By Jerry Jones
Marc Specter and Brian Lenz, Grand Rapids natives, stare back at me across our table tucked away in a corner of Panera Bread off the East Beltline. Specter takes the lead most of the time, shifting dramatically between big bursts of ideas and quiet, humble tributes to the charities GrandCon will be helping Sept. 20 to 22 as he and Lenz bring the first ever board game and comic convention to the Prince Conference Center at Calvin College. He’s the born businessman of the two, peppering sound bites effortlessly through our conversation, taking measured stock of me and stealing glances at his phone every chance he can get while taking large gulps of coffee.
“Grand Rapids is right for this.” Lenz tells me, speaking up softly for the first time. “There is a lot going on here right now. Grand Rapids has always been into the creative arts and it’s such great social atmosphere. There so much that ties in with our convention.”
Lenz takes over now as the conversation drifts to the past and growing up geek. Lenz’s lifelong love of all things nerd started from very young. “I played board games when I was young and a little bit of Dungeons and Dragons in my early twenties, but then I got involved in my work in software and it slipped by,” Lenz confesses to me. That may have been the end to the story had he not received an invitation to GenCon, the largest board game convention in North America, 3 years ago. The convention has become a mecca for tabletop gamers, live action role players, magic the gathering collectors, and indeed, anyone that loves cardboard.
GenCon, held annually, attracts more than 50,000 people to Indianapolis, Ind. for four days each summer. It was here Lenz rediscovered his love for board games, only they were different then the ones he had remembered from his youth.
Gone were the typical plastic houses, paper money and letter tiles. Replaced with thousands of board games of varying themes. Elaborate strategy games taking hours, quick games using foam guns and interactive boards. A world of creativity and imagination far beyond mass market games such as Monopoly. Worlds where you could be a gangster, a king or a settler. Games that got people involved, sitting around with each other and talking. Communities of geeks spending time with one another, not to shoot something mindlessly on a screen, but to talk, think, strategize, and compete. A notion of intimacy that the digital age had close to wiped out.
Lenz made a promise to himself that when he returned to Grand Rapids, he would build a piece of that community himself. “I wanted that family of gamers,” Lenz admits. Months later, the Western Michigan Tabletop Gamers Association was born, ballooning to over 300 members within 2 years. Elsewhere, Marc Specter was also quietly building a board game community.
“While he was building WMTGA, I was putting together the Grand Gaming Academy and building alliances with publishers,” Specter explains. “We taught games at conventions and the group just kept gaining more members.”
Meeting through charity events, the two developed a friendship that eventually lead to the creation of L&S Entertainment, a company designed for the sole purpose of bringing that same convention magic to center stage in Grand Rapids. “I kept thinking, there is a convention here, it’s boiling, and there is a convention here,” Lenz tells me excitedly. “There are tons of people involved now and it’s really grown. Then Marc called me one day and said it was time, and I knew he was right. It was time.”
GrandCon aimed to bring the imaginative world of gaming and comic books to Grand Rapids. The combination, they realized, would allow two completely different worlds to interact with each other. Specter and Lenz felt that the two unique industries could compliment each other greatly.
“There is a huge genre lap between board games and comics,” Specter explains. “They might be two independent industries, but they feed each other. Some people say they don’t understand that, but from where we stand, nothing is more clear.”
The two combined efforts, using every favor and contact they had. Celebration Cinema was among the first to realize the potential for their idea. “Celebration Cinema saw our vision in 10 minutes,” Specter excitedly booms. “They saw our vision and they wanted in. That gave us the platform to go to other organizations with some increased legitimacy for our idea and say: ‘Do you want to be a part of this?’”
Within months, Specter and Lenz were making phone calls, opening vendor spots and contacting game and comic companies. They exhausted their Rolodex, called in favors and gathered the communities they had both worked so hard to establish. GrandCon, as they saw it, was a way of both realizing their childhood dreams and making Grand Rapids a better place. “A dollar of every ticket goes to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, our goal is to raise sixty-eight hundred dollars for the foundation before the conventions up,” Specter tells me.
A portion of nearly everything bought and sold at GrandCon goes straight to The Helen Devos Children’s Hospital Foundation. There are over a dozen local businesses serving as vendors and artists have been brought in from all over Michigan. Attendance is expected to be over a thousand.
Although for Specter and Lenz GrandCon is about more than money, it’s hard not to look at the bottom line. GenCon brings 50,000 people into Indianapolis every year, flooding the cities economy. The impact on business is so powerful that the city reshapes itself the weekend of GenCon in order to prepare. Restaurants and shops decorate and reprint menu’s to fit the theme, food trucks line up for blocks, and hotels are sold out 3 months in advance. It has a substantial impact on the local economy.
Flowing through art, entertainment, family values, charity organizations and local businesses, there is not a bit of Grancon that does not benefit Grand Rapids. 3 days of events going 24/7, impacting every avenue of the local community. More than that, it’s a place for those who love or are interested in board games, comics, cosplay, LARPing, and all things geek to find a home. For Specter and Lenz, fueled off the realization of a dream, this is just a beginning.
“Coming into this, we said if we couldn’t have a second year, we wouldn’t have a first. We wanted to build something permanent,” Specter smiles at me. “It would be fun to quit real life and have this fun life all the time, but it’s going to take awhile to build that up. The way it’s going now though, that future is very bright.”
As we finish, they pack up quickly and rush out the door, onto the next of a long line of meetings. I begin to pack up when Specter barges back in, carrying a GrandCon poster which he sticks to an empty spot on the coffee house poster board.
“It’s all about the community” he says, laughing at himself. Before I can respond, he’s gone.
|Marc Specter & Brian Lenz’s Personal Favorite Events|
|Wednesday, Sept. 18th6 p.m. to 10 p.m.: GrandCon Night at Brann’s. 15 percent of every bill goes to Helen Devos Children’s Hospital Foundation.|
|Friday, Sept. 20th10 a.m. to 12 noon.: World Building Seminar Pt. 1 (Basics; Tracy Hickman, Ed Greenwood, Steven Schend, and Jeff Grubb)6:30 p.m.: William Stouts Masters of the Universe Charity Event at Celebration Cinema North. (Greens screen photos and a “By the Power of Greyskull” contest) We will pick 5 random people from the audience and whoever gets the best cheers wins a drawing of Skeletor. ($10 ticket part of the proceeds goes to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation)|
|Saturday, Sept. 21st 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. A Day in the Life of Bill Stout Seminar (Free)9 a.m. to 10 a.m.: Publishing the Game (Boyan Radakovich, Christopher Badell, Colby Dauch, Uwe Eickert) experts sharing their success stories about publishing a board game and doing it on their own. (Free)1 p.m. to 3 p.m. World Building Seminar Pt. 2 (Advanced; Ed Greenwood, Steven Schend, and Jeff Grubb) (Free)|
|Sunday, Sept 22nd8 a.m. to 10 a.m.: “Killer Breakfast” Charity Event (Tracy & Laura Hickman, Jeff Grubb, Ed Greenwood DM’s; All proceeds go to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation)|
|So many more not to miss!For full details, tickets and schedule, visit Grand-Con.com|