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GR should sell spirit of downtown, consultant says

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ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT: Grand Rapids should sell spirit of downtown, consultant says

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

By Jim Harger

The Grand Rapids Press

Grand Rapids, it's time to turn up your 'tude.

Downtown needs to find a way to flash more of its attitude if it's going to succeed as an artsy place to have fun, according to a Toronto consultant.

"There are communities that would love to have your assets," said Maureen Atkinson, who will present her findings at a town hall meeting of downtown stakeholders today.

"It's not that you don't have the assets here, it's about connecting the dots."

One way to connect those dots would be to designate downtown areas by their "attitude," said Atkinson, whose firm is being paid $80,000 to develop an arts and entertainment strategy for downtown.

Atkinson, who has helped other U.S. cities develop "brands" for their downtowns, suggests Grand Rapids could be divided into three districts based on their "attitude." The districts include:

An Arts Axis for festivals and arts events that appeal to visitors, downtown workers, residents and convention visitors.

A Contemporary District in which the Van Andel Arena and hip bars and restaurants draw students, downtown workers, residents and convention visitors.

An Avant Garde District where alternative shops and galleries will appeal to students, downtown workers, residents and visitors as a edgy and innovative district that isn't for everyone.

Developers and marketers can use those themes to promote the districts and draw like-minded merchants and attractions, said Susan Shannon, the city's economic development director.

"We're going to try to fill in the blanks with them so you can have a more complete experience," she said.

Whether downtown Grand Rapids will cop an attitude remains to be seen.

Atkinson's proposal for "attitude districts" may collide with another Downtown Development Authority project -- an $827,000 "wayfinding" system that will create four geographic districts to help visitors find their way around downtown.

DDA Director Jay Fowler said he is concerned that two sets of districts could create confusion. While none of the wayfinding signs have been made or installed yet, Fowler said he can't hold up that project for long.

"I think it's going to be difficult to modify the wayfinding program," Fowler said. The DDA hired a Milwaukee sign company to build and install the signs in July.

Fowler said he will compare both programs to see if they conflict after today's "Town Hall" meeting.

Atkinson's strategy focuses on attracting the 40,000 persons who work downtown, the 27,000 downtown students and 24,000 more students who live in the area.

It also focuses on young single professionals, professional earning more than $100,000 a year and convention visitors.

Not included in the strategy are suburbanites who rarely come downtown, females, moderate-income downtown workers, low-income people and the unemployed.

Atkinson suggests the city follow the lead of Kalamazoo, Denver and Davenport, Iowa, by creating a "host" organization to pull together all of the efforts to sell downtown Grand Rapids.

Currently, downtown is being promoted by a hodgepodge of groups that include the DDA, the Downtown Improvement District, Grand Action and the Downtown Alliance.

DDA Director Fowler said a recent change in state law that allows his agency to spend money on marketing may make it easier to implement Atkinson's suggestion.

Atkinson also suggested the city work with real estate agents to develop a coordinated leasing and marketing program that would fill the 33 percent of downtown's storefronts that are vacant.

Though she described parking as a "perceived problem," Atkinson said it's an issue with which downtown has to come to terms.

"Parking is never the same in an urban area than it is in a suburban area," she said. "If you expect to have a parking space that's right beside your destination, that may be an unrealistic expectation."

Downtown areas have to make parking worth the trouble, she said. "If I'm getting out of my car and walking two or three blocks, it's going to have to be an experience I can't have anywhere else."

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