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Designing an Entertainment District

When Grand Rapids city officials get together to talk business, a discussion of downtown’s hottest nightspots doesn’t typically thread into the conversation. Over the last 17 months, however, Design Plus architect Vern Ohlman has managed to get the topic on quite a few agendas. Not to worry; Ohlman isn’t trying to devolve the serious business of city government. On the contrary, his work has been an attempt to further the continuing evolution of GR’s central city.

By Curt Wozniak

In May 2002, in partnership with Frederick Howell, principal of Millennium Research Group Ltd., and Ron VanSteeland, retired vice president for finance and administration at Grand Valley State University, Ohlman completed a preliminary feasibility study for an entertainment district in downtown Grand Rapids.

Ohlman said the impetus for the $25,000 study, which was sponsored by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and funded by Design Plus, the Frey Foundation, Rockford Construction and Peter Secchia, was "getting the core of the city to be the most healthy, viable economic center." The study found that one way to encourage that type of development would be to design an entertainment district downtown similar to the Arena District in Columbus, Ohio, or Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn.

" People are already doing this in other cities; we’re just following them," Susan Shannon said. Shannon is GR’s economic development director. After hearing Ohlman’s presentation, Shannon got on board.

She secured a $40,000 Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) grant to hire a consultant and continue the research. The MEDC grant was matched by an additional $40,000 from the Downtown Development Authority (DDA).

" It seemed like the DDA focuses a lot of its attention on the physical improvements of downtown," explained Jay Fowler, DDA executive director. "This was an opportunity to look at what we can do to improve the offerings, the activities that would attract people downtown to the environment we’ve created."

Ohlman is pleased with how well-received his group’s findings have been, but he was quick to point out that designing a future for downtown’s entertainment industry will be tricky business. "Everybody agrees: It all looks like a very good thing for the most part," he said. "Getting it there, making it happen is where it gets troublesome."

In their study, Ohlman, Howell and VanSteeland defined the entertainment district by its key characteristics. It is contiguous, made up of diverse entertainment opportunities (nightclubs, restaurants, movies, performing arts, cultural activities, etc.) clustered together. It is usually no more than four to six blocks in width or length. It is pedestrian-friendly. Besides possessing unity through purpose, it looks unified through common lighting and/or signage.

By these characteristics, defining the boundaries of a downtown Grand Rapids entertainment district presents a serious problem.
" In Grand Rapids, our venues are a little more scattered than that," VanSteeland explained. "The central entertainment area stretches from South Ionia to the convention center. If you look at the distance between those, especially in the wintertime, that’s rather formidable."

As both Ohlman and VanSteeland pointed out, many cities with established entertainment districts offer shuttle service, which is sometimes even free, to connect disparate ends of the district. In Grand Rapids, however, even free public transportation may not be able to tie a district together.

" We’re very car happy in GR," VanSteeland said. "We love our parking lots. We want to be able to park next to every building we go to. But we have to find a way to get people beyond that."

He continued, "I think the agenda is a complicated one. There are lots of things that need to be done." GR

Curt Wozniak is the Grand Rapids Magazine staff writer.

   
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