KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Whales swam across the Haymarket building Thursday night as hundreds of people dedicated a new public art haven in downtown Kalamazoo.

The whales were part of the 3D animated art shown onto the side of the building using Haymarket Plaza’s new projection mapping system. The seven-minute show stirred laughs and sounds of delight from the artists and community leaders who came out to celebrate the milestone.

(A 3D animated image of a person peeps from the corner of Haymarket building in downtown Kalamazoo during the projection system’s inaugural show on Sept. 16, 2021.)

“It’s absolutely fantastic. It’s very cool,” said Kristen Chesak, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo.

Chesak says the plaza opened at the perfect time.

“I know that there are still a lot of people who are not comfortable going inside. I think there are a lot of people who would prefer to be out outside in fresh air. And I think this gives us an opportunity to explore art, to have entertainment and to be able to communicate with each other and be in the same space with each other, without having to worry as much about what those effects are on our health,” she said.

“I think it (COVID) has really highlighted the desire for people to want to come together after being locked up at home for 18 months, the desire to create public places where people all over from any socioeconomic background can come together… and share our common experiences of being a Kalamazooan,” added Fritz Brown, partner of Treystar Holdings.

(A bird’s-eye view of the Kalamazoo community celebrating the dedication of Haymarket Plaza on Sept. 16, 2021.)

The theatrical debut came the same day ArtPrize 2021 kicked off. Brown said while the 7,000-square-foot plaza “is sort of Kalamazoo’s little touché” to Grand Rapids’ art competition.

“We don’t have ArtPrize, but you know what, we have a really cool Haymarket Plaza where there’s 3D digital media art and static art. And we’ll be a beautiful venue for years to come, and the city of Kalamazoo can be really proud of it, no matter what socioeconomic background you come from,” Brown said.

Still, Brown said the timing was coincidental.

“We’re not trying to stick it to Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids is a great community. We’re just trying to be ourselves and have our own niche,” he said.

During the event, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo announced plans to spearhead art programming in the plaza, starting with Kalamazoo’s Art Hop on Oct. 1.

“It didn’t take very long to find out that the best fit for this project was the arts council. And so we’re very pleased that they’ve decided to take over this venue from us, and it’ll be a fabulous legacy for art in Kalamazoo,” Brown said.

(People gather in downtown Kalamazoo’s Haymarket Plaza during a dedication event on Sept. 16, 2021.)

Chesak said the arts council is open to collaborating with any artists interested in using the space. The organization is already working with the Downtown Kalamazoo Partnership, Discover Kalamazoo and the plaza advisory committee to create a couple winter events in December.

The council plans to ramp up events in March, with activities happening Thursday through Saturday from March through October, as the weather allows.

The $80,000 projection mapping system turns a 40-by-78-foot section of the Haymarket Plaza building into a canvas for community art, entertainment and announcements.

Chesak said she’s particularly excited about potentially working with Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s nearby Center for New Media, which has a 3D film and digital design program.

“This plaza is a perfect opportunity for them to…. showcase the students’ art,” she explained.

(Balls cascade down a wall of the Haymarket building in downtown Kalamazoo during the projection system’s inaugural show on Sept. 16, 2021.)

The idea for Haymarket Plaza was born when Catalyst Development built its mixed-use building at 180 E. Water Street next to Treystar’s Main Street East building.

“It sort of created an opportunity instead of a detriment in losing some views from the building across the way here. We were able to come together with our neighbors and think of a creative way to use the space,” Brown said.

Treystar teamed up with Catalyst Development, LKF Marketing, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and other organizations and firms to pull off the transformation of Ihling Alley into an artistic space inspired by The Belt alley in Detroit. Dozens of donors helped fund the project, including the Monroe-Brown Foundation.

With assistance from Kingscott Associates, TowerPinkster Architects designed the space with a snow-melt system, decorative concrete, color-changing neon lights and Landscape Forms furniture. The plaza features an open area to host entertainment and food trucks.

(People walk through Haymarket Plaza during the space’s dedication event on Sept. 16, 2021.)

Chesak said she’s most excited about the plaza’s accessibility to anyone, even those just walking by.

Haymarket Plaza is named for the historic Haymarket District where it’s located. The space is dedicated to Brown’s late aunt and uncle, Gail and Thomas Kasdorf, who were pillars in Kalamazoo’s art community for half a century.

“I know deep down inside, they’re looking down on us and enjoying this moment,” Brown said.