Regardless of new state legal guidelines, there aren’t any strong plans for the Kalamazoo Occasion Heart

KALAMAZOO – A new funding instrument recently added to the law is designed to help fund an event center in downtown Kalamazoo. However, it is unclear if there is a desire or solid plans to move the venue forward.

House Bill 4816 was sponsored by former Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Ward, and incorporated into law on December 30th by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The Regional Event Center Funding Act provides for a funding program for potential event projects in Kalamazoo. Counties of Ottawa, Muskegon, Ingham, and Washtenaw.

Courtesy of photos

“The main impetus for this legislation was to provide access to another economic development tool that larger communities like Grand Rapids and Detroit have,” Iden told MiBiz. “I’ve always supported a downtown event center because I believe that if core urban centers don’t grow, they tend to just die out.”

Iden was limited in time at the end of 2020. He served on the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners for two years before being elected to the state’s House of Representatives in 2014.

“The event center was only discussed as a concept. There was never any formalized plan or agreement on the size and scope of the project, ”said Iden. “It was always discussed in advance as a high-level concept for the community.”

The new legislation mandates an event center funding program to describe the proposed size, location, cost, and funding structure of the proposed facility and to establish a rating to be collected under the program that cannot exceed 4 percent of statewide hotel room rates. The assessment would effectively be a small increase in a county’s hotel accommodation tax.

The Financing Act defines an event center as a congress hall, auditorium, stadium, music hall, arena, meeting rooms, exhibition area and associated public areas belonging to a municipality or an associated authority for event centers.

For a county to apply the regional event center funding law, 60 percent or more of the county’s hotel owners would have to vote for its approval.

The new law stipulates that 0.25 percent of the valuation revenue must be used for recreational services and the remainder to cover costs including paying for administration, enforcement of the ordinance, financing the purchase of real estate, construction and the associated maintenance costs can be used.

“I believe this is one of the ways we can get businesses downtown and hopefully bring development to downtown Kalamazoo after the pandemic,” Iden said.

Other funding would likely need to be identified for an event center if development continued, as the assessment would likely not cover all of the costs, Iden said.

No concrete plans

For at least two decades there have been rumors from various groups about the construction of an event center in downtown Kalamazoo. Despite discussions over the past two years, district officials haven’t seen a specific proposal, said Tracy Hall, chairman of the Kalamazoo County Board. A potential event center did not arise during the county board’s annual retreat on Jan. 8, Hall said.

Former Southwest Michigan First is the newest group in Kalamazoo to promote a downtown event center. The Economic Development Agency has proposed to the county board twice over the years a plan for an event center that costs between $ 80 million and $ 110 million and can accommodate 6,800 to 9,000 people.

Former Southwest Michigan’s first CEO Ron Kitchens was most recently the project’s spokesperson. According to media reports, Kitchens said last month that building a project could lay the foundation in 2024. The project between North Westnedge Avenue and North Park Street in downtown was reportedly valued at $ 110 million.

Effective Jan. 15, Kitchens resigned to accept a similar position in Alabama. Kitchens have not returned repeated requests for comment from MiBiz.

Carla Sones, First Interim CEO of Southwest Michigan, said the organization is currently focused on efforts to restore the COVID-19 business and the national search for kitchen replacements.

“We are happy that the laws have been passed that would allow the community to make a decision about the future event center, but our focus right now is on recovering from COVID-19,” said Sones.

If Kalamazoo or the other four counties were to use the funding instrument, the County Board of Commissioners would have to vote on the funding law in the next few steps.

While Hall said she was more favorable to this new funding bill than a previously proposed excise tax on food and beverages, many of her constituents opposed previous event center plans. She also has questions about the details of the event center and where other resources would come from outside of the property rating in the new law.

Southwest Michigan First asked the county board in 2019 to impose an excise tax on food and drink for the upcoming vote to fund the construction of the venue by adding a 1 percent surcharge on food and drink sales at Kalamazoo County’s restaurants will be charged. A similar proposal to fund the venue was proposed the year before, but never made it to the vote. No parishioners or groups have reached out to the county about the proposed event center since Iden’s bill was passed, Hall said.

The idea for an event center in downtown Kalamazoo was first pioneered by community leaders in 2003, according to Southwest Michigan First’s June-July 2018 issue of 269 Magazine.

“This new funding bill offers an interesting option,” said Hall, “which may be more palatable to some of my colleagues than the food (beverage) tax proposed a few years ago.”