Two days after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer extended the state’s pandemic order until the first day of winter, the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority (DDA) significantly ramped up efforts to help counteract the potentially devastating economic consequences brought on by the Coronavirus and now confronting local businesses during the cold weather months.

The DDA today moved two measures to help keep people safe and promote economic stability and recovery for the retailers, restaurants and other ground-floor businesses critical to the vibrancy of Downtown Grand Rapids.

The Board approved additional funding to help businesses continue outdoor commercial activities through the winter months. The Board also authorized additional funding to expand the annual World of Winter festival as another way to encourage people to get outside, drive foot-traffic Downtown and support local businesses.

“These moves will help keep our businesses safely open, more workers with a job and provide numerous outdoor entertainment options as a welcome distraction for people in the months ahead,” said Tim Kelly, president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc (DGR), the agency that administers the Downtown Development Authority.

“While we have a good deal of optimism about getting back to business as usual in the summer of 2021, right now the winter weather, a strong pandemic and necessary public health protocols all combine to pose a real threat to the survival of our main street businesses. Our beloved neighborhood restaurants and shops need our support now more than ever.”

Winter Ready Grant Boost

More specifically, the Board today approved funding to expand the recently introduced Winter Ready Program. Established in October 2020 to help ground floor Downtown businesses adapt outdoor commercial operations for the cold weather months, the program quickly drew strong interest from businesses aiming to purchase tents, canopies, heaters, fuel and other winterization tools in an effort to better host customers in a safe and enjoyable way.

In the six weeks since introducing the Winter Ready initiative, DGRI received 14 requests totaling $167,000 and anticipates at least another 10 requests by year-end. The Board initially approved $200,000 for the Winter Ready program and, in response to the growing demand, today approved an additional $175,000 increasing total funding for the program to $375,000.

World of Winter Festival Expansion

The Board also approved funding to significantly expand the World of Winter festival, an annual event designed to take advantage of Michigan’s cold climate, provide fun ways for people to get outside and patronize local business during a typically slow season for local merchants.

A 4-week event in 2020, this year’s festival will feature more than three dozen programs and events across Downtown over a 2-month period from January thru February 2021.

Details continue to come together and more information will be announced immediately after the holidays. But free winter-themed programming will include multiple interactive public art installations, numerous pop-up musical performances, a wide variety of games, various walking tours and other activities.

All activities will be intentionally designed and organized to promote social distancing, avoid crowding and provide safe, low-risk ways for people to get outside and enjoy the winter season. Group-based activities such as the popular Human Hungry Hungry Hippos Tournament on Ice will not return in 2021.

“The pandemic doesn’t have to stop all the fun we can have this winter,” said Kimberly VanDriel, DGRI’s Director of Public Space Management. “Indeed, taking advantage of outdoor leisure activities will be more important than ever this coming January and February. Our goal for World of Winter 2021 is to provide a social and emotional boost for people and an economic boost for Downtown businesses.”

The Board approved funding not-to-exceed $155,000 to support the expanded 2021 festival, partnerships with local event producers and creative seasonal window displays in Downtown retail and restaurant storefronts.

This funding comes in addition to recently authorized winter-related support to deploy seasonal lighting decorations and to host several pioneering public art installations in select Downtown spaces.

The DDA Board also took the additional following actions:

Authorized Funds to Support the Marketplace at Studio Park

The Board authorized funding to support The Marketplace at Studio Park powered by Pack Elephant.

Studio Park today publicly announced the new Marketplace, which opens Friday, December 11, 2020.

The DDA investment will build on and support an idea that first emerged in a 2017 agreement between the DDA, City of Grand Rapids and the developers of Studio Park. That agreement stated:

The Developer, DDA and City agree that it is essential to support the establishment and expansion of minority and women-owned businesses in the City. To that end, the Developer, DDA and City commit to dutifully exploring, as partners, the creation of a minority and women-owned retail business incubator with the ground floor space contained in the project.

Since the execution of that agreement, the project partners have worked closely to identify opportunities for an incubator at Studio Park and a collaboration with Pack Elephant presents new opportunity.

Pack Elephant is a boutique gifting service founded by Winsome Kirton that aspires to make local makers and their artisanal products more visible, easy to find and buy. Pack Elephant also works to connect independent makers with high volume sales and marketing through corporate gifting programs.

Started in 2018 after winning Start Garden’s 5x5 pitch competition; Pack Elephant has quickly grown the business to include more than 40 corporate customers and over 117 makers in their pipeline.

By tenanting a high-profile space at Studio Park, Pack Elephant will further expand the visibility of local makers, drive foot traffic and add to the vibrancy of Downtown Grand Rapids. The Pack Elephant partnership also enables entrepreneur makers to test the Downtown market in a lower risk way.

With Pack Elephant as an anchor business in Studio Park space, Mrs. Kirton can expand her engagement with local businesses and artisans beyond sourcing for gift baskets. With a show floor that highlights and displays local brands and products; this is an opportunity for local retails to test the Downtown market experience when they might not yet be in a position to open their own storefront space.

The Board approved funding not to exceed $67,500 through the Retail Innovation Program to support this creative retail partnership.

This investment also advances on Goal 4 of the GR Forward plan, which prioritizes diversifying the mix of Downtown retail offerings and supporting small business growth and entrepreneurship.

Tabled PILOT Request to Support Housing Project

The Board tabled a request to utilize a Payment Lieu of Taxes approach to support the development of an affordable housing project at 78 South Division Ave. Brookstone Capital LLC proposes to build a 6-story building that includes 36 new affordable rental units for low income workers. The project would be built on an existing surface parking lot. The total estimated project cost is approximately $11 million.

Authorized Funds for the Retail Retention & Attraction Initiative

The Board approved funding to continue the work of the Retail Retention & Attraction Initiative established in 2019 through a partnership of the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

The initiative is designed to develop a proactive strategy to support and attract retail Downtown and throughout the City. The project partners hired a Retail Recruitment & Retention Specialist in January 2020 to spearhead this work.

With the onset of the pandemic, and the extreme unexpected stresses now confronting local shops and restaurants, the project partners have honed a 2021 scope of work that aims to support small business stabilization and recovery efforts. This scope includes:

  • Implementing recommendations from the Retail Recovery Plan as part of the DDA’s plan to activate vacant storefronts.
  • A Retail Business Outreach Strategy with a minimum visit to 200 retail businesses.
  • Retail Business Advocacy that results in at least 20 retail advocacy assists.
  • Retail Communications Strategy to keep retailers informed of resources and assistance as they become available.
  • Expanding Social Zones & Social Districts with a priority of activating them in City defined Neighborhoods of Focus.

The total budget for this work is $137,617. The DDA will contribute $50,000.

Authorized Support to Build Downtown Neighbor Website

The Board authorized funds to build a website for the Downtown Neighbor Network (DNN).

Goal 2 of the GR Forward plan specifically calls for the establishment of a resident council and places a priority on marketing Downtown living. The DNN was then formed in 2019 to foster and serve a community of Downtown neighbors that are informed, connected and empowered to improve Downtown living experience.

The new website will serve as the central communications tool to keep current and prospective Downtown residents informed, connected and engaged with activities and initiatives related to Downtown living and quality of life.

The Board approved funds in an amount not to exceed $16,250 to build the new DNN website with the Well Design Studio team.

About the DDA

The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is a funding tool Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) administers to help catalyze public and private investment in Grand Rapids’ urban core.

To maintain a high level of openness and transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) will host all meetings on the virtual platform Microsoft Teams. This includes all DDA Board Meetings for the foreseeable future.

The full recording of the DDA Board meeting on December 9, 2020, is available on Facebook Live.

Click here for the full meeting agenda.