Jason Wheeler, a native of Rockford, co-owns Grand Central Market, one of the few grocers accelerating – and banking on – Grand Rapids' downtown revival. He talks about bringing more life to the day, improving the city's ability to lure the creative class, and putting more money in the till.
Your downtown grocery store, Grand Central Market, has been open a couple years now. How's business?
We're paying the bills. There aren’t quite enough residents down here yet to solely support the business. But we came into this a bit early intentionally so we could establish ourselves over the course of three to four years. We're growing our regulars. And by the time this place is booming – to the level that downtown developers and investors expect it to be – we'll be ready and well positioned for it.
How long, in your view, before that explosion happens?
It's difficult to put a definite time frame on it. But in the last couple years we've had as many as 30 businesses open in the three or four blocks around the store here. So this is going to be and feel like a different city in two to five years, especially when all the residential spaces currently under construction are wrapped up. More and more it's becoming a bustling, busy area.
Are there some particular projects you're keeping an eye on as you look to grow the business?
The Grand Rapids Art Museum and the JW Marriot just turned over. Little retailers like us are really fortunate to have two projects of that magnitude open up within two blocks of our front door. At the end of the night, we're going to have more money in the till. Now we're anticipating and pulling for Tall House, the residential high rise on Ionia Avenue. We expect a serious influx of people downtown in the coming years.
How long before the store can support being open on Sundays year round?
We would love to be serving this place seven days a week. Looking purely at sales, we would need to double what we can currently do on a Sunday. We're talking about $700, which is only about another 60 or 70 people walking in here, to keep us open. But we also consider exposure, and there are just not a lot of people down here on Sundays right now.
You're a 26-year-old, talented guy who could be anywhere in the country, if not the world, doing what you want to do. Why are you in Grand Rapids?
This place is happening right now. Sure there are a lot of young people moving to Chicago or New York. But there you've got tens of thousands of people just like you fighting for the same jobs.
Here, you have a golden opportunity to create what it is you want in a city. We've got some vacant buildings. But that means there are opportunities to start your own business. There are financial providers that aren't afraid to take risks. And Lake Michigan is 25 minutes away. All the pieces are in place and there are 25 to 35-year-old entrepreneurs all over downtown. So why go to Chicago?
What, in your view, does Grand Rapids need to do to improve its ability to attract young professionals?
We need to maintain and evolve our environmental awareness. The Grand River and the Great Lakes are incredible resources for us and big components of our ability to draw the younger generation. The arts and cultural scene is huge, too. My friends and peers have a wide perspective on the things they want to have in a life downtown. And it's not just a $75,000 job and a $300,000 loft apartment. There's more to living than that.
Understanding these new lifestyle patterns seems really important to the future of Grand Rapids. Can you be more specific?
An amphitheatre that utilizes some outdoor river space would be excellent. I'd also like to see the city bring in more events like Lollapalooza or the types of food, music, and art festivals you see in big cities. There are organizations that help set these things up. We just need to make the right contacts. That would provide more opportunities for people to expand their perception of the city.
You've mentioned the Grand River a couple times. Do you feel like we're underutilizing that asset?
Yes. You go to any city that is set up along a body of water and you see Fishermen's Wharf, Navy Pier, and those types of things. Here we've got parking lots and empty properties. We don’t really use the waterfront to our advantage. The city is named Grand Rapids. But what event or place can you go to that really utilizes the river to encourage recreation, entertainment, or commerce? It's pretty limited. I hear more and more people my age talking about the need to change that.
Civic leaders are talking about a streetcar system circling through downtown. Is Grand Rapids ready for serious public transportation?
It's worked well for Portland, San Francisco, and other cities where they've built it the right way. Those are much bigger cities, of course. But they weren't necessarily that way when they started.
Mass transit could be huge if we did it strategically, and established a route that not only shows outsiders the high points of the city but also provides access through job centers like the central business district and the medical mile.
It would also help eliminate all this worry and fuss about parking and encourage new development opportunities. In other words, if we have convenient transit, we’re not going to need dozens of concrete parking structures taking up what could be a really viable business. It's a smarter way to use the space.
Despite the renaissance, downtown Grand Rapids is often viewed as too homogeneous among Millenials and Generation X. Does the city need more chaos?
It would bring a cool balance to the situation if we can get more of these Kendall and Grand Valley students to stay. A lot of cool cultural elements stem from that chaotic environment. People aren’t going to leave their hometowns to come here, put a business suit on, and work a nine to five if they're going to miss all that outrageous outside-the-box urban stuff. It brings some life to the day.
Andy Guy, the managing editor at Rapid Growth Media, is a journalist who lives in Grand Rapids. He's also a project director at the Michigan Land Use Institute and authors a blog titled Great Lakes Guy.
Jason Wheeler in conversation with Rapid Growth at Grand Central Market
Jason Wheeler and Andy Guy
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
Brian Kelly is managing photographer of Rapid Growth and a freelance photographer living in Grand Rapids. You can check out his blog here.