Western Herald – Downtown expansions discussed

Downtown expansions discussed

Mayor Bobby Hopewell opening a session for Arcadia Commons West in Theo & Stacy's Restaurant in Portage.

State Rep. Robert Jones opening a session for Arcadia Commons West in Theo & Stacy's Restaurant in Portage.

By Josh Holderbaum
Western Herald

Kalamazoo’s downtown could get a big boost from an event center, two project advocates told Kalamazoo citizens Thursday.

The Kalamazoo County Democratic Party sponsored a public discussion on the possible event center downtown and Arcadia Commons West during their monthly meeting Nov. 19 at Theo & Stacy’s Restaurant on Westnedge Avenue.

The discussion, “Arcadia Commons West and Event Center – A Vision for a Regional Partnership and Economic Development,” featured presentations by Ken Miller, chairman of the WMU Board of Trustees, and Marilyn Schlack, Kalamazoo Valley Community College president.

“I would not be a proponent of the event center without Arcadia Commons West,” Miller said. “I also would not favor Arcadia Commons West without the anchor of the event center.”

The potential event center would be located on nine acres of property bordered by Westnedge Avenue, Park Street, West Michigan Avenue and Kalamazoo Avenue.

It would also face Arcadia Commons East, a section of downtown renovated beginning in 1990 that includes the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, KVCC’s Anna Whitten Hall, Arcadia Condominiums, the Radisson Hotel and the Arcadia Creek Festival Place.

“This city is blessed to have nine acres of property in its heart, even if it is nine blighted acres,” Miller said. “Blight starts at the core of a community and spreads out to other parts of the city, just like a tree. Strength and support starts at the core. Grand Rapids focused on their core, and their urban and suburban areas have flourished.”

Funds for the center would come from the Michigan Legislature’s Public Act 180 of 1991, allowing business taxes to be used to help fund stadiums and event centers, Miller said.

If voters approve the tax next year, restaurants in the city will get an additional 10 percent sales tax.

“People say to me, ‘You gotta be crazy – these are the worst economic times, and you want to add a new tax?’” Miller said. “It’ll cost you $15 per year. And that’s only if you go out to eat. If you don’t go out to eat, you won’t have to pay the tax.”

The event center would be owned by Kalamazoo County and governed by the county’s Sports Authority, which has jurisdiction over event centers.

The almost 8,000-seat arena wouldn’t require any additional parking, Miller said.
“Within a five-minute walk around the area, there are 2,000 parking spaces,” Miller said.

“In a 10-minute walk there are 4,000 spaces. I’ve heard this comment before: that’s 4,000. What about the 8,000 it holds? Well, some people go with friends.”

Along with the Kalamazoo K-Wings, WMU is a tenant for the arena, which would take pressure off Lawson Ice Arena and Waldo Stadium, Miller said.

“Lawson [Ice] Arena is deteriorating,” Miller said. “It requires multi-million dollar renovations, renovations that WMU cannot afford. Also, an auxiliary unit runs Lawson, which is then rented back to the athletes. So we’re paying rent on our own building. And with all the teams playing in Waldo, we have two-a-day practices. We’d be giving our athletes the opportunity to move into a state-of-the-art arena.”

The arena has faced much of the same opposition Arcadia Commons East received, Schlack said.

“I got a lot of complaints when we started planning Arcadia Commons East,”
Schlack said. “People said, ‘Who’s going to want to go to this campus, to this museum?’ Well, I’m proud to say that the Kalamazoo Valley Museum has 100,000 visitors a year.”

The arena’s central location in the city would be a big boost, Schlack said.

“Without a city’s urban core being strong and solid, communities don’t hold up well,” Schlack said. “Over 40 percent of property in the City of Kalamazoo is outside public domain. We’re tax free. So it’s up to us to help the City of Kalamazoo thrive. The only way to do this is through a private-public partnership.”

Because the donors of the land to the city intended for it to become an arena, it’s almost inevitable the arena will be created, State Rep. Robert Jones, D-Kalamazoo also in attendance, said.

“This money, Public Act 180, can only be used for this,” Jones said. “I got opposition from the Lansing Senate, from the Rock Financial [Showplace, an event center in Novi, Mich.,] and some from the restaurant association, but I was able, with a lot of work, to get it passed.”

The vote on the tax increase will make sure the community supports the idea, Jones said.

“This is an economic development opportunity for the community because everyone in the community will have to approve it,” Jones said. “Unless the community itself stands up, it doesn’t happen.”

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2 Comments to Downtown expansions discussed
    • Jonathon T. Freye
    • Although the struggle to link WMU students to the Kalamazoo community is an ongoing, and worthy struggle, it is disappointing that so many have bought into the idea that an arena could finally bridge that gap. The proposal seems like an ill planned attempt to dupe the citizens of greater Kalamazoo into paying for a commercial venture that even to the untrained eye seems like risky business.
      In order to fund this proposed arena, a tax would need to be levied across the county on car and hotel room rentals and on restaurant purchases. According to the US Census Bureau, the county of Kalamazoo has a population of approximately 246,000, while Western Michigan University’s enrollment is around 25,000 accounting for nearly ten percent of the county’s population. Many, if not most of the students enrolled at WMU are not registered to vote within Kalamazoo. It is unacceptable to levy such a far reaching tax on a county where nearly 10% of the residents do not have the ability to take part in the democratic process and voice their opinions. As the healthcare debate rages on at the federal levels of our government, a major argument is that the government is not a fair competitor and shouldn’t run a business. So the county of Kalamazoo should follow this lead in waking up to the reality that it is inappropriate for the citizens to fund a for profit business. To the north, in Muskegon, the failures of the L.C. Walker arena have been absorbed by the city and its taxpayers for years.
      The driving force behind this appears to be both political and economic. Western currently holds title to the property upon which this development would take place, and there is still a $1.5 million mortgage. Admittedly an incredibly strategic area for development, the property is situated between Westnedge and West Michigan, essentially at the gateway to downtown. Presumably because of its current fiscal situation, WMU lacks capital funding for development of the land which was originally gifted to them. If, however, the land isn’t developed by 2014, the university will lose out on an opportunity to cash in on a sale as the title will transfer to the non-profit Downtown Kalamazoo, Inc. Clearly, the university wants to offload an outstanding liability while Suite Idea, the arena’s non-profit development team, is looking to buy the property for a song. It doesn’t hurt that Ken Miller of the WMU Board of Trustees is also involved with Suite Idea.
      So what would the county do with a brand new arena? Host sports games, of course. The proposal places the arena at 6000 to 8000 seats. According to a recent article in the Western Herald, WMU and Kalamazoo K-Wings hockey games would comprise almost fifty percent of the events held in the arena. But what about attendance at those events? Last season, WMU hockey games at Lawson had an average of only 57% attendance, while the Kalamazoo K-Wings averaged only slight better at 62% capacity. It is a “very narrow myopic point of view” to think that simply hosting games in a new facility would bolster attendance significantly. It is a stretch of the imagination to believe that students would still have free admission to an arena that is run by a commercial entity.
      Speaking only for the Western sporting events, moving the games downtown is a double edged sword. Unfortunately, a link can be drawn between the dismal attendance and university pride. If students (and paying customers, alike) wanted to come to the events, an old arena wouldn’t deter them any more than a brand new one would attract them. Add to that a logistical problem of getting downtown, parking, and possibly having to pay for what used to be a free event, and you’ve got a recipe for failure. Especially when these events make up half of the total use of the proposed new facility. Moving a formerly free event away from where students live and congregate and possibly charging admission and parking is a bad idea.
      Lastly, there is no doubt that Kalamazoo is prime real-estate between Chicago and Detroit, but the thought that a mid sized arena such as this could compete other large arenas for touring bands and music groups is nonsensical. Take a group such as the Trans Siberian Orchestra as an example. They’ll be playing twice in Michigan this year, once in Lansing at the 15,000 seat Breslin Center, and also in Grand Rapids at the 12,000 seat Van Andel. They go on to play across the nation from Kansas to Ohio at arenas which average a seating capacity of almost 13,000…not 8000. Finally, there’s been talk of some retail and possible housing on the property as well. As the old saying goes, this will be “ten pounds of [crap], in a five pound bag.” This is an ill founded, poorly funded plan.
      A “sense of community and connectedness” between Kalamazoo and Western Michigan University is long overdue, but should not be funded by the county, nor financed by students who don’t have the option to say “no.”

    • PalmerLambert
    • I agree with Mr. Freye: The proposal is wasteful and inconsiderate. A facility to house the homeless and people with special needs would be a better idea. There are a hundred better ideas. As always, the questions to ask are: Who Will Gain? Who Will Lose?

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