Tag Archives: Downtown Development Authority

Downtown Dreamer: Kristopher Larson brings energy, ideas and a love of beer as new director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority



When Kristopher Larson was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Raleigh, N.C., he loved going to his best friend Andrew’s house downtown.

Sure, in the suburbs there was a stream to explore and his mom and dad let him stay out and play all day.

But downtown, he says, “There were 50 different ways I could spend my allowance. We could walk to the comic book store, or buy an icee or get a hot donut at Krispy Kreme.”

Downtown was exciting.

That was a defining experience for Larson, the new executive director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority.

The kid who loved downtown grew up to be a guy who loves downtown. He wants everybody to feel the same thrill about the city as he does.

Larson, 34, took on the job three months ago, taking over for Jay Fowler, who announced his retirement last fall after nine years at the helm of the DDA.

He knows a lot of people have no idea what the Downtown Development Authority is. But most everybody has seen the results of its work.

The development agency is responsible for a host of improvements in the downtown area. Using incremental property taxes collected from downtown properties, the DDA has invested about $120 million in cool projects since 1980.

That’s leveraged more than $2 billion in private and institutional investment in the downtown area.

The Van Andel Arena. Expansion of the DeVos Place convention center. The Rapid’s Transit Center. Reconstruction of Monroe Center and Rosa Parks Circle. The Grand Rapids Art Museum.

When Larson interviewed for the post with the DDA board and Grand Rapids city commissioners last spring, he was up against a more seasoned candidate with more leadership experience.

But Larson won the board over with his passion and enthusiasm. He exudes confidence. His gaze can be unnervingly direct.

He’s the kind of guy who would work until midnight every night if his girlfriend let him. He wins “Employee of the Year” awards. He worked on an archeological dig in Jordan and learned conversational Arabic. He studied Shakespeare at Oxford University.

Larson’s last job was as vice president of the Downtown Long Beach Association in Long Beach, Calif. Before that he worked as deputy director of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance in Raleigh, N.C.

He likes job titles with the word “downtown.”

Earlier this month, Larson was one of four panelists on a Rapid Growth-sponsored speaker series about “placemaking” — creating a vision for a place based on the desires of the people who live and work there.

He sipped a beer and talked about making downtown Grand Rapids more vibrant, walkable, attractive.

(An aside about beer: Beer-lover Larson has a good-natured rivalry between his brothers in Asheville, N.C. and Portland, Oregon. Seems all three brothers claim to live in America’s best beer town.

Larson occasionally mails his brothers a Founders Brewing Co. cap or a sticker proclaiming GR as Beer City, USA. Just to get a dig in.)

The great thing about this speaker series, he says, is that it was standing room only. These Rapid Growth events usually attract about 50 people. So they set up 50 chairs.

But more than 100 showed up, eager to hear experts talk about the future of downtown.

“What we need to do is attract great jobs,” Larson tells the audience. “That’s what people move for. If you don’t have education and jobs down, you’ll struggle — no matter how many arts organizations you have.”

The talk turns to parking lots. The experts on this panel say the city has too many.

Larson has about the same interest in parking lots as he did as a kid. Parking lot? Pffftttttt. That’s no fun. Let’s build cool stuff on ‘em, he says, places where you can go spend your allowance.

“You have to find new and innovative was to engage people,” he tells the crowd. “That’s how you build civic pride. And civic pride is one of the most valuable types of currency we have.”

The next day, back at his office on the ninth floor of City Hall, Larson tells about a cool idea he thinks will engage people.

It involves an extensive restoration of the “Blue Bridge” linking Grand Valley State University’s downtown campus and downtown Grand Rapids.

The 120-year-old former railroad bridge will soon get a $1.4 million makeover, funded mostly by the DDA.

“That bridge is iconic,” Larson says. “It’s the most requested spot in town for brides. People identify with it. So, what color should it be?”

Soon, you’ll get a say — with a new app on your smart phone that will let you envision the bridge wearing any color you like.

“Yellow, green, pink,” Larson says.

He loves this idea.

“It’s much better than coming down at 7 p.m. to some dank elementary school auditorium to have grape juice and listen to some boring talk about what color the blue bridge should be,” he says.

“People love to pick up their phone and mess with an app. If I can get 10,000 people to do that, it’s much more telling than 20 people at a meeting.”

Larson came to Grand Rapids with “fresh eyes,” he says, and liked what he saw: a river rife with opportunity, generous and visionary philanthropists, residents he calls “West Michigan nice.”

His wish list for this place: more people on the streets. More residential units downtown. More retail — we need a grocery store, he says.

“People on the streets add vitality,” he says. “People out walking their dogs creates a safe-feeling urban environment.”

City building is about more than bricks and mortar, Larson says. Anybody can help — just by coming to an event downtown and adding energy to the place.

Larson grew up in Raleigh, N.C., the middle kid of three boys.

“I was always a pleaser, a negotiator,” he says. He smoothed things out between squabbling brothers, always wanted to make his parents happy.

Colleagues at his last job in Long Beach called him “The Translator,” praising his way of connecting the public and private sectors.

Part of his job, he says, is getting the public on board with innovative ideas, so when the DDA goes to the elected officials, they don’t have to worry about risking their positions.

Even though there were good schools in the suburbs, his parents sent him to a magnet school for gifted and talented kids in the core of the city. Theater, art and music were part of the curriculum. He got to play his clarinet with the big city symphonies as a middle schooler.

It meant a 60 to 90 minute bus ride to school every day.

“I always wondered why we passed four other schools on my way to school,” he says. “All my other friends in the neighborhood went to the neighborhood school.”

Raleigh had a historic neighborhood of old homes much like Heritage Hill, he says. Lots of city teachers lived there, including the family of his best friend, Andrew.

“That exposed me to downtown,” he says. “I learned that it was such a different kind of place. Back home in my neighborhood, there was no commercial use. I couldn’t buy a stick of gum. If you wanted to go anywhere, you had to get your mom to drive you.”

Andrew’s family let a homeless man live in their basement for a couple days until they could help get him housing.

“It was the first time I saw a homeless person,” Larson says. “And nobody was freaking out about it. It was just a person who needed help.”

That stuck with him. Today, he gripes about public benches that include a divider, designed so nobody can sleep on them.

“I despise those things,” he says. “That’s not dealing with the problem. That’s dealing with a side effect.”

Some people struggle with substance abuse and mental illness, he says, and that leads to homelessness.

“We shouldn’t be ashamed of it,” he says. “The job of a community is to help lift the whole — not just the self.

“So much of peoples’ perception of cities is based on fear,” he says, shaking his head. “I try to deconstruct that.”

He’s always been a guy of action, he says.

He started working at age 13, washing dishes at a catering company. By 15 he was the manager of the country club snack bar.

He grew up planning to be a doctor, even ending up president of the pre-med honor society in college.

Then, volunteering at a doctor’s office, he was put off by how much the physicians had to cater not to their patients’ needs, but to the rules of the insurance providers.

“It blew my mind,” he says. “It flipped me upside down. So I went from being Mr. Pre-med to… not. What the heck do I do now?”

He joined AmeriCorps, the federal program whose members offer service to a community for a year. Larson ended up in Moreno Valley, Calif., a poor, sun-baked town, where he worked with school kids in programs “designed to help them develop a passion for something besides basketball and video games.”

“That’s where I began to understand the importance of civic pride,” he says. “That community had no heart. It was just a grid. There was no central gathering place, no defining character, nothing to tie a person to the city they came from.”

He became intrigued with architecture, design and planning. He went back to school and earned a master’s degree in public administration, specializing in urban management, planning and economic development from North Carolina State University.

The bottom line of all that, he says: “How can I help people have more love for their community?”

He talks a lot about civic pride. Grand Rapids has it, he says. He looks forward to building on it.

“It builds a sense of responsibility, of taking care of your neighbor,” Larson says. “It’s how we meld together to make something bigger than all of us.”

Washing Away the Dust of Grand Rapids with Jazz


Jazz musician Art Blakey once said, “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.”

If true, then the dust has just been washed away from the lives of several thousand people in Grand Rapids.

Audrey Sundstrom, the Founder and Chair of the inaugural GRandJazzFest, shared this quote in the event’s program guide and based on her passion for jazz, there is definitely no dust in her life.

Sundstrom and her husband, Greg, frequently attend jazz festivals around the state. After repeatedly telling her husband she wanted a festival here in Grand Rapids, he finally told her, “If you want it here, you might just have to start it yourself.”

So she did.

And if the success of Grand Rapids’ first-ever jazz festival is the deciding factor on whether or not there will be a second GRandJazzFest, you might want to block out the third Saturday of August 2013 now.

With an overwhelmingly positive response from a crowd of thousands, the six musical acts and everyone else involved, the event is considered a huge success.

As West Michigan Jazz Society Board Member John Miller put it, “This could be the start of something big.”

Sundstrom originally approached the West Michigan Jazz Society (WMJS) and asked for suggestions on local jazz musicians. They became the nonprofit fiduciary for the event, which helped GRandJazzFest get off the ground.

The West Michigan Jazz Society played an important part by giving GRandJazzFest credibility as a jazz event,” Sundstrom says.

Early support by DTE, the presenting sponsor, and from the Downtown Development Authority kicked the event into further motion. Soon, Sundstrom started her own nonprofit, GR and Jazz, with friends and fellow jazz aficionados, Desiree Foster and Patti Flood, and then asked Molly Klimas of IntentPR to come on board to help with publicity for the event. Before the event, many more sponsors and friends got involved to ensure its success.

Sundstrom’s vision for GRandJazzFest was modeled after the River Raisin Jazz Festival in Monroe. She wanted to offer a variety of jazz genres such as big band, contemporary, traditional and Latin jazz and make it free so anyone could attend.

“I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she said.

The August 18 event at Rosa Parks Circle began shortly after noon with one of West Michigan’s premier jazz ensembles, The Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra, who has played traditional, swing and big band favorites for more than 35 years, including playing the first and third Sunday of each month at Founder’s Brewery. Dressed in matching blue shirts, the Orchestra kicked off the festival with upbeat big band music including a few sax solos.

Vocalist Edye Evans Hyde, the 2011 WMJS Musician of the Year, has been singing locally and around the world for more than 30 years. She joined the Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra on stage and, in between songs, thanked the crowd for voting for her in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Evans Hyde entered the online contest a few days before the August 15 deadline at the encouragement of her son, Evan Hyde, who told her, “You can’t win if you don’t try.”

Her songs immediately went from the bottom of 800 or so entries to 14 th, 19th and 23rd place. Now that her version of What Is This Thing Called Love is in the top 15, Evans Hyde has a chance to compete live on October 21 and win up to $5,000. Based on the enthusiastic rounds of applause she received after each song, the people of Grand Rapids are rooting for her to win.

Next up, GRandJazzFest offered lively contemporary jazz performed by Walt Gutowski and the Bridge Street Band. Vocalist Michelle Covington accompanied the group and sang songs such as “Smooth Operator” and more.

Covington said Grand Rapids has been longing for something like GRandJazzFest and she believes it’s good for our community. The people at Rosa Parks Circle impressed her, too.

“It’s a very responsive crowd,” she said. “They’re showing the love.”

A friend of Covington’s, Monica Scott, agreed and added, “The crowd is diverse and reflective of the community. Jazz does that.”

And a diverse crowd, it was. People of all ages, races and socioeconomic status filled the open air space. Some brought chairs while others sat on the steps or bleachers. Many people brought picnic food, books and toys to entertain the kids. A couple people brought their dogs to enjoy the jazz.

Fred Bivins, a.k.a. “Mr. Festival”, his wife Gina, Jim Winslow, Lynn Mapes and Jane Muller sat on the shady outdoor patio of the Grand Rapids Art Museum during the concert.

“We’re talking about history and listening to jazz,” Bivins said.

Nearby, Grand Rapids resident and “big jazz fan” Steve Paulsen shared a table with his cousin Dave Corbitt and wife Heather who came all the way from Belleville, Illinois to attend the GRandJazzFest.

When Grupo Ayé took the stage next, the band energized the crowd with their dynamic Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban sounds. The music inspired many to dance in the middle of Rosa Parks Circle and show off sassy merengue and salsa moves. The rest of the guests couldn’t help but move to the rhythmic beat.

Grupo Ayé’s vibrant beat and Spanish vocals is not what most people think of when they think of jazz.

Terry Johnston, a local photographer who was there shooting for the Downtown Alliance, admits to having eclectic tastes but didn’t think he liked jazz until he attended GRandJazzFest and heard what he described as “inner city funky jazz.”

Another new fan of jazz is a pink-haired, 19-year-old girl named Alix Grabow. Hanging out behind the stage, she said her father played the piano so she especially liked the keyboard solos.

“This is fun,” she said. “We always hang out downtown but we’ve never heard jazz here before. Some of it you can even dance to.”

Next on the GRandJazzFest stage was The Steve Hilger Jazz Quintet featuring many standard jazz songs with instrument solos throughout the set. That appealed to local photographer Chris Wilson who liked how everyone in the band got to show off his talent for a bit.

Lowell resident and jazz fan Barry Harding was equally impressed with the Steve Hilger Jazz Quintet.

“Any time you can hear Lee Morgan’s ‘The Sidewinder’ it’s got to be good.”

Steve Talaga not only played the keyboards for The Steve Hilger Jazz Quintet, but also for The Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra and Grupo Ayé during GRandJazzFest. This former WMJS Musician of the Year thought the event was “incredible.”

Randy Marsh, who played a few spirited harmonica solos during the set and the drums, organizes the Sunday night Jazz Jam at Hopcat each week, where experienced jazz musicians join in and perform a song or two with the rest of the group.

WMJS board member and ardent jazz fan Eddie Tadlock regularly attends the Hopcat Jazz Jam and other live jazz events around town. He thinks GRandJazzFest offers a good opportunity to showcase our local jazz musicians.

“People don’t realize the great talent that’s here,” he said. “These guys have played all over the country and the world.”

Tadlock’s friend, Elsa Fierens, grew up in Denmark and says she first became a jazz fan because her cousin, Erik Moseholm, is a well-known jazz musician there. She, too, hung around and enjoyed GRandJazzFest for most of the day because, as she says, “Music and people really make my life worth living.”

The second to the last set of GRandJazzFest featured Phil Denny, a young, animated saxophonist who radiates “sax appeal.” His first CD “Crossover” came out July 26 and it’s already making waves on the contemporary urban jazz scene.

Lansing residents Henderson and Gwen Bodiford and Robert Hurd and Diane McMillan are what you might call Phil Denny groupies. These two couples have followed him around the state to hear him perform. The women in the group have been listening to him since he was in the band at Everett High School where they both worked as assistant principals.

McMillan said the former homecoming king was “a very good student and very sweet and polite.”

The couples, who attend many other jazz festivals, came for the whole day and were impressed with GRandJazzFest.

“This is a quality line up from top to bottom,” said Hurd.

Saturday was the first time Phil Denny ever played in Grand Rapids and he was so taken by the response he received, he left the stage and played his saxophone in the middle of the audience for a bit. That roused the crowd even more, especially the women who were already gushing over the handsome musician.

Backstage, Denny applauded Sundstrom for her efforts with GRandJazzFest.

“It’s a great idea that came to fruition,” he said. “She has great passion and selected a good diversity of music for the first show.”

Throughout the day, Sundstrom walked around in her bright yellow GRandJazzFest t-shirt sporting an infectious smile on her face.

“What’s not to be happy about?” Sundstrom said at one point. “It’s a beautiful day, people are here and the music is good.”

Three other women were also smiling all afternoon. Sisters Mickey Parker, Ann Powell and Carol Allen, who were brought up on jazz, set up their chairs in a shady spot on the grass in the early afternoon. They didn’t plan on spending the rest of the day at GRandJazzFest, but they were still in the same location during the last set––laughing, grooving and having a very good time.

“This is such a release on life; a way to get away from stress,” said Powell.

GRandJazzFest headliner and guitarist Tim Bowman closed out the night with a stunning and memorable performance, just as one would expect from an internationally acclaimed performer.

His hour and 15 minute set included his two number one singles “Summer Groove” and “Sweet Sundays” and the receptive, energized crowd rewarded him with loud cheering.

Bowman described his music as “groove and melodies” and then with a wink and a dazzling smile, he added, “and fun.”

This contemporary jazz guitarist has produced six CDs and was named as Billboard’s 2009 Top 10 Smooth Jazz Artist of the Year. He also received the Best Guitarist of 2010 award at the International Jazz Festival in Dubai.

Even though Bowman only lives a few hours away in Detroit, he hasn’t been to Grand Rapids in 20 years and acted surprised by the size of city and the audience.

“It’s grown a lot,” he said. “And there are lots of people here!”

GRandJazzFest ended on a high note with a completely packed Rosa Parks Circle. The crowd energy throughout the day was positive, but especially during the last few hours, when nearly everyone was smiling, dancing and getting into the groove.

WMJS board member Darryl Hofstra summed up the end of the inaugural GRandJazzFest the best by saying, “The night is cool, but the jazz is hot.”

Hot indeed… Smoking hot.

Sundstrom was still smiling the next morning and thrilled with the festival’s results.

“It turned out to be everything I had hoped for,” she said. “I am grateful to all of the sponsors, the staff, the volunteers, the musicians and everyone who came out.”

Sundstrom had the vision for GRandJazzFest, but insists, “The event wouldn’t have been what it was without everyone’s help and so many people deserve a lot of credit.”

Thank you Audrey Sundstrom and your talented team for bringing GRandJazzFest to Grand Rapids. Please “wash away our dust” again next year.

To learn more about GRandJazzFest, visit their website: http://www.GRandJazzFest.org
LIKE them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GRandJazzFest

Doug Small is an Unapologetic Foodie.


The culinary education of the 51-year-old leader of Experience Grand Rapids began in childhood while he watched as his mother kept whipping up creative solutions in the kitchen that somehow managed to satisfy the appetites of all eight boys and six girls in their not-so-Small family.

“I grew up in a family of 14,” he said with a laugh. “My mother could make hamburger 60 different ways.”

His interest in food ultimately led him to experiment in the kitchen himself.

Small started to express his passion for cooking after he and his wife relocated to Palm Springs, California. in 1993. He found an endless supply of fresh and locally sourced ingredients that became part of a nightly ritual of stopping off at the market on his trip home from work to select items to prepare for dinner.

“I’m the cook in the family,” Small said. “I’d stop at the market when we lived in Palm Springs and I’d pick up fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s where I discovered the importance of farm-to-table ingredients.”

It’s not uncommon for him to whip up a full meal for family members.

He has been known to create| an Italian feast for 20 people upon visiting his brother in Ohio. He’ll prepare pasta with fresh herbs and sauces, plus a signature Caesar salad with grilled hearts of Romaine and a scratch-made dressing he insists would make him a “million bucks” if he bottled and sold it.

“I entertained thoughts early in my career of opening a restaurant,” Small said. “I just love the creation of food.”

He has lifted that passion to new heights since coming to Grand Rapids.

“I brought the idea of ‘Restaurant Week’ with me from Denver,” said Small, who was senior vice president of Visit Denver before being hired as Experience Grand Rapids‘ president and chief experience officer four years ago. “It’s such a vibrant food scene here that celebrates locally sourced foods.

“But there was no one marketing or promoting it.”

Small supplied the inspiration and imagination for launching “Restaurant Week” in Grand Rapids, which has shifted from a pre-Thanksgiving spot on the calendar in each of its first two years to a summer celebration Aug. 15-25 that shows off fresh local ingredients at the peak of harvest this year.

Finding the right fit

Initially, Small had doubts about changing the dates.

The concept — offering diners a three-course meal for $25 at participating establishments — had been such a huge success that he wondered if it might disrupt the momentum of the event in its third year.

He reflected back on his passion for fresh farm-to-table cooking.

“I was probably the most reluctant of our committee to move it into summer, but the more I thought about it, it made sense,” Small said. “When you get to that first part of August, people are starting to stay home, they’re back from vacation and they’re preparing for kids to go back to school in the fall.

“It also puts more of a ‘locally sourced foods’ focus on it. Local ingredients aren’t as plentiful in November.”

The impetus for altering the dates for Restaurant Week in Grand Rapids happened as a result of booking the Society of Automotive Engineers convention at DeVos Place, which, in turn, forced Small and his staff to shift the popular Beer & Wine Show to a different spot in the November lineup.

After considering its options, Experience Grand Rapids consulted with chefs and restaurateurs throughout West Michigan and decided the ideal fit for Restaurant Week would be mid-August.

“I think it’s a win-win for everyone,” Small said. “We had been chasing the Society of Automotive Engineers for a while. Our mission is booking conventions. It forced us to find another spot on the calendar for the Beer & Wine Show since it had followed Restaurant Week the past two years.

“It just made the most sense to move Restaurant Week into August. The local chefs and restaurants agreed with it. The fresh produce and ingredients are at their peak in the first week of August,” he added

“Our plans are to keep it there.”

Any remaining doubts about the switch faded when Small looked at the results of a Grand Rapids Magazine readers’ poll that named Restaurant Week as the second-most anticipated event on the local scene.

“We finished second behind ArtPrize, of course, but ahead of everything else, including Festival,” Small said.

Keeping it fresh

The concept for “Restaurant Week” is bigger and bolder this year.

There are more than 60 establishments participating and the geographical range includes more eateries along the lakeshore. A dollar from each dinner helps fund the Culinary Institute at Grand Rapids Community College, which has been the recipient of $40,000 in donations the first two years.

The event is sponsored by the Downtown Development Authority, Sysco, Great Lakes Wine & Spirits, Founders Bank & Trust, Founders Brewing Co., national wine sponsor Trinchero Family Estates and Bacardi.

“We’re going to spread our wings and market more to the lakeshore this year,” Small said. “There’s a lot of Illinois license plates along the lakeshore during the summer months and this is an opportunity to get a lot of those people to experience what the dining scene in West Michigan has to offer.”

The same rules apply as last year.

Each participating restaurant offers a minimum three-course meal for $25 per person, although some places offer as many as five courses. Most eateries offer more than one option per course.

The participating bistros and brew pubs offer three-course dinners for two people for $25, since those establishments are a lower price point on their menus. Most offer more than one option per course.

The “Grand Cocktail Contest” presents a new twist on the proceedings.

In addition to meals, the mixologists at 18 local establishments are participating in a competition to see who is able to come up with the most unique cocktail surrounding the international launch of two new liqueurs — Grey Goose Cherry Noir Vodka and Bacardi Oakheart Rum.

A panel of judges and on-line input from diners will determine the winner.

No Small appetite

Small is salivating at the menu options this year.

He personally reviews each of the participants’ menus and then plans his gastronomic adventures for the week around those establishments putting an emphasis on locally sourced fresh ingredients.

“I averaged five nights out the first two years,” Small said.

“I look at every single menu. I chose restaurants that do local first as much as possible, have a creative new dish not normally found on their regular menu and those that give me more than one choice for each course.

“I think this is the best year I’ve seen for creativity. There’s some real surprises out there.”

One final surprise: Small said Experience Grand Rapids is planning an announcement immediately following “Restaurant Week” about an forthcoming event in the winter involving local restaurants. He insisted it isn’t a second “Restaurant Week,” which has been speculated in the past.

“It’ll be along the same lines,” he said. “It’ll be a lot of fun.”

Be sure to check out Experience Grand Rapids on the web: http://www.experiencegr.com
Experience GR on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/ExperienceGR
Restaurant Week Grand Rapids on the webhttp://www.restaurantweekgr.com/
Restaurant Week Grand Rapids Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RestaurantWeekGR