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Ariel and Peter Juberg enjoy cocktails and pinball at enjoy cocktails and pinball at Stella’s Lounge, a downtown bar with an old school, ‘70s vibe.

No more bland rapids
Grand Rapids’ entertainment scene
has undergone a metamorphosis that
proves“if you build it, they will come.”

By Cyndi Lieske
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Keith Urban, Elton John, Kid Rock, Lady Gaga, Bob Seger: They’ve all come to Grand Rapids and brought in not just fans, but lots of business.

Entertainment venues in Grand Rapids — from Van Andel Arena and DeVos Performance Hall to a plethora of clubs and restaurants — have become a key selling point to attract convention brokers looking for cities to recommend to their clients, said Doug Small, president of Experience Grand Rapids, the city’s marketing organization.

“It’s not the sole reason somebody is going to book with us,” he said. “But it’s one big part of the puzzle when you are trying to put it all together and try to convince somebody that this is a city to be reckoned with. I would venture to guess that nearly 50 percent would not take us up on the offer to come here without that hook.”

But that wasn’t always the case.

By the 1970s, downtown Grand Rapids had become a bleak place with too many vacant buildings. The old department stores had closed; there were very few nice restaurants.

“No one was downtown,” said Dick DeVos, president of the Windquest Group Inc. and son of Amway co-founder Rich DeVos. “You could roll up the streets at night.”

A sold-out May 7 Kenny Chesney concert brings a crowd to the Van Andel Arena.

When hometown hero Gerald R. Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, the community wanted to welcome him home with a parade.

“The Secret Service almost cancelled it,” said Peter Secchia, local business leader and former U.S. Ambassador to Italy. “We had so many closed buildings and vacant lofts in upper floors that they didn’t have enough security personnel to staff them all.”

It was a turning point.

City leaders, including the late Dick Gillett, then chairman and CEO of Old Kent Bank, and Amway co-founder Rich DeVos, started talking about ways to revitalize downtown. Within a few years, Rich and Helen DeVos made the initial contribution for a performance hall that would carry their name.

“It was the first step toward bringing something new and changing the trajectory of downtown,” said Dick DeVos, who would step in to keep the momentum going. In 1991, he assembled more than 50 West Michigan leaders and volunteers from all sectors to investigate the possibility of building an arena, and expanding and renovating the existing convention facilities. By 1993, the organization, Grand Action, had set up offices in downtown.

Van Andel Arena, named in recognition of Jay and Betty Van Andel, the largest benefactors, was the first public/private partnership.

“A lot of people thought we were too small,” said Grand Action member Steve Heacock, now chairman of the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority. “They thought it would be a white elephant, but Grand Action really never lost sight of the vision.”

Some city officials reported that arenas across the country were losing money. “There were huge naysayers,” Heacock said. “There was a finance guy at the city who said, ‘It will never make money. It will never succeed.’”

And many thought Grand Rapids simply didn’t have the appeal that larger cities offered.

“What I was told was back then a number of folks said, ‘Come on, do you really think Elton John would ever come to Grand Rapids?’ said Rich MacKeigan, general manager of Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place. “It was kind of a significant part of the population’s opinion. I’m pleased to say that Elton John’s been here a number of times.”

Van Andel Arena, which opened in 1996, was ranked No. 38 in the April 2011 edition of Pollstar Magazine’s listing of the Top 50 Arena Venues of all sizes worldwide for first quarter 2011 ticket sales. Based on the continental United States’ ticket sales, Van Andel Arena is ranked No. 16.

For national acts looking for a venue, Grand Rapids is on the map. “It’s not just a routing in between Detroit and Chicago anymore,” said Scott Hammontree, general manager of The Intersection, a music venue that opened in its current location in 2004. “Grand Rapids has its own music scene and its own attraction. And agents, when they’re looking to put on shows, it’s not just a fill date for them. It’s a target.”

Other smaller venues in the area have become attractive to national acts, as well. Since starting its summer concert series in 2003, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has brought in Art Garfunkel, B.B. King, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Garrison Keillor and Peter Frampton, to name a few.

 

Getting together at The Pyramid Scheme, a new music
venue at 68 Commerce St.

“Our attendance has gone up gradually ever since year one,” said Errol Shewman, manager of guest services. “Last year we sold out 10 of the 16 shows and saw very heavy sales on the other six.”

Artists began contacting Shewman last October hoping to get a slot in this summer’s concert series. “Now that our name is getting out there in the industry and our reputation is getting out there, it makes life a little bit easier for us,” Shewman said.

Calvin College hosts about 40 national acts a year at Ladies Literary Club, The Intersection hugely expanded its capacity as a music venue, and The BOB, owned by the Gilmore Group, is talking about building Bobville, a 600-seat venue in downtown. Recently, siblings Jeff and Tami VandenBerg opened The Pyramid Scheme, a 420-seat venue to showcase local and national acts.

“All of that has changed the scene here, in that there are more artists coming through on national tours to play Grand Rapids,” said Ken Heffner, student activities director at Calvin College. “It’s a significant change. It has changed the night scene in the city.”

One byproduct is the flourishing restaurant/bar scene, said Heacock. “It has created a new level of activity and excitement,” he said.

ArtPrize, Laughfest, Rob Bliss’ whimsical “urban experiments” — they all contribute to a vibrancy in the city. In September 2010, the second annual ArtPrize drew 1,713 artists from 44 states and 21 countries. More than 250,000 visited Grand Rapids during the 19-day event. For the 10-day Laugh Fest in March 2011, rubber chickens were thrown, the beloved Betty White made an appearance and laughter was a top priority.

And Bliss’ Grand Rapids lip dub video — which went live on YouTube on May 26 — elicited a response from Newsweek magazine, retreating from its Jan. 21 article on dying American cities. “We’re big fans,” Newsweek wrote on its Facebook page, “and are inspired by your love of the city you call home.”

MacKeigan points out that there is a group working hard to maintain Grand Rapids’ top-ranking as a city with plenty of entertainment options.

“This is not a function of just sitting by the phone and waiting for something to happen,” he said. “This is an aggressive, serious business to try and get these artists to come into West Michigan.”

And with the artists come the visitors.

“Grand Rapids is fantastic,” said Segi Desta, a global account executive with a Texas firm who came to see Lady Gaga March 1st and tour the city at the invitation of Experience Grand Rapids.

“I will recommend it and highly tout the convenience, ease and value. I can’t wait to share my enthusiasm for Grand Rapids with my clients. I will definitely be back.”GR

Cyndi Lieske is a freelance writer who lives in Howell.

   
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