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Taking care of business?

Determined downtown stalwarts try to stay the course but it’s one filled with obstacles.

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck

It might not please nostalgia buffs but sometimes in business, traditions must bow to trends — even traditions 138 years in the making.

Herkner Jewelers has been doing business downtown since 1867. In that time, it’s seen Grand Rapids grow from a furniture-making town of about 16,000 people to an economically diverse metropolis with a population close to 200,000. Herkner enjoyed the rise of downtown as the city’s central shopping district — and felt its fall while maintaining a loyal clientele as other shops relocated or closed.

In recent years, Herkner has watched retail trends in fine jewelry shift from favoring storefronts in city centers to favoring freestanding stores in themed suburban developments alongside other high-end retailers. With mixed emotions, management at Herkner is ready to stop bucking that trend.

According to company chairman Randy Dice, Herkner Jewelers will vacate its 114 Monroe Center address in the next two years for an as-yet-undetermined location near the hot corner of Knapp Street and the East Beltline.

“ As the city’s gotten larger, downtown has not kept pace with the growth of the suburbs,” Dice opined. “Therefore, downtown, as a percentage of the city as a whole, has become less significant as a destination for retail — not necessarily for business/office, but specifically for retail.

“ History is replete with cities of our size that have long-standing jewelers who have relocated out to the suburbs, and because of the visibility and accessibility — and specifically the parking — have just dramatically increased their business.”

Dice explained that Herkner Jewelers’ relocation plan has been on the table for more than three years and is not a direct result of challenges due to current downtown construction projects. But some retailers are feeling pinched by summer construction on the new Grand Rapids Art Museum (which has temporarily limited traffic on Louis Street), Alticor’s new Marriott hotel (which has temporarily closed Pearl Street access to downtown from U.S. 131) and the Ottawa Avenue exit on I-196.

One of those retailers is Bill Bennett, owner of Elliott’s News, 21 Ottawa Ave. NW. The shop, which opened more than 50 years ago in its original location across from the Pantlind Hotel (now the Amway Grand Plaza), has been in Bennett’s family for close to 40 years. While newspaper sales lost to the Internet will never return, Bennett looks forward someday to welcoming back other customers who have stayed away due directly to construction headaches.

“ The last couple of years have been really tough,” Bennett said. “I’m just hoping that the future is going to come when these people will stop building something and we’re going to start getting people down here instead of scaring them away.

“ That’s what I’m kind of holding off for,” he added. “Otherwise, I’d hit the damn road, to be honest with you.”

Many retailers were under the impression that the December 2003 opening of the $212 million DeVos Place convention center would bring those shoppers downtown. While some retailers, including Eric Soya, manager of Little Bohemia, 40 Monroe Center, report seeing significant “convention traffic,” until retail downtown reaches more of a critical mass, some convention planners will continue to bus their delegates to the malls for shopping.

“ Some planners may choose to make that choice,” stated Janet Korn, marketing director for the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “If that’s the experience they’re looking for, then that’s the experience we will help them find.”

Korn added that downtown retail is indeed part of a package the CVB uses to promote the convention center, a package that also includes the arts, nightlife and restaurants — areas generally considered much stronger selling points for Grand Rapids. Korn is confident, however, that positive growth in the retail sector will be realized before groups she is working with today arrive for their conventions in 2007 and beyond.

“ I’m just looking to see how it looks today and how it looked a year ago and two years ago, as far as the choices that are out there, and there are considerably more choices and opportunities now,” Korn said. “We anticipate that that would continue to increase (when) tied to all of the new residential living that’s downtown, because those two things support each other, as well.”

As Grand Rapids Magazine reported in June, residential living downtown is booming. With 1,300 apartments and condominiums built downtown since 1995 and 800 more in various stages of planning, residential development downtown has tremendous momentum. That fact alone has encouraged some retailers, such as the Grand Central Market planned to serve downtown residents from 57 Monroe Center.

An understanding of the sophisticated tastes common among urban dwellers has encouraged others. Two and a half years ago, Mark Huizen wanted to open a stylish, affordable contemporary furniture store in Grand Rapids. Setting up shop with EQ3 at 130 Ionia Ave. SW was a gamble.

“ I felt that this type of furniture would appeal to an urban customer as opposed to someone in Cascade or Hudsonville,” Huizen said. “Time will tell if I’m in the right location, but right now I feel that in the long run, this is going to be the place to be.”

While Huizen thinks downtown residents will help his business grow — and most retailers agree — the symbiosis is not without its kinks. Even though many downtown residences include a covered space in a parking structure for the tenant’s vehicle, retailers along Monroe Center have noticed that some residents of the Peck Building and the Select Bank Building have been leaving their cars at closer metered spaces for the weekend after meter enforcement ends on Friday evenings. To end this practice, Eric Soya of Little Bohemia approached Grand Rapids Parking Services and asked that enforcement of metered parking be extended to Saturdays.

“ (Parking Services) has really begun to work with us,” Soya explained. “And I think that’s going to make a big difference.”

Besides agreeing to enforce parking meters on Saturdays, Parking Services has also instituted other retail-friendly policies, such as providing one hour of free parking for shoppers in the city’s Monroe Center ramp and reserving use of the ramp’s lower levels for visitors. “In the last few years we’ve closed our surface parking lots downtown,” explained Pam Ritsema, director of Parking Services. “From an urban planning perspective, that’s good, but we’ve had to take some steps to accommodate that loss of surface parking.”

For shoppers set on parking directly in front of their desired destination, however, even if Parking Services provided valets, it wouldn’t be enough.

“ My customer’s No. 1 complaint is the parking,” said Eugene Cho, assistant manager of Elegance Downtown Wigs, 61 Monroe Center. “There is one hour of free parking for shoppers in the Monroe Center ramp, but a lot of them aren’t aware of it. Ideally, what they want is to be able to park right in front of the business.”

Customer re-education is a tough sell in a retail climate where the customer is always right, but that is the process the clientele of downtown retailers has entered upon. And in the end, perhaps they’ll come to the same conclusion as John Heth of Groskopf’s Luggage & Gifts.

“ In reality, there is so much parking around here,” Heth said. “Our customers know it, and they almost like to keep it as their secret. But you can park in the city ramp for free for an hour and if it rains — you’re covered.” Compared with walking from one end of a shopping mall to the other, Groskopf’s customers save paces walking from the Monroe Center ramp and back again. Add in the safety of downtown — compared with shopping malls — and the knowledgeable staff at Groskopf’s and other specialty stores and the advantages of downtown retailers multiply.

Now if we just could have gotten those nostalgia buffs to buy more fine jewelry. GR


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