalize the urban center — the identity of a community — to attract and retain a vibrant population.
Holland over the last 15 years has become a model of private-public cooperation that has resulted in a downtown central business district receiving national accolades.
Up the road in Muskegon, a community that has surely seen its share of hardship in recent decades, business and public interests have worked hand-in-hand to create a new vision for the Port City. Their efforts are now paying off through numerous downtown developments, including the pending development of the SmartZone high-tech business park that promises to spark a new economic era for Muskegon, and the future redevelopment of the defunct Muskegon Mall. The latter project is an excellent example of how bad decisions in the past can be turned into positives for the future when varying interests are united with a common purpose and vision.
In Grand Rapids, city administrators and commissioners are working diligently with Blue Bridge Ventures and Hines Interests LP on a proposal to build a 24-story, 400-room convention hotel on Calder Plaza, an idea they initially weren’t sure they liked at all. Public officials in Grand Rapids deserve credit for at least listening and engaging the developers in an honest dialog.
We are heartened by the examples of Holland, Muskegon and Grand Rapids because downtown business districts represent the financial, commercial and cultural hearts of communities. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. announced last month a new partnership with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority to combine funding for matching grants to encourage collaborative efforts toward growth and development of downtowns throughout the state. MEDC Vice President Jeff Kaczmarek told the Business Journal, “Downtowns need to be great places to live, work and play, but they also need to maintain their job base, whether it’s retail or service oriented.”
Should city leaders in Grand Haven tread very carefully as they consider the proposal? Absolutely. A project of this scope, with its potential to significantly change the character of the downtown business district, should never be taken lightly.
The point of leadership is to listen and discern. Otherwise, Grand Haven will find itself falling behind, with a central business district — already seeing crumbling sidewalks and street deterioration — that will only come under increased pressures.