MUSKEGON — City leaders continue to explore ways to move Muskegon’s retail sector forward by enhancing business districts outside of the downtown core.
In coming years, more restaurants and retail shops also seem likely in the blocks around the Muskegon Convention Center, which held a groundbreaking in early May. Work on the $19 million facility is expected to begin this summer.
The city vacated Fourth Street between Western Avenue and Shoreline Drive for the new convention center. Slated to open in early 2021, the venue will connect the renovated and rebranded Delta by Marriott hotel to L.C. Walker Arena.
City Manager Frank Peterson said new retail opportunities could pop up around the convention center, which is expected to spur economic activity throughout the year. Already, a new restaurant is planned in the adjacent L.C. Walker Arena, but the convention center won’t have retail shops.
Private developers have expressed interest in redeveloping a vacant lot beside Racquets Downtown Grill and a parking lot across from the arena on Western Avenue. They’re also considering the potential for small shops on a Fourth Street pedestrian promenade between the Delta hotel and Racquets, Peterson said.
Neither Peterson nor Dave Alexander, executive director of Downtown Muskegon Now and soon to head the Downtown Development Authority, expect the convention center will have a huge effect on retail shops in the city. But having the convention center in the heart of downtown will draw in more people throughout the year, increasing foot traffic during the slower seasons.
Along with visiting neighboring breweries and restaurants, some convention attendees may want to take home a souvenir or need to shop for convenience-type supplies while they’re in town.
“We think the convention center, the goal of that, is it will bring in people mid-week and help them (businesses) do OK in the winter months to help sustain those businesses,” Peterson said. “We see it as a piece of the puzzle.”
The other pieces needed to support a healthy mix of retail and dining options include downtown and regional residents, cruise ship visitors, tourism and festivals.
“When you add them all up, it gives them a really robust and diverse clientele to stop and eat or shop,” Peterson said.
Another economic engine on the horizon is the Food Forward FARM incubator that focuses on food processing businesses. The West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative received a $2 million state grant to help fund the business incubator.
The facility, being built on the former Muskegon Farmers Market property on Yuba Street, will provide food-grade industrial space for companies ranging from startups to well-established businesses in the food industry. The incubator can accommodate food research, fruit and agriculture processing, beverage and distilling, and food manufacturing and packaging, while offering flexible lease and space options.
Ultimately, some of the food and beverage startups that sell small batches of their products at Muskegon Farmers Market may use the incubator to ramp up production, expand statewide or have a retail presence in the city, Peterson said.
Focus on streetscaping
Efforts to increase retail and foot traffic and beautify business districts have moved beyond the city’s downtown. Muskegon has other street improvement projects planned in Midtown, which spans several blocks of Third Street from Muskegon Avenue on the west to Jefferson Street, and one underway in the Lakeside neighborhood.
The Midtown project includes reconstructing Third Street with asphalt pavement, a new water main and streetscaping between Muskegon and Merrill avenues. Plans also call to widen sidewalks on both sides of Third Street to improve walkability and create outdoor seating for restaurants such as Hamburger Mikey and Curry Kitchen. Other amenities include new landscaping, trees, benches and streetlights.
The project is expected to begin after Labor Day and has a variety of funding partners, including $200,000 from Consumers Energy, $40,000 from Community Foundation for Muskegon County, and the rest from the Downtown Development Authority and money budgeted for major street repairs. Midtown is its own business corridor that connects to downtown.
The Lakeside neighborhood, between downtown and Pere Marquette Beach, is another vibrant business corridor with shops and restaurants. The city also is implementing form-based code requirements there to accommodate more retail, Peterson said.
This spring, a long-awaited project began to rebuild a 1-mile stretch of Lakeshore Drive with concrete pavement and a new water main and drains. Lakeshore Drive serves as the main corridor linking downtown and Lake Michigan, passing by parks, museums, marinas, boat ramps, the Lakeshore Bike Trail and other businesses.
The $6 million project, plus $2 million for the water main, includes streetscape and parking improvements in the Lakeside Business District between McCracken and Addison streets. The nautical-themed design incorporates new street lighting, crosswalks, benches, landscaping and signage for key businesses, such as the Lake Express Ferry, while also enhancing walkability along the street.
At Pere Marquette Beach, the city approved 3rd Coast Rentals for the first chalet near the channel. The initial location prompted complaints from residents, and the city has since moved the chalet north near the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration field station.
“I think there is interest in doing more of those chalets down on the beach,” Peterson said. Peterson estimates more chalets by 2021. Muskegon’s south breakwater pierhead will be closed next summer for repair work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In addition, the Muskegon City Commission will work on a master plan to formalize where the chalets should go.
“Renting beach chairs, jet skis, you name it: We want to be able to provide all of that kind of stuff there,” Peterson said.
Another project along Sherman Boulevard, a main corridor to access the beach, involved the installation of more than 50 large-scale floral planters. The Watch Muskegon campaign partnered with Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce and the cities of Muskegon, Norton Shores and Roosevelt Park on the beautification effort.
Parking needs on the horizon
City officials and downtown business owners have started discussing future parking needs, but Peterson doesn’t expect it to become an issue until work begins on Foundry Square, a proposed $65 million project from Great Lakes Development Group that would transform a public 8-acre surface parking lot on Morris Avenue.
In the meantime, the city has been taking steps to maximize parking, specifically on the street.
“We added more than 100 on-street spaces this spring by removing turn lanes and restriping the streets,” Peterson said in a follow-up email. “We also implemented a parking maximum requirement in our form-based code to ensure that developments were not individually building too many spaces that would be reserved only for their uses. … Rather, we are encouraging more shared parking situations.”
The Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. still owns a pair of lots behind the Hines Building and Russell Block facility. They serve people with businesses in those buildings as well as provide public parking during festivals and events.
At some point, the DMDC plans to relinquish ownership of those lots, Alexander said.
“They are not on the market, but they are available for development,” he said. “The DMDC wants to get out of the property business.”
When Foundry Square and The Leonard, a six-story mixed-use development with underground parking at Western Avenue and Second Street, are constructed, the downtown will have a need for more parking. Most agree a parking structure is in Muskegon’s future, but the size, location and whether it is a public or private venture remains to be determined.
Muskegon developer John Essex, managing partner and president of Core Development LLC, owns the parking lot across from the L.C. Walker Arena on Western Avenue. Core Realty Partners has the lot listed for sale for $900,000. In a previous interview, Essex told MiBiz preliminary plans call for building a parking garage with retail on the first floor.
While a parking structure is probably three to five years out, the city needs to plan for its parking needs and do that process properly, Alexander said.
“We are making 100-year decisions here, and we have got to do it right so that we are setting up for future generations a good, well-planned downtown where people want to work, live, play and stay,” he said.