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.”
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