West Leonard Downtown District
415 Leonard Street NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49504
(616) 451-0150


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Membership Drive 2010

Date: Wed, 3 Mar 2010
From: David Mayo
Take a good look at the historic West Leonard Street business district, because it won't look this way much longer.
West Leonard Business Association;s new officers and board of directors have focused on a long-term objective to transform the district's perception so people view it as an extension of downtown, by blending its own objectives with those of a broader group of city officials and business leaders who conceptualize an uninterrupted string of businesses, dining, nightlife and recreational opportunities, extending from Grand Valley State University's downtown campus to Leonard Street.
It is a broad, bold new concept for an familiar old business district, with the long-term goal of a vibrant, brighter, more inviting area, along with some measure of the neighborhood gentrification the near-downtown region has enjoyed in recent years.
"We want to be associated with downtown," Johnny Brann Jr., the newly elected WLBA president, said. "Downtown is all coming our way anyway, and anything going on downtown draws business in for us, whether it's fireworks on Fourth of July, or the Festival crowds."
When the new initiatives are fully implemented by the sprawling WLBA -- the largest business association, geographically, in Grand Rapids -- Brann said he envisions that "in five or 10 years, as you drive down this street, you'll go 'Wow, look at this place,' " via an integrated plan in which business owners nurture and grow each other by recognizing their impacts upon one another and "looking at this whole business district as one big business."
The early signs of revitalization already are under way. Existing businesses are buying old properties in the area, including Brann's, which put $300,000 into remodeling, and plans to relight its restaurant and the adjacent buildings and parking lots to create a bright, appealing gateway to West Leonard, in conjunction with new lighting under the U.S. 131 overpass.
Other business owners already see value in expanding within the West Leonard area, too. DeVries Jewelry is moving into a larger property at the former Lanning's Restaurant site. Ralph's Market owners Bob and Jeanne Enell plan to raze their existing store and build a new $2.6 million, 19,000-square-foot facility adjacent to it, on the old Blockbuster site, and turn the existing site into parking and streetscape because, Bob Enell said, 'I can just see the West Side as moving to the north.'
And venerable Arnie's Restaurant, destroyed by fire last year, is being rebuilt on the same site, just as Little Mexico relaunched successfully after its old building was destroyed by fire in the nearby Stockbridge Business Association area.
Brann was among the new officers elected to one-year terms at the Feb. 16 election, succeeding longtime president Dick Syzmanski, who remains on the Board of Directors.
Susan McKey was elected vice president, Jim Hale treasurer and Ben Rausch secretary. The Board of Directors includes Dave Shaffer, bank executive and city commissioner; Sean Ellis, Southland Auto Wash owner; Jon O'Connor, appraiser and West Grand Neighborhood Organization president; Jody Haan, Walgreen's manager; Jane Grischke, West Grand Neighborhood Organization community organizer; and Syzmanski.
The new officials and Board of Directors have jump-started a number of initiatives, including a multi-faceted effort aimed at slashing crime through direct involvement of residents and business owners alike, and an April 6 membership drive, featuring political officials from state to local levels as speakers, where business owners are urged to come hear about the achievements, goals and future vision of WLBA.
The new board plans to start by focusing on immediately manageable projects, such as code enforcement, joint marketing of businesses within the association boundaries, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) improvements, an adopt-a-block program, and growing the West Side Mobile Enforcement citizen watch program.
By coordinating those efforts, the business district can appear tidier and more streamlined (code enforcement), businesses can benefit from cross-marketing with interrelated industries (joint marketing, an endeavor WLBA has successfully instituted before), panhandlers and unsightly telephone-pole fliers and graffiti can be eliminated (adopt-a-block), and crime can be slashed by unofficial patrol cars, complete with scanners and door magnet identifiers (mobile enforcement).
A large-scale street clean-up is in the works for early spring, in conjunction with volunteers from the ROTC program at Union High School, and Brann emphasized that many of WLBA's upcoming efforts will be focused on sweat equity achieved through old-fashioned elbow grease.
'We know the city is short on money', Brann said. 'When we have a graffiti problem, we're not going to call the graffiti hotline, we're going to paint the graffiti ourselves. We're not going to call the city with code violations, we're going to address them ourselves, with professional letters and recommendations on low-cost painters and builders. It's going to be a very proactive effort.'
WLBA spans from Ann Street and Pannell Street along its north boundary, to Bristol Avenue on the west, Walker Avenue on the southwest, 7th Street on the south, and the Grand River on the east.
The membership drive is scheduled at 5:30 p.m. on April 6 at Brann's Steaks and Sports Grille, 401 Leonard St. NW. Hors d'oeuvres will be served.