GRAND RAPIDS — As city officials and private developers structure a property deal to advance plans for a downtown amphitheater, Kent County commissioners are seeking more involvement in a process on which they will ultimately vote.
County commissioners say they generally support the complex riverfront redevelopment, but some are questioning how the location was determined and the process so far. Several members expressed a desire for more details before voting to approve components of the project.
“A lot of the county board members want to be at the table and know if there is a way to broaden the lens of where we’re looking at doing things,” said Kent County Board Chairperson Mandy Bolter. “We are not opposed to any project, especially if it’s going to revitalize our local economy, because that’s our biggest concern. But we definitely felt like maybe we could have been brought in a little sooner on this and want to be included on this in the future.”
Bolter was recently appointed to the board of the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority (CAA), which is playing a key role in the redevelopment of the currently city-owned 201 Market Ave. SW. The redevelopment proposal involves the CAA purchasing 11.6 acres of the 201 Market property to build a 14,000-seat amphitheater.
Meanwhile, Grand Action 2.0 — a group of business leaders that championed several large community projects over more than two decades and reconvened last year — continues to examine details of how the redevelopment might take shape.
That due diligence process is “moving along very well,” and includes some preliminary venue designs, said Grand Rapids Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong. The process will also determine the framework of the final property sale to the CAA, which would need both city commission and county commission approval.
Bolter anticipates “that when Grand Action comes back with their plan, and if the CAA decides to pull the trigger on it, they will then come to the city and county to make the case if (the CAA) is going to exercise the option to purchase the property.”
‘More properly defined’
Kent County Commissioner Phil Skaggs, who represents parts of Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids, said his constituents are generally excited about expanding entertainment opportunities in downtown Grand Rapids, but he cited a lack of information about potential project costs. He is also worried about how an amphitheater will affect river access.
“I want to make sure this is not a private development that cuts off the river from the public,” Skaggs told MiBiz.
Kent County Commissioner Stephen Wooden noted that the project is broader in scope than just an amphitheater. Grand Action 2.0 presented conceptual plans earlier this year to redevelop 31 acres along the Grand River that include housing, green space and other amenities in addition to the amphitheater.
“I’d like it to be more properly defined how those aspirations will be achieved, and how the amphitheater will be financed,” Wooden said. “The county and the city have in the past been on the hook for financial commitments that are tied to the CAA.”
DeLong responded: “Right now we’re still very much at the beginning of our journey together as partners. There is plenty of time for all of these matters to be worked on.”
The CAA has been pursuing a downtown amphitheater for several years, while the city of Grand Rapids has similarly been looking for ways to redevelop its 201 Market property. Past proposals have stalled because of costly infrastructure upgrades needed to remove a trunk sewer beneath the property.
However, several pieces have fallen into place over the past year to make way for 201 Market redevelopment.
The sewer relocation is well underway. The city, CAA, Amway Hotel Corp., and 63 Market Avenue Holdings LLC — which is registered to RDV Corp., the DeVos family office that owns property in the area — reached a cost-sharing agreement last year to move the sewer. The city also recently approved an amended option agreement to purchase Kent County Road Commission property on the city’s north side to house operations currently at 201 Market. The road commission is in the process of relocating to the city of Walker.
After the city commission signed off on the 201 Market option agreement earlier this year, an initial June 30, 2021 deadline for the CAA to also approve the option agreement was extended to Oct. 15, 2021.
“Everything we need is in place for now and we can move forward under the framework of the option agreement,” DeLong said. “We’ll wait to see how the due diligence ends and the ultimate framework created from that.”
DeLong is optimistic that the due diligence will be completed by Oct. 15. The option does allow for the CAA to assign the option to a third party, which could happen, he said. If the CAA purchases the property, the city and county would still have to approve the decision.
“In the end it depends on how the transaction is finally developed. It’s too early to say what it will look like,” DeLong said.
Dominoes lining up
Bolter was recently appointed to the CAA board to replace Steve Heacock, who served as chair of the CAA board for more than two decades and resigned from his position effective June 30. Amway Hotel Corp. President Rick Winn, who also serves as chair of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, was appointed as CAA chair. Bolter will fill the vacant spot Heacock is leaving as one of the county’s two representatives on the CAA board. Winn is the other county appointee.
While county commissioners may still be evaluating other potential amphitheater sites, Kent County Commissioner Stan Stek said the activity so far suggests a plan is already in motion.
“The dominos are beginning to line up for (201 Market) to be the location,” Stek said. “I would want to be comfortable that the property is in fact capable of supporting that type of infrastructure, and if surrounding land uses are sufficiently compatible with an outdoor arena.”
While the project has significant potential, Stek — like other commissioners — says questions remain over project specifics. Stek believes the Oct. 15 option agreement deadline will likely need to be extended again.
“We just need to make sure that we are comfortable at the end of the day that it has long-term sustainability from an operations perspective,” Stek said. “If that’s not a good fit for residential development that is evolving around there, commissioners are going to get blamed for it. We need to make sure this is done the right way.”
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