Muskegon celebrates groundbreaking on $19 million convention center in heart of downtown

Officials break ground on the $19 million convention center in downtown Muskegon on Wednesday, May 8. Photo courtesy of Visit Muskegon

Amid chilly May temperatures and a showing of protesters from local construction trades, Muskegon officials gathered on Fourth Street Wednesday for a ceremony decades in the making. A diverse crowd of Muskegon County supporters celebrated the groundbreaking of the new $19 million Muskegon Convention Center. Backers have high hopes the center will bring larger meetings and conventions to Muskegon, fueling economic growth and exposing more business and convention travelers to all that Muskegon has to offer.

Located in the heart of downtown, the convention center will cover what is now Fourth Street between Western Avenue and Shoreline Drive. The center will connect to the former Holiday Inn Muskegon Harbor, newly renovated and rebranding as Delta by Marriott, and L.C. Walker Arena. The hotel, which opened in 1986, is undergoing $6 million in renovations and will debut as Delta by Marriott in early June.

The new convention center will be one of only three in West Michigan, made possible through a public/private partnership involving the city, county, and Parkland Properties. It is being funded with county accommodation taxes and assessments collected from hotels within the city of Muskegon.

Several speakers took to the podium to praise the downtown’s recent progress and a convention center that has been a long time in the making. A 2014 study validated that a convention center would open up new markets, provide new jobs for the community, and stimulate economic growth. One of the biggest obstacles to landing large conventions has been a lack of adequate space, said Visit Muskegon Director Bob Lukens.

“This is a great day in Muskegon and Muskegon County,” he said. “…It’s finally here and we’re excited about it.”

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In about a month, Fourth Street will close for work on the foundation to begin. The 45,000-square-foot convention center is slated to open in early 2021. Together with the hotel and L.C. Walker Arena, it will create a “dynamic convention and exposition campus” with entrances at Shoreline Drive, Western Avenue, and Third Street, Visit Muskegon noted in its press release.

There will be another 8,500 square feet of breakout and banquet facilities at the Delta by Marriott, which is an upscale flag and the fastest-growing chain by Marriott International.  

“When I look at all of the incredible things that are going on in Muskegon, I am just humbled to be a part of it,” said Jon Rooks, owner of Parkland Properties, the Holiday Inn and the Shoreline Inn.

Officials believe the convention center will boost visitors to the city in the colder months, support businesses during slower seasons, and encourage people to make Muskegon a year-round place to work, live, and recreate.

Parkland Properties agreed to do four major things to make the incoming venue happen: invest $6 million to renovate and rebrand Holiday Inn, as well as provide $2 million for repairs at the hotel; donate additional land next to the hotel for the project; agree to cover all deficits and absorb any losses from the operation of the convention center; and self-assess an additional room tax on the 340 hotel rooms in the Delta Hotels by Marriott and the Shoreline Inn to provide for the bond payments to fund the convention center so no resident tax dollars are involved. Rooks’ Parkland Acquisitions Two LLC is slated to manage the convention center operations.

“That’s how important we believe the convention center is for our community and the community’s future, and we’re glad to do our part to make it a reality,” Rooks said. “…It’s a desperately needed convention center, and it will be modern, hip, and popular.”

Rooks praised city and county leaders, the business and philanthropic community, and everyday people committed to pushing the area forward and creating an entertainment district that attracts residents, visitors, and investors.

“All across Muskegon and West Michigan, the ‘Watch Us Go’ flags, banners, and billboards can be seen standing proud,” he said. “We have all bought into the idea of what Muskegon is and can be, and others are taking watch.”

Susie Hughes, chairwoman of the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners, said Muskegon is a city of friendly people and a community with world-class culture and beautiful freshwater beaches.

Muskegon offers much for visitors and convention goers, from parks and museums to boating, fishing and other water sports, Hughes emphasized.

“We finally found ourselves, and we can’t wait to share the beauty, diversity, uniqueness and culture we have here,” she said.

City of Muskegon Mayor Stephen Gawron speaks during the groundbreaking ceremony. Photo by Marla Miller

Muskegon Mayor Stephen Gawron said he never subscribed to the idea that “if you build it, they will come.” But, in this instance, he believes the convention center is a needed addition because they are coming.

The number of groups and events continues to increase and “we do need this place to welcome them in.” Gawron credits the renewed interest and investment in downtown, by large and small entrepreneurs, for spurring this next phase of development.

“I believe the big, little incremental projects we’ve brought forth to create a wonderful sense of place called Muskegon have provided the appeal to draw folks in,” he said.

The breweries, distilleries, coffee shops, sports and cultural facilities, and colleges’ and cruise ships’ presence have all put “a cherry on top of our grand dessert, the lakes and the shoreline,” Gawron said. He also praised the collaboration between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

“For all you involved in this enterprise, and all the great work going on throughout greater Muskegon and the county, thank you for your grand vision and efforts that I know we all hope will add to the energy of this vibrant city, this vibrant greater Muskegon and this vibrant Muskegon County,” he said.    

As someone who lived in Grand Rapids during the planning and building of DeVos Place Convention Center, Tom Schultz, board chairman of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, noted how it and Van Andel Arena revived and reshaped the greater Grand Rapids area.

The convention center has been discussed for decades and is estimated to generate $10 million in economic impact for Muskegon County and its tourism partners, along with many new jobs needed for the construction and operation of the center, Schultz said.

Everyone at the chamber is excited for what the future holds and the benefits the center will provide for years to come, he noted.

“We’re equally excited about the new people that are going to be coming to the Muskegon area to take part in the conventions,” Schultz said. “…People that will get to experience firsthand what all of us know is a hidden gem on the lakeshore.”

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As city and county officials praised all the recent downtown development, local construction workers peacefully stood by in protest of jobs going to out-of-town contractors and workers.

Last week, the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners voted 5-3 to remove any mention of prevailing wage for the building of the convention center. The original agreement, developed between the county and the city of Muskegon late last year, called for the city to only employ local workers who would be paid a prevailing wage.

“There’s been a history of publicly funded projects using out-of-town laborers,” said Ryan Bennett, a spokesperson for West Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. “We’re just here to let the decision makers know that there is a lot of support for local workers.”

Bennett, a plumber and pipefitter, said prevailing wage protects local construction wages, but it’s not about union versus non-union as much as putting local laborers to work.

“A lot of these developments, we see the vans come in from other cities,” he said. “Who’s going to look out for us? The longer we can keep these dollars in the county, the more they kick around.”

Story by Marla R. Miller, a freelance writer and journalist who lived in downtown Muskegon when it was a pile of rubble. She is happy to report on the city’s resurgence. To reach Marla, you can email her at marlarmillerwrites@gmail.com or visit her website by clicking here.

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