I went to Grand Rapids to report on an International Council of Shopping Centers event, which was held at the Pew Campus of Grand Valley State University, a school I was unfamiliar with until this week. It’s a handsome campus of several close buildings, all made of spanking-new brick, some common areas that were too cold to examine at leisure, and some parking lots. The place buzzed with students, enough to make me more conscious of my age than usual, not necessarily a bad thing.
The campus looked like a successful urban redevelopment, in the way things are done now, as opposed the former practice of level-it-all urban renewal. A bad local example of that, as I learned on this trip, was the fate of the old city hall in Grand Rapids, designed by Elijah Meyer, the architect who also did the Texas state capitol. From the looking at the pics, a grand edifice. Down it came in 1969 -- another victim of the era.
The best speaker at the panel discussion was the head of the Downtown Development Corp. in Traverse City, Mich., considerably further north than Grand Rapids, but still in the lower peninsula. I passed through Traverse City in 1989 on my way toward driving all the way around Lake Michigan for the first time, but I didn’t stop to inspect the downtown. It turns out that most of the major downtown redevelopment has happened since then anyway, with a special emphasis on non-chain stores.
“It happens every summer,” he told the audience at one point. “Someone from out of town comes to me and says, ‘Wow, this town is great. I want to come here and open a restaurant.’ I always have to point out that means they’ll have to work every day all summer if they do that. They’re not quite as enthusiastic after that.”
That wouldn’t be my reaction. A fine downtown with interesting restaurants makes me want to linger there and eat, not open a tough business venture, but I suppose I don’t have that entrepreneurial spirit so celebrated in corporate lore. I’ve got that tourist impulse instead, and I confess a fondness for tourist towns, especially the smaller ones.