The lifting of initial COVID-19 restrictions on retailers and restaurants brought activity back to downtown Grand Rapids, but officials still see persistent effects on the city’s core that stem from a reduction in downtown office workers. As officials with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) — which manages the Downtown Development Authority and the Monroe North Tax Increment Financing Authority — see steadily increasing activity, they remain focused on bolstering the downtown housing stock and development along the Grand River. DGRI President and CEO Tim Kelly recently discussed downtown retail trends and ways the organization is getting creative to maintain vibrancy.
Do you expect foot traffic to keep picking up downtown in 2022?
Foot traffic right now has definitely been picking up on the visitor side from where we were last year. September and October were our busiest months of the year, primarily driven by ArtPrize. November was higher than any other month aside from September and October. We have seen a steady increase in visitor traffic.
We’re working now with the city and the (Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority) to bring ice skating to Van Andel Arena, and World of Winter events will kick off in early January. Those are things that will continue to bring people here. What we’re focusing on in 2022 is finding creative ways to bring people downtown to let people know there is a lot to do here and a reason to come downtown.
Are you still seeing many downtown businesses with shortened hours, and do you think that will continue into 2022?
We are seeing less so now than we were in the summer. ArtPrize was a huge boon to a lot of businesses and a lot had their best days ever during ArtPrize. It helped them staff up, which was crucial for a lot of places and showed them there was still demand. (Shortened business hours) is certainly still a problem and staffing shortages are still an issue, but we’re in a better place than we were.
The expectation is also that people will continue to use offices, but we know a lot of businesses are still planning their return strategy. Staffing for sure is a huge obstacle as well as getting consistent foot traffic that stores and restaurants rely on.
What has the ratio been in downtown for business closures compared to how many new businesses have opened?
Since we’ve been tracking it around May 2020, we’ve had 53 businesses open and 34 close, so a net positive of business openings. That’s fairly typical to what we’d expect to see in pre-COVID times. There was a fear we’d have a massive wave of closures, but it hasn’t been as bad as many expected.
What is the biggest challenge facing downtown Grand Rapids going into the new year?
The biggest thing is related to housing. That’s a main focus of the city and also of ours: Having a dense population downtown helps support a lot of things for businesses. We expect to see announcements for more housing projects downtown. There are still demands for that and that’s something we expect to see.
What are you excited to see going into next year in downtown Grand Rapids?
The (Downtown Development Authority) just approved support for Gazelle Sports to come downtown. The past 12 to 18 months for us has been about thinking about downtown retail and creating a vibrant environment for people when they come downtown. Right now, Grand Rapids has a lot of pocket retail and doesn’t have a main retail corridor.
Getting Gazelle is a step in that direction. It is appealing for a number of reasons because they have their own regional name recognition and are very outwardly facing because they do their own events and are really interested in becoming part of the downtown.
What is an area where downtown Grand Rapids is lacking?
We continue to be hyper focused on the river. It is a unique asset and there are a lot of big projects and conversations going on. As those plans develop, we want to make sure that we’re still finding creative ways to activate the river and provide better access because we know it is a draw. That’s one of our biggest opportunities. Beyond that, we’re looking at some of the outdoor spaces and projects we have involving how to enhance public spaces. These were ideas heightened during COVID that forced us to think creatively about how we use outdoor spaces.