Thursday, February 9, 2012

Looking Both Ways at Grand Haven Grand Prix

(From the February 9, 2012 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Earlier this week the Grand Haven City Council considered a proposal to have a Grand Prix race through the streets of Grand Haven’s downtown.

City leaders decided to allow the promoter to go forward with a feasibility study for the event. At the same time, the city will investigate the potential for such an event, with a particular focus on the impact on local businesses and the streets, as well as the fact that some feel we already have too many events in the Tri-Cities.

I wrote this column before city council made its decision. I have to say, I really looked both ways at this issue, in the same way you should whenever you cross the street, even if there are no race cars.

So, looking one way, I can see where this might be really exciting for our community. I attended the Grand Prix race in Grand Rapids back in the late 1990s. It was co-sponsored by Charles Steen, the same man who is proposing a similar race in Grand Haven for 2013 or 2014. I’m not even a big race car fan. But I went to the Grand Prix in Grand Rapids back then with a group of co-workers mostly because of the spectacle of the event. I mean, race cars zooming through downtown streets was a pretty amazing idea. I have to say, it was rather exciting to see.

Such an event could be added to the number of activities we already have in the community to entertain the local residents and attract visitors, which boosts our local economy. We have the Coast Guard Festival, the Mackinaw Kite Festival, and a Salmon Festival. We also have a triathlon, beach pole vaulting and offshore powerboat races. Add to those the ArtWalk and concerts in the park and you have a picture of a pretty vibrant community. Why not add race cars to the mix?

I was also thinking about the new brand for the Grand Haven Main Street Downtown Development Authority. In addition to a refreshed logo, local merchants are now selling themselves as a way to “Escape the everyday, anyday.” (Note to branding committee, any day is two words). A Grand Prix race is certainly apart from the everyday experience of most people, no matter where they’re from. Since brands are supposed to be more than logos and slogans, and deliver an experience that is unique, a Grand Prix race could contribute to the downtown brand.

Then again, I looked at this the other way. Part of our reputation as a community is that we are relaxed, slower paced, a pleasant small town atmosphere. Bringing cars that drive faster and more recklessly than New York City taxis may not be consistent with that feeling. Unless we change the slogan to “Escape the everyday, any day (and look both ways for race cars).”

Presumably, having an event of this uniqueness and magnitude would serve the purpose of bringing attention and visitors to Grand Haven. Holding it downtown supposedly would boost the local business. But is speeding race cars really conducive to a pleasant shopping experience? In addition to quality and variety of merchandise, three of the biggest factors in attracting shoppers to downtown retail districts are parking, walkability, and safety. A Grand Prix race would seem to have a negative affect on all three of those things.

The majority opinion should also be considered. Attracting visitors makes sense, but is this the type of event all business owners downtown endorse? As for residents, how many of them want something like this or are opposed to it as something that upsets the quality if life they expect? City leaders also need to balance the interests of the business community and what might attract visitors with the needs and feelings of residents who feel the peace and fewer people is what makes Grand Haven special. Yogi Berra spoke to this years ago about another location when he said “that place is so busy no one goes there anymore.”

There’s also the issue of consistency in local government policy. Back in the summer of 2010, the Grand Haven city leaders decided to crack down on jaywalking. This would mean that a single pedestrian ambling across the street in mid-block is detrimental to our civic peace and security. Given that, it’s hard to say that a fleet of high performance race cars blurring past our newly constructed bump-outs makes an important civic and economic contribution. Race cars may deter jaywalking, but the policies seem at odds with each other logically.

Well, the next step is only to study the issue, so we don’t know for sure if a Grand Prix will happen in Grand Haven. But if it happens and you’re opposed to it, at least you’ll have one consolation: it will be over very fast.