Diversifying Downtown

A viable and attractive city must be diverse. This doesn't just mean that your census shows you have a statistically diverse population, it means when one goes to your city's urban core, that statistical data is reflected in who they see living, working, and playing in the streets and establishments. The Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority (CAA) wasn't seeing the diversity reflected in their three entertainment venues -- the DeVos Place Convention Center, The Van Andel Arena, or the DeVos Performance Hall -- so they decided to form the Community Inclusion Group (CIG). 

The CIG works closely with the CAA to establish "a viable commitment to diversity that will support our vision, our business strategies, our board behavior, relationships with customers, suppliers, and our communities in a manner that enables our organization to reach our full potential and, in doing so, maximizes value to our clients and the community we serve." When you cut through the language of the mission statement, it exposes that at the core, the CIG realizes that diversity is something one accomplishes through intentional and mindful action. 

The CIG is a volunteer committee currently chaired by Darius Quinn, who is also the Human Resources Manager for Kent County. Other members include community stakeholders like Skot Welch, Minnie Morey, Joe Jones, Eddie Rucker, Lou Soli, Lauri Parks, Chris Arnold, and Jeanne Arnold. The group meets once a month to discuss how Grand Rapids can be more inclusive as well as provide programming that will appeal to people of color. Having programming that caters to everyone is "a quality of life improvement for communities of color," Quinn says.

In order to ascertain what programming will engage communities of color, CIG will open dialogue and come up with a list of names. Quinn says continuously reaching out to communities and inviting them to the table is a vital part of this process. When a list has been made, CIG turns the list over to Richard MacKeigan, regional general manager at the Van Andel Arena/DeVos Place, for what Quinn describes as a "rigorous vetting process."

"A big part of [booking] is math," MacKeigan says. "There's an old adage in the industry that there are no bad bands, only bad deals." He adds, "It has to make sense financially because we are in a position where we must keep these facilities financially viable for as long as possible. That being said, we want to incubate as many opportunities as possible to plant a seed to see a return down the road."

MacKeigan's work to book the acts the community asks for in a sustainable way has been successful. Lynne Ike, Director of Marketing, provides a list of acts and their corresponding ticket sales. Acts like Bill Cosby, Drumline, Symphony of Soul, and various comedians have done well to engage communities of color as well as provide sustainable ticket sales for the venue. 

But it's not just about entertainment events. The team also works to host inclusive community events. One example is the Giants banquet. This 30-year-old event, previously held on campus at Grand Rapids Community College, awards African-American community members who have made advancements for the quality of life in Grand Rapids. MacKeigan refers to convincing the event to move to the DeVos Place, a more expensive venue, and working with them to secure additional sponsoring as one of their biggest successes. "They took the risk and their revenue has greatly exceeded the increased expenses and created a much better event," he says. This mutually rewarding event mirrors other receptions and events held at the DeVos Place, and works to help provide a positive experience for communities who may not have come to the downtown area for other reasons before. 

"The idea of targeting these events and communities is to get [people of color] to come to our venues," MacKeigan says. "But it's also to get them used to [coming downtown]. Where to park, where's the best place to go afterwards, what's the best route to get there -- to get comfortable with the experience. When we have events that are targeted directly to [communities of color], that level of comfort is already there, and so they're more apt to come back. That's the ultimate goal -- to be reflective of our whole community -- but also to focus on events where we'll be able to get first-time attendees and get them more used to coming downtown."

In March, the CAA and CIG holds a Community Engagement Reception at DeVos Place. "We provide information about our venues and local area bars and restaurants," Quinn says. "[Downtown establishments] come in and set up tables. They try to facilitate an entire experience."

In 2013, Quinn says CIG hopes to put a greater emphasis on engaging the Hispanic community, a population that has seen 46 percent growth in West Michigan over the last decade. Partners such as the Hispanic Center, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Mexican Heritage Association are helping the CAA/CIG to get the word out to their communities. The CAA ensures that bilingual staff and promotional materials are readily available.

"The vast majority of events that come into town have their own budget and marketing," MacKeigan says. "We know our Hispanic market very well and when it makes sense, we push hard, increasing budget and taking it on ourselves to hit those markets." 

A prime example he cites is the family event, Disney on Ice. The CIG provides coupons and takes these into neighborhoods. "It's an example of an event that for years saw no value in targeting the Hispanic market yet, through our pushing, agreed to try it. They saw some return on investment, and now, that's a part of their standard marketing plan when they come to West Michigan."

Additionally, a diverse downtown landscape is necessary when welcoming visitors. "Visitors want to feel welcome and see people like them in bars, convention facilities, hotels, and restaurants," MacKeigan says. "We work on this with Experience GR, the Downtown Development Authority, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the City, and the County. The conversation's been growing for four or five years, and we've been given enough rope to really get involved. We want the communities to see we're willing to put cash into this, not just take their money."

The mindfulness of the CAA/CIG does not stop there. When Eddie Tadlock, assistant GM at DeVos Place, secures art for the venue during ArtPrize, he "is very intentional in making sure there's representation from artists of color," Quinn says. "I'm constantly amazed with what comes to this venue." 

The venues also make sure they're hiring with diversity at all levels. "In every level of position," Quinn says, "you'll see adequate representation, or even above." MacKeigan says they also continually attempt to diversity their business partners, hosting reverse trade shows where they bring in companies who sell their services to the CAA. They specifically make sure to hire local business owners of color, constantly concerned with reflecting the demographics of the community they serve. 

And community members are taking notice. Suriya Davenport, CIG supporter, says, "We're witnessing the birth of a new downtown Grand Rapids. It's a cultural melting pot, infused with diverse societies and economies. There's a giant welcome mat in front of downtown because of the CIG and CAA efforts. They've assertively reached out to our community and asked, 'What are we interested in?' The CIG along with the CAA plays a major role in molding "The NewGR", an all inclusive multi-cultural world class downtown."

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media. 

Photography by Adam Bird