A planned $116 million amphitheater in downtown Grand Rapids could help spur further riverfront development, local leaders say.  A planned $116 million amphitheater in downtown Grand Rapids could help spur further riverfront development, local leaders say. COURTESY RENDERING

GRAND RAPIDS ‘LINCHPIN’: Modeled off Van Andel Arena, $116 million amphitheater project already attracting national developers’ attention

BY Sunday, April 10, 2022 06:33pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Local entertainment and development officials say a planned $116 million outdoor amphitheater is modeled off the success of Van Andel Arena and could serve as an even stronger catalyst for further downtown development.

The amphitheater project cleared key hurdles in recent weeks after city and county officials agreed to move forward with the $24.3 million sale of an 11.6-acre city-owned property along the Grand River. 

As key public and private entities finalize the sale and align financing to build the 12,000-capacity amphitheater, local officials say the venue already is attracting the attention of national developers looking to participate in a broader riverfront revitalization project. Those plans include repurposing about 20 more acres along the Grand River for housing, greenspace, retail and other amenities.

“As a result of the pandemic, people have a new appreciation of being outdoors again,” said Kent County Administrator Al Vanderberg. “Venues are more important with business travel slow to come back. This isn’t just an amphitheater — there will be a park and about 1,700 housing units added to the area, creating another town center on the river.”

The Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority — which operates the Van Andel Arena, DeVos Performance Hall and DeVos Place Convention Center — would expand its role by purchasing the 201 Market Ave. SW property for the amphitheater. The Convention/Arena Authority (CAA) board of directors voted March 30 to exercise an option to purchase the property after receiving necessary approvals from the Grand Rapids City Commission and Kent County Board of Commissioners. The 201 Market sale must close by June 30, per an option agreement with the city of Grand Rapids. 

“Hopefully we can structure a deal similar to the (Van Andel) Arena with ASM Global,” CAA board Chairperson Rick Winn told MiBiz. The CAA contracts with ASM Global to manage the arena, DeVos Place and DeVos Performance Hall. “We’re already in discussions with Live Nation, which is the largest booking company in the U.S. They’re very bullish on the outdoor amphitheater project. They book many of the outdoor amphitheaters around the country.” 

Development ‘linchpin’

Meanwhile, city officials and Grand Action 2.0 — a group of business leaders who have led several large community projects over the years, including Van Andel Arena — have designed a broader development plan for 31 acres along the Grand River surrounding the amphitheater. Conceptual plans include mixed-use development, new riverfront trails and mixed-income housing ranging from 1,200 to 1,700 units.

Winn called the amphitheater the “linchpin” for the broader 31-acre riverfront concept.

“Everybody is waiting for the amphitheater and for that definite, ‘go,’” Winn said. “The amphitheater, in our opinion, is another transformational project for the city and county, much like the (Van Andel Arena) was for the city and county 25 years ago. We’re pretty confident this will have as much of an impact on surrounding development as the arena did, and probably more.”

National housing developers that haven’t invested in the area before also are showing interest in the 31-acre concept and view the amphitheater as the major draw, Vanderberg said.

“The amphitheater is what brought them in,” Vanderberg said. “There weren’t specific proposals or numbers thrown around, but they said they didn’t see this much property and this type of development happening elsewhere around the country.”

Securing financing

Plans to construct a $116 million waterfront amphitheater in downtown Grand Rapids recently secured key approvals, but community leaders still have several remaining pieces to complete before the project crosses the finish line.

Grand Action 2.0 — which rebooted the original Grand Action in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to help lead new transformational projects in Grand Rapids — is co-chaired by Carol Van Andel, Dick DeVos and Tom Welch, the regional president of Fifth Third Bank. Winn called the organization a “major player” as it helps secure public and private financing for large-scale projects, including the amphitheater and potentially more riverfront developments.

“We feel optimistic about the progress that’s been made so far. The affirmation by the city, county and CAA board votes over the past few weeks approving (the) CAA purchase of the property gets us much closer to ‘go’ on this exciting development,” Grand Action 2.0 Vice Chairperson David Frey wrote in an email. Frey is the former president and chairperson of Union Bank & Trust and has played a major role in Grand Rapids’ philanthropy community. 

“Grand Action 2.0 joins our community partners, including the city of Grand Rapids, the CAA and Kent County in endorsing and encouraging state funding for this transformative project,” Frey added.

Recently, economic development organization The Right Place Inc. identified the amphitheater as one of 12 “transformational” projects in the region that officials hope can secure state and federal infrastructure funding.

The estimated $116 million cost for the 12,000-person amphitheater includes the $24.3 million land acquisition. Project funding is expected to come from donors, private investments, and bonds issued through the city’s Downtown Development and Brownfield Redevelopment authorities. The CAA also expects to generate revenue through air rights above onsite parking after the amphitheater is built. As well, the city has an “active request” for $30 million in state funding that officials expect to hear an update on during the summer, Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington said during a recent City Commission meeting. 

“We have been talking to the Legislature for additional funding to support the project,” Washington said.

Meanwhile, work is ongoing to relocate a sewer trunk line that runs underneath 201 Market Ave. and which has been a stumbling block for past development proposals on the property. The $18.6 million relocation project being funded by the city, the 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 — is set to be completed this year. 

Grand Action 2.0 is working with project partners to develop a financing plan for the amphitheater development that includes public and private investments, said Grand Action 2.0 Executive Director Jon Nunn. Grand Action 2.0 has completed due diligence for the property acquisition of 201 Market, including environmental and geotechnical studies, Nunn told MiBiz via email. 

“We have selected and retained (Detroit-based) national sports and entertainment architecture firm Rossetti to work alongside local design partner Progressive AE and owners representative/cost estimating firm PMA Consultants of Ann Arbor to demonstrate proof of concept,” Nunn said. “This process includes benchmarking studies of best-in-class urban amphitheaters and site-specific planning and concept design of the entertainment venue complete with conceptual architectural renderings. The study will also consider traffic impacts, parking demands and sound transmission.” 

The study should be completed by August and is expected to validate the project budget and support fundraising, Nunn said. 

Ensuring equity

If the CAA purchases its portion of 201 Market as planned, the city plans to deposit $10 million from the $24.3 million property sale into a fund that could be invested into future affordable housing. Additional revenue also could cover costs associated with relocating city public works operations from 201 Market to a Kent County Road Commission site that the city plans to purchase by September 2023. 

During a March 29 City Commission meeting, Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear said property sale revenue from 201 Market should be reinvested into her district, which spans the city’s southeastern side and has been historically under-invested in compared to other areas of the city.

“I would challenge all of us sitting around this table (to) have some robust conversations about how we make sure we earmark a significant portion of that $10 million to the Third Ward specifically,” Linear said during the meeting. 

Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong said decisions on spending the $10 million would be part of future budget processes.

Commissioner Joe Jones, who represents the city’s Second Ward on the northeast side, said the amphitheater project is poised to benefit the entire city and county but also is an opportunity for equitable investments and contracting with minority-owned businesses.

“There is a concern of how this is something that can be a benefit to the Third Ward in particular, those who have been historically marginalized, African-Americans and Latinx (people),” Jones said. “What gives me hope about this project is I’ve worked with the CAA in efforts to advance and promote equity and do it in ways that’s more than just words. There is a significant effort to promote equity.”

Jones said he is confident the project will include equitable components and have a “ripple effect” for surrounding developments, including fulfilling portions of the city’s River for All plan. The city needs to ensure that opportunities for businesses owned by people of color are part of the development and that property sale proceeds are reinvested in marginalized parts of the city, Jones added.

Winn, of the CAA Board, said diversity, equity and inclusion will be factored into ongoing development opportunities. 

“Our goal is to open (the amphitheater development) up to as many local contractors as we can, and be as inclusive as we can for everyone who would like to bid on construction,” Winn said. 

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