When Neil Diamond took the Van Andel Arena stage Oct. 10, 1996, everyone in Grand Rapids was there.
At least, that’s how Sam Cummings remembers it. For the CWD Real Estate Investment managing partner, the opening concert at the major downtown development was a sign of things to come for the city.
On Friday, the Grand Rapids Griffins begin their 20th season as the anchor tenant of the arena.
“Van Andel Arena is the anchor for the contemporary era in Grand Rapids,” Cummings said. “I was so proud of our town that night. It was just awesome.”
The arena is one of several anchors in downtown that have put a stop to further urban deterioration and stimulated growth and development, largely because of philanthropic efforts and private-public and city-county partnerships.
In 1991, Dick DeVos brought together a collection of more than 50 community leaders from many of the city’s industries to figure out what the city needed to proceed successfully into the future. The Grand Vision Committee’s major goal was to establish the feasibility of building an arena and expanding the convention center in Grand Rapids.
“At the end of Grand Vision, we found that both were achievable and needed,” said David Frey, chairman of the Frey Foundation and a member of Grand Vision. “It was great to have a dream, but we didn’t want it to have no plan and sit on a shelf.”
To move forward, Frey and John Canepa joined DeVos as co-chairs while Grand Vision morphed into Grand Action, which became the driving force behind the $75 million arena, the $220 million DeVos Place and the $30 million Downtown Market.
As Grand Action got underway, Jon Nunn was hired as its executive director to help execute its mission.
“The most important thing they’ve done is provide confidence that these things can be done,” Nunn said.
Philanthropy and its unwritten missions are what have helped drive Grand Rapids’ growth in the downtown area, bringing back a “24-hour” life to the area, Cummings said.
“It’s not written down that the secondary or tertiary goal of all the philanthropy is the revitalization of our downtown, but everybody gets it,” Cummings said.
He said many of the projects on which Grand Action has embarked could have been executed more cheaply elsewhere, but the developments are what have drawn people downtown, first with entertainment, secondly with additional office space, and now with a growing residential market. More people living downtown means an increase in retail, as well.
Frey said Grand Action could have chosen a location for the arena near an I-96 cloverleaf in a suburban area more quickly and less expensively, but it would have done very little in terms of moving the city forward.
The placement of Van Andel Arena on eight acres of asphalt on the south side of Fulton Street on the site of the former Union Station was a surprise to many in Grand Rapids, Nunn said. Many of the surrounding buildings on Ionia and Grandville avenues were vacant, boarded up or being used for storage.
“It provided a core anchor that reinsured further deterioration wouldn’t occur and acts as a multiplier and stimulator of growth,” Nunn said. “It’s amazing what it’s done.”
The before and after analysis of the restaurant and entertainment district surrounding the arena is all one needs to look at to see the development the arena spurred, Cummings said.
The potential for people to be downtown was always there, but the population needed a signifier to say, “It’s OK,” Cummings said.
“It’s the classic anchor strategy,” he said. “It’s given a reason to go.”
Van Andel Arena also helped change the general opinion of how Grand Rapids stands up to other major metro areas.
“We would compare everything to another major metro area: ‘We’re going to do this and it’s going to be — insert major metro area,’” Cummings said. “Today, I think we have less of an identity crisis and are much more focused on being Grand Rapids. It’s important for us to focus on who we are and what we want to be and not try to be somebody else.”
Frey said the national acts the arena is able to attract — the Eagles, Eric Clapton, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Britney Spears, to name a few — give people a reason to skip going to a concert in Chicago and come to Grand Rapids instead.
In addition to the Griffins hockey team, Van Andel Arena also has played host to an arena football team and a semi-pro basketball team, along with various exhibition games from teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Pistons and Michigan State University men’s basketball team.
The ability to deliver the arena debt free and see it regularly show a substantial profit is a dream come true for Grand Action, Frey said.
“It’s been an amazing addition to the downtown mix,” he said. “Every time I go in, I see a lot of people having a nice evening.”
Just as Van Andel Arena has spurred entertainment developments and DeVos Place has driven record-breaking hotel numbers, Nunn said Downtown Market has spurred approximately 400 residential units in a five-block radius.
The New York Times ran an article detailing the Downtown Market in 2012, but also referenced Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place, medical investments and the $60 million Grand Rapids Art Museum as reasons Grand Rapids was undergoing a revitalization so much better than most other Midwestern cities.
The philanthropic nature and developmental partnerships are what have helped separate development in Grand Rapids from similar Michigan cities such as Kalamazoo and Lansing, Frey said.
All of the new developments in the city are pushing Grand Rapids toward a goal of 200,000 people in the metro area, Cummings said, explaining a slow and sustainable growth is the best way to reach that goal.
He said it’s important to keep Grand Action moving forward.
“We need it,” he said. “One of the things that makes things work is the ability to execute. It’s fantastic to have dreams and plans, but you have to have an execution strategy, and we’re real good about that around here.”
Now heading into its 20th year, Van Andel Arena is entering a period when an entire generation doesn’t remember a time when it didn’t exist — or DeVos Place and the Medical Mile, for that matter.
Frey agreed with Cummings that people should be aware of the cities that have eyes on Grand Rapids, and the city should continue to push forward on its own merit rather than trying to emulate some larger metropolitan area.
Still, Frey knows Grand Rapids still has a ways to go to be the best that it can be.
“People don’t realize how many eyeballs are on us,” he said. “I’m excited for what can happen in the next 10 years. We have a lot more work to do.”