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From Second City to Beer City: These GR comedians plan to open improv comedy venue

Grand Rapids comedian Joe Anderson knows that when it comes to opening an improv, sketch and experimental comedy venue and cocktail bar in downtown Grand Rapids, failure is not an option.

“We want to come out swinging because unless we do that, we can't open,” says Anderson, who has worked for the past two years alongside fellow comedian Ben Wilke to draft plans and garner support for The Comedy Project. The two recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for the venue, and its $25,000 funding goal is growing steadily within reach.

“Even with the Kickstarter, we could have done it for more money, but the worst thing that would have happened would be not meeting that Kickstarter goal because we need everything to be a win,” he says. “In the same way, there are so many people — whether it's a restaurant, but certainly a theater and comedy — so many people have had enough bad experiences or just mediocre experiences that they're not excited to go back… So, we need to make sure that anyone who comes, the first time they come, they're just like, 'Oh my gosh, this is great. I could do this once a month.’”

A Western Michigan University graduate, Second City alumnus, and seven-year board member of the non-profit Dog Story Theater in Grand Rapids, Anderson began working with Wilke — a Chicago native who also has roots in the Windy City’s famed Second City comedy troupe — began working more dedicatedly on The Comedy Project two years ago.

The goal of the space, Anderson says, is to be a kind of “repertoire comedy place,” with a small group of six to 10 performers who are on stage performing both improv and sketch comedy shows regularly,  with scheduling wiggle room for other comedians and improv troupes to host their own shows.

“There would be this core group of people doing the ‘heavy lifting’ of the performances, but then there would be an unknown huge amount of other people putting shows on, putting shows on the other nights, stepping in when for some reason someone else can't do the show — kind of building this stable of performers,” he says, adding that although they are open to hosting some alt stand-up comedians for special event shows, they’re avoiding the more traditional comedy genre in favor of the more experimental.

In addition to daily improv shows, The Comedy Project will offer improv and sketch comedy classes geared at career development and innovation within professional organizations, using the tenets of improv to help people in all walks of life sharpen their communication skills.

“There will be an 18-year-old kid who just thinks he's funny, and then the 35-year-old mom who also does improv and then some 65-year-old executive at a company who’s also trying to learn how to talk more extemporaneously, how to seem more approachable or be more open to other people's ideas, since those are all things that happen in good improvising,” Anderson says.

Though the duo are still waiting to finalize details on the space, they’ve already solidified a few very important partnerships, including working with Matt Smith, owner of PitStop BBQ & Catering, to bring a full menu to a space with only a prep kitchen in its plans.

Anderson and Wilke have also received support from Michele Sellers, who was instrumental in the launch of local establishments that include Stella's and Hopcat, and like Revue Holding Co.'s Brian Edwards has been consulting on the project and plans for the future space -- which promises something just as unconventional as its performances.

“In our minds, we want this space to look like the comedy place cobbled together after some kind of apocalyptic event happened, and everyone just grabbed whatever they could to make this place seem like a theater — but they did grab the best things they could,” Anderson says.

There are a few logistics and funding hurdles to clear before solidifying any concrete timeline for opening, though ideally the The Comedy Project would be fully operational this spring for LaughFest 2017.

In a city that just keeps growing, Anderson says he’s confident he and Wilke have come to Grand Rapids at a time when something like The Comedy Project has a real shot.

“It’s just what's happening right now in Grand Rapids. It's the same reason why there's all these restaurants and all of these new developments; there's a Trader Joe's, and there's another brewery,” he says. “I think people just feel like they've been given permission to try things, and I think that applies to us as well. Looking at the kind of climate here in Grand Rapids right now it's like, ‘Yeah, we gotta do this. Grand Rapids can pull this off.’”

Click here to learn more about The Comedy Project’s Kickstarter campaign, which is open through Nov. 11, or find The Comedy Project here on Facebook.

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of The Comedy Project

Lights, camera, action! $140M movie theater complex, retail & apartments proposed for downtown GR

For the Loeks family, this week’s announcement that Loeks Theatres and 616 Development are partnering on a mixed-use development that is slated to bring a nine-screen movie theater, apartments, retail space, and a public piazza to Grand Rapids’ downtown is more than a story of a new, high-profile project that has garnered excitement from many a community leader, including Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.

It’s a story of a journey home, of a family-owned business that always dreamed of returning to Grand Rapids’ downtown, and of a city that has survived its ups and downs — but where the heartbeat has never stopped.

“The story that is here is not just of this fantastic development, that it will be a jewel of the community, but it’s a part of story that family-owned businesses dream about,” says Steve VanWagoner, the vice president marketing and public relations for Loeks Theatres, which owns and operates Celebration! Cinema. “In 1944, Jack Loeks acquires the first theater in this company, right over there on Pearl Street.  Now, almost 72 years later, a few blocks away, we’re here with another theater and the same family. It’s a great story for Grand Rapids, for family-owned businesses. It’s inspiring.”

Jack Loeks purchased the Powers Theatre on Pearl Street in 1944. Originally the Powers Opera House, which was built around 1883, the venue was renamed Foto News when Loeks bought it. During World War II, the space showed news reels from the war. After the war ended, Loeks again renamed the venue, this time calling it The Midtown Theater. It closed in the 1970s, a time when many other downtown stores were shuttering, and it was demolished in 1978. The space was then turned into a parking ramp.

In 1965,  Jack Loeks built Studio 28 in Wyoming, which became the largest multi-screen theater in the world, but which closed in 2008. Jack Loeks’ son, John Loeks, built the first Celebration! Cinema in Benton Harbor in the mid-1990s. There are currently 12 Celebration! Cinemas, including on 28th Street and Celebration Drive, and the theater chain has been a success, with its theaters often placing in the top revenue-generating movie venues in the state.

Now, the Loeks family — specifically JD Loeks, the president of Loeks Theatres — has set their sights on returning to downtown Grand Rapids, where they’re collaborating with 616 Development on a two-phase, $140 million project that was announced on Monday and which VanWagoner says will become the “new heart of downtown.” The first phase of the project will cost approximately $100 million and is slated to include a nine-screen theater named Studio C!, 38,000 square feet of retail space, approximately 187 residential units, a 20,000 square foot public piazza, and a 900-space parking ramp.

The development is proposed to be located south of the Van Andel Arena on city-owned properties bound by Oakes, Ionia and Cherry Streets.

“The original inspiration for this project came from JD Loeks, our president — he’s been talking about this for many years,” says VanWagoner. “When Studio 28 closed in the fall of 2008, it became his passion project to not replace Studio 28 but to bring something back to Grand Rapids. This vision of returning downtown, to where the company started, became his vision.”

After years of talks with various key players from throughout the city, the project’s plan got a unanimous stamp of approval from the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority at the organization's meeting Friday morning. Now that the plan is approved by the DDA, the project can officially move forward. Loeks and 616 representatives say they expect to break ground on the first phase in 2017, and the theatre is expected to open to the public in 2018.

The details of the second phase will be announced at a later time and will include additional residential units. VanWagoner says few details have been released regarding the apartments, including what the average rent will be, but he notes “they’re workforce units meant to be for college students and folks who want to be close to all of the activities downtown.” In addition to movies, the multi-use complex will include auditoriums for live entertainment, VanWagoner says.

“This theatre will be unlike anything we have built before,” JD Loeks says in a press release. “It will borrow some of the best, most innovative ideas that we have seen from around the world and add a few innovations of our own.”

The project would also be a be a major economic boon to the city, with the first phase of the development expected to generate a projected $369 in economic benefits during its first decade, according to a statement issued by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., which manages the DDA.

According to the same statement, a breakdown of the economic benefits expected to occur during that first decade include:
  • $192.2 million in new consumer spending downtown.
  • $156.4 million in payroll associated with new jobs housed in the development.
  • $16.2 million in new sales tax payments to the state, assuming the 6% rate.
  • $4.6 million in retained local property and income taxes, after tax incentives provided to the developer by the City of Grand Rapids and the Downtown Development Authority.
Monica Steimle, director of community relations at 616 Development, as well as representatives from Loeks Theatres and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., note the proposed project fits within the city’s aspirations for sustainable development.

“We believe that creating spaces for people to live, work and play along the Ionia corridor will add vibrancy to our growing city, which also aligns with the missions of the Arena South Plan and GR Forward,” Steimle says in a press release. “We look at this project as an ongoing commitment to our noble purpose of community creation and are pleased to partner with another respected local company that has a similar mission.”

VanWagoner agrees.

“They are critical to helping us keep within these missions of the city, and that’s what makes it exciting,” he says in reference to 616 Development. “We’re about the city, and we want it to be pleasing to the community.”

Downtown movie theater proposed for the Heartside District

Grab the popcorn and the Mike & Ikes. Many residents of Grand Rapids have long been clamoring for a downtown movie theater as one of many "must haves," and it appears as though that may become a reality in the coming years. J.D. Loeks, President of Loeks Theatres, Inc and Celebration Cinemas presented conceptual designs of a new 60,000 square foot movie theater and retail complex to the Downtown Development Authority this week, capping off weeks of rumors that a new entertainment complex might be coming to the Heartside area.

The city-owned parking lot where the development is proposed, known as Area 5, is located south of the Van Andel Arena near Ionia Ave. and Oakes Street. The lot was listed by the DDA in February of 2012 to solicit potential development proposals. Jackson Entertainment LLC, representing Loeks, presented an offer on the property, and was seeking approval of the option before the board (which was approved) at this week's meeting. 

In addition to showing first-run movies on eight or nine screens using advanced audio/visual technology, Loeks is hoping that the theater will provide multi-use functionality for the growing convention and life sciences industries in downtown Grand Rapids. This sentiment was echoed by Doug Small of Experience GR at the DDA meeting. Their goal is to attract over 400,000 visitors to the theater each year.

Dating back to 1944, the Loeks family has had a movie theater presence in Grand Rapids, beginning with the purchase of the Midtown Cinema at the corner of Pearl St. and Ionia Avenue. Though the downtown area has not had a working stand-alone movie theater in over 50 years, Loeks Theatres operates four movie theaters in the Grand Rapids area, as well as numerous other locations around the State.

No specific timeline was given by Loeks for when the project would start, but optimistically,  construction would begin within a year.

A similar movie theater, retail and nine-story condo complex was proposed in 2006 for the same parcel by a Farmington Hills based developer, but never materialized. The Heartside Historic District surrounding Area 5 has seen over $500 Million in new and redevelopment projects in the last 15 years, much of which was initiated after the building of the Van Andel Arena in 1996.

Source: Anne Marie Bessette, Downtown Development Authority
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