GR tourism remains strong, Pure Michigan concerns arise

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — New numbers released Monday by Experience Grand Rapids show the area set a record for hotel stays in 2019, continuing a decade long trend.  

But just how long can that trend continue?

That’s the question people who market Grand Rapids as a tourist destination ask themselves every day.

“When you sit in my positions, you sit there and go, ‘OK, if you haven’t ever seen this before, at what point does the head hit the ceiling?'” said Doug Small, CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, the group in charge of marketing Grand Rapids and Kent County as a tourist and convention destination.

Hotel stays in the Grand Rapids area set a record and increased 4.6% from 2018 to 2019.

That growth has been consistent. In 2009, hotel revenue was $104 million. In 2019, that number had more than doubled to $226 million.

And when people come to town, they don’t just spend their money on the hotel room. 

“People want to talk about Beer City USA. Well, that certainly is a reason for people to come here, but they combine it with a great live music scene or outdoor adventure,” Small said.

The biggest increase was in tourist visits last year, but the larger impact on the economy is from convention business.

While it remains strong, there’s one problem that continues to affect the ability to attract conventions.

While the area has added several new hotels in recent years, studies show there needs to be one more large 400- to 500-room convention hotel close to DeVos Place to meet the criteria of convention planners. But property in and around DeVos Place is scarce.

“They want to be in the fewest hotels, closest to the meeting destination,” Small said.

Years of talks with the federal government about moving out of the main U.S. Postal Service office, just north of DeVos Place, apparently have yet to produce results.

So, in 2016, a proposal to build a publicly funded hotel on top of DeVos Place was announced. 

A task force has been looking into the economic feasibility of the idea. Small is on that task force.

“I think we’re comfortable as a task force sometime in the next couple of weeks to recommend to the Convention/Arena Authority that the study bears out, and based on all the research we’ve done, shows that it’s feasible to do another hotel,” Small said.

Even if the task force says the project would be worth spending the money, it would be far from a done deal.

The Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority would have to sign off on the idea and secure funding.

But a more immediate problem, the uncertainty of Pure Michigan, the state tourism promotion program.

For years, actor Tim Allen’s words on Pure Michigan commercial spots have sold the place we call home to the rest of the world.

“It’s what’s made this state grow. It’s helped us grow ten record years,” said Small.

Funding for Pure Michigan went away last year, and it may not return.

Pure Michigan’s budget was originally earmarked at $36 million last year, but as part of her budget battle with Republicans over road funding, Gov. Whitmer vetoed the entire Pure Michigan Budget, one of a 147-line item vetoes.

There was talk to restoring some of the funds, but so far that hasn’t happened.

“It’s competitive out there and without that, I’m afraid we’re going to start taking steps backward. It’s happened in other states,” Small said.

Some critics of state funding for Pure Michigan argue that if it’s so vital in the success of the tourism industry, why doesn’t the tourism industry pick up the tab?

Small says they do in part and match local funds dollar for dollar.

“The way we’re funded are through our hotels and our hotels are private industry,” said Small, who’s concerned that continuation of the 3% to 5% growth a year in tourism and convention business in Kent County over the last decade could be in jeopardy. “We won’t be able to do moving forward without the Pure Michigan campaign. We just can’t afford to do it.”

The fate of Pure Michigan should be more clear Thursday when Whitmer is set to outline her budget priorities for 2020-2021.

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