Skip to content

More taxpayer money goes towards Urban Market Project

December 19, 2011

On Wednesday, MLive published a brief update on the proposed $27 million urban market that is slated to be built on Ionia Avenue.

Originally, the Urban Market planned on rehabilitating the old Sonneveld building just south the Wealthy St. overpass, but now the building, along with 6 others, will be demolished to make way for the new Urban Market project.

The MLive story does not specify which buildings along Ionia Avenue will come down, but they do identify it will be between Wealthy and Logan.

This is the latest twist in the ongoing coverage of the development of this urban market concept that has been evolving since 2009 when it was first proposed.

According to the MLive story the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) has applied for a $1 million grant from the DEQ for demolition, which is in addition to a recent $4.5 million grant from the Michigan Economic Growth Authority. At a Grand Rapids City Commission meeting in September the City approved the use of “water funds” for other improvements related to the market.

The funding mechanism appears to be changing over time and those behind the market continue to get funds from a variety of taxpayer-financed sources. Despite the high level of taxpayer funds being used in this project, the public has had virtually no say.

Minutes from the September DDA meeting provide us with some details on where some of the funding will come for this project:

  • DDA would continue to own the property
  • DDA would lease property to Urban Market Holdings, LLC  (UMH) for 99 years
  • UMH would rescind its request for development support from the DDA
  • DDA would retain assets if the market ever failed
  • Tax Increment from the project would be used to: Pay for street improvement to adjacent streets; Reimburse UMH for eligible redevelopment costs; Planned street improvements include street, utilities, street lighting, streetscape, putting Consumer Energy lines underground
  • Ionia Avenue and Logan Street will be bring and McConnell Street will be asphalt
  • Street improvements would be financed: Issuance of bonds payable over 20 years, UMH cash, DDA cash, and Grants; Bonds to be issued by the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority; Priority for bond payments using Tax Increment Revenue.
  • An amount budgeted annually by the DDA for 20 years – $75,000 per year

During that September 2011 DDA meeting, DDA member John Canepa could not vote on these matters since he is on the board of Grand Action, the private group behind the urban market plan. In addition, another DDA member, Kayem Dunn, had to abstain from voting on this matter since she also sits on the board of the Urban Market.

These conflicts of interest reflect how interlocking systems of economic power work, something we pointed out in a previous article about the Urban Market. (another look article) Unfortunately, the commercial media has not focused much attention on who is behind this project and who will be the primary beneficiaries.

Instead, the local media coverage has mostly focused on how this project will be a benefit to the ongoing development of downtown. There is no doubt that this project will be a tremendous boost for downtown development, but the question that journalists should be asking along with this is, “who benefits with this development?”

Looking at a Grand Action document, we can see who the likely beneficiaries of such a project will be. They state:

The core of the Urban Market will be 16-20 vendor stalls that house independent, owner-operated businesses featuring a wide range of local fresh and prepared foods.  These stalls have been designed to maximize food production within the Market, such as bread baking, butchering and sausage making, cheesemaking, ice cream/candy making, and pasta production.  The tenant mix will also include produce, seafood, flowers, and a variety of ethnic foods.  Tasting rooms for Michigan wineries and beer makers will complement several restaurants that feature Michigan food and drink.

So, ask yourself, who do you think will be spending their money at this urban market? One demographic that is not likely to buy food at the urban market will be people who live directly east and southeast of the 400 block of Ionia market location. The residents of this area are disproportionately Black and Latino with limited income levels and are not likely to purchase expensive cheeses or visit the wine tasting rooms.

The upscale aspect of the urban market will be in sharp contrast to what residents of the neighborhood I am describing have been accustomed to for decades. The only places to buy food in the immediate area are Family Dollar, various fast food establishments and convenience stores/gas station with a very limited amount of fresh produce. This area of the city could be classified as a food desert and the introduction of fresh food options is a good idea in principle. However, it would be naïve for people to think that low income and working class minorities will be frequent visitors to a market that has been described by the downtown power brokers as “tourist attraction” that would be “Disneyland like.”

Grand Action states in their background paper on this project, “To address the exploding youth obesity epidemic, the Urban Market will provide hands-on opportunities for kids to be involved with every aspect of planting, harvesting, preparing, and eating healthy foods, including the country’s first teaching kitchen designed specifically for elementary school-aged children.” On the surface this sounds noble, but the question is, will the parents of these children be able to afford and feel comfortable buying food at such a location?

The new urban market will likely target urban professionals who live in or near downtown Grand Rapids and potentially some of the residents in the Heritage Hill neighborhood. There will be others who make the urban market a destination that might be incorporated into other downtown activity, but those activities disproportionately attract a more upscale, racially homogenous crowd.

An additional concern with this project should be to ask whether or not it will gentrify the neighborhoods east and southeast of its Ionia location? As someone who lives in the neighborhood just east of the urban market location it seems that this project adds to the gentrifying nature of the downtown expansion that will negatively impact the poor communities of color that have been my neighbors for the past 27 years.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. kswheeler permalink
    December 19, 2011 7:02 pm

    I find the confusion surrounding the information regarding this market to be deeply unsettling.

    Originally, it was announced this market would be operated as a non-profit, and would provide year-round space for local farmers who usually stop selling at the outdoor markets in the late fall. Nice story, wasn’t it?

    Now they’re talking about seafood and ice cream and fresh pasta. How many area farmers do you know who sell or make these items for sale?

    Jeff, I believ you are right in your assessment of locals right in the area not being able to afford these luxury items–or feel comfortable in the obviously yuppified atmosphere that’s being created.

    The Press ran an editorial about the Urban Market which concluded by saying, “The energy surrounding these projects can be the catalyst for other projects and jobs. If downtown is to become a more interesting place to visit, shop, and live, there has to be a willingness to invest in a vision. An urban market would be a sight to behold.”

    Clearly, the story has changed from the original “Let’s do the local farmers a favor” story to the Emerald City scenario that the Press generated–new energy, new buzz, a new vision, all to make downtown a drawing card “to visit, shop, and live.”

    This sounds just like the “we’re not gentrifying anything” garbage that our very own 1 percent tried to foist off on us concerning the Wealthy Street/Eastown areas. They pointed out, just like in this editorial, that those new businesses would generate jobs for people right in the neighborhood. It was funny when a straw poll of new restaurants and businesses along Wealthy Street didn’t turn up one person who lived nearby who actually was hired to work there. (Oh, except for Paul Lee and his wife, who were quick to point out that they lived over their restaurant and worked there, too!!!) No, the real residents would just upset the hipsters too much.

    The DeVos family, the Gilmores, and others who have a big financial stake in downtown are behind this takeover of more land for more projects that will ultimately alienate or displace locals in the neighborhood. And all of the suburbanites chime in with their support. It’s a disgrace, the amount of bald-faced lying that’s going on. The real point of this and other projects is relining the pockets of our area’s conscienceless capitalists with even more cash.


  1. Like most media coverage, New York Times article is giddy over downtown GR market « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  2. New York Times article giddy over downtown GR market | Our Kitchen Table
  3. When Dick DeVos says he wants to do something about public education it should scare the shit out of us « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  4. There are Robber Barons in every generation in Grand Rapids | Grand Rapids People's History Project
  5. The Downtown Market is Succeeding - If The River Swells
  6. With Grand Rapids Facing a Housing Crisis, Grand Action proposes to spend over $250 million for tourism and entertainment | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  7. Instead of giving public money to benefit the business class in Grand Rapids, how about we adopt the process of Participatory Budgeting | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: