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Urban Agriculture Committee seeking input from City residents

Comprised of residents and leaders from Grand Rapids schools, nonprofits, and community organizations, the Grand Rapids Urban Agriculture Committee is partnering with the City of Grand Rapids “to grow and enhance the local food system, quality of life, and public health.” The committee loosely defines urban agriculture as “producing food to eat or sell in the city by growing plants and/or raising animals.”

However, this simple definition gives rise to several complex issues. For one, who will grow the food? Will it be city residents and small, local farmers, or high-powered agricultural industrialists looking for investment opportunities? Also, who will eat the food? Neighborhood residents who currently have little access to healthy whole foods, or the clientele of high-end restaurants? Another consideration, how will urban ag projects impact the neighborhoods where they operate? Will they support the existing residential community or hasten gentrification and higher housing costs?

For the past seven years, Lance Kraii has served as farm director for New City Neighbors on Grand Rapids’ northeast side. Because the farm is located on a parcel that is zoned residential, New City Farm has faced barriers to its operations that have little to do with preserving the residential character of the neighborhood. The main concern Kraii hopes the committee addresses is zoning.

“For us, zoning is a big issue that we run into. The City of Detroit has zoning especially developed for farms like us. Grand Rapids doesn’t,” he says. “For example, the residential building code prevents temporary carports. The way they are described is a structure with metal poles and soft plastic cover. This prevents us from having a hoop house [a type of greenhouse made with a steel frame and soft plastic cover]. We had to build it as a greenhouse and put a hard-plastic top on that doubled the cost.”

New City Farm began with the goal of creating job opportunities for youth. Its location in a food-insecure neighborhood where many residents face income challenges, also positions the farm as a beacon for food justice. People purchasing CSA shares in the farm, which provide them with fresh produce on a weekly basis, can do so using EBT dollars and the Double Up Food Bucks program. However, while succeeding at its mission, the farm has made some unplanned impacts on the neighborhood, as well.

“Urban ag can be a part of the process of gentrification. Our farm has played a part in that. That’s a complex reality that we’re aware of and part of,” Kraii says. “Is it some outside organization moving in and claiming land? It’s really important with urban ag to pay attention to each specific project.”

These are the kinds of concerns that City residents will have opportunity to raise at upcoming community meetings hosted by the City’s Urban Agriculture Committee:

Community members can also share their thoughts online. The input will inform the Committee as it seeks to draft new zoning ordinances.

"School gardens, urban farms, [and] composting and educational initiatives have tremendous potential for shaping a city's fabric,” says Levi Gardner, Urban Roots founder and committee chair. “Through this community engagement process, we hope to better understand how these initiatives and many others like them fit into our growing city. While we are benchmarking against other cities in this process, we are welcoming Grand Rapids residents to voice their ideas, questions, and concerns about this work.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy New City Farm.


Robyn Porteen has a bag for that

A custom bag designer in business since 2010, Porteen Gear has opened its first retail store in the Creston neighborhood. Local customers can come in and design a custom-made bag to suit their style. From messenger-style bags, purses, and camera bags, to travel and bike bags, the shop’s motto is “We can make a bag for that!” Company president, Robyn Porteen, began her business venture somewhat by accident.

“I was a professional photographer and traveled. I decided I needed a camera bag that didn’t look like a camera bag. Someone saw it and had to have one,” she says. “I pushed a quarter-million dollars through Etsy the first year. Now I am one of the top 20 Etsy sellers. I make everything in Grand Rapids and sell worldwide.”

Over the years, Porteen Gear has been featured in print by Shutterbug Magazine, Professional Photography Magazine, Vogue UK, British GQ, and Conde Nast Traveler, among other publications. Porteen chose the Creston neighborhood because she used to live there and still enjoys shopping there. She felt that Creston was the perfect environment for expanding her business from e-commerce to bricks-and-mortar.

“It feels cozy and the neighborhood association is very tight,” she says. “The workshop is on site. When people come in, they are like a kids in a candy store. They get to create something that’s like a work of art. Come in, look at all the fabrics and leathers, and design a bag.”

Porteen encourages customers to bring in their cameras, laptops, baby’s diapers — whatever they need to tote with them — to determine dimensions for their custom bags. Then, they can choose a style and fabric from a wide variety of canvas, tapestry, and leather samples. In two to three weeks, they have their custom bag in hand. A small bag starts at $120. While Porteen still does the bulk of the work herself, she has hired on local seamstresses to lend a hand, especially with the holiday season coming up.

“Even though my bags last a lifetime, I have a lot of repeat customers,” Porteen says. “I have one customer who owns 21 of my bags, a bag for every season and use.”

Complementing the bag design area, Porteen Gear’s retail area features sunglasses, candles, camera straps, journals, and wallets from U.S. artisans like Stormy Kromer, WUDN, Soothi, and Rogue Industries. Porteen hopes to showcase more local makers in the near future. She also has plans for offering make-it and take-it classes, for example, making a classic clutch. Located at 1519 Plainfield Ave. NE, Porteen Gear is open 12 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

“Customization is the trend,” Porteen says. “Hopefully, I am blazing a trail in Grand Rapids for customer design.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Porteen Gear

What's "Good For Grand Rapids" is "Good For Michigan"

In 2017, Local First launched its Good For Grand Rapids programming, recognizing businesses that make a positive impact on employees, local communities, and the environment. On September 20, Local First announced an expansion of the initiative across Michigan from Grand Rapids to the Lakeshore, Traverse City to Ann Arbor, and beyond.

“We’ve heard from businesses across Michigan that they want to replicate Good for Grand Rapids in their own communities. Good For Michigan is an opportunity for businesses statewide to demonstrate their social and environmental impact,” says Elissa Sangalli Hillary, Local First president. “We believe good business matters and Good For Michigan recognizes businesses that go above and beyond to do good in their communities and create opportunities for people to thrive and succeed.”

Like Good for Grand Rapids, Good For Michigan recognizes companies using business as a force for good. Any business that can demonstrate its positive impact on employees, its community, and the environment can join. An online assessment enables companies to measure their positive impacts. Nearly 100 businesses have taken the assessment over the past year.

Community Automotive Repair is a Grand Rapids business that’s been making those kinds of impacts for the past 40 years. When Local First introduced the Good For Grand Rapids program, the shop was an easy fit.

“I’ve always been interested in environmental issues,” says owner Richard Zaagman. “We try to recycle as much as we can at the shop — 95 percent of the heat that we use is obtained from waste oil. This has been something we’ve done for 40 years. We recycle metal, the steel products we take off vehicles, and paper, of course.”

Community Automotive Repair’s new, LEED-certified, two-story addition brings its total number of windows to more than 200. Zaagman wants his staff to enjoy the benefits of natural light, fresh air, and a comfortable work environment. He also feels it’s important to create a space that people living in the community appreciate. Instead of a brick wall, passersby can see right into the shop and observe the vehicles and techs at work. At the end of each work day, the staff puts an interesting vehicle up on a hoist under the low-energy LED lights. As the shop specializes in imports like Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes, these are quite a sight to see.

“I can’t say that I’m motivated by a financial perspective,” Zaagman says. “The extra money that we invested in our building isn’t necessarily something that comes back to us as a return-on-investment. But it’s not just about money. It might cost you a little more to treat your employees the way you’d want to be treated, but in the long run, you end up with better, more long-term employees. The more stable your business is, the better it is for the community and the city.”

In addition to recognizing businesses making these specific positive impacts, the Good For Michigan program seeks to encourage more Michigan businesses to seek Certified B Corporation (B Corps) designation. B Corps businesses balance profit and purpose by meeting high standards in the areas of social and environmental performance, transparency, and legal accountability. Good For Michigan also offers an online assessment that helps businesses determine if they qualify for the designation. Current West Michigan companies with Certified B Corps designation include Brewery Vivant, Cascade Engineering, Essence Restaurant Group, The Gluten Free Bar, Highland Group, and Image Shoppe.

In addition, Good For Michigan offers resources and best practices for sustainability and social good, and provides educational workshops, programs, and events.

“Local First’s Good for Grand Rapids initiative has positively impacted our city, and we are excited that they are taking the campaign statewide to new communities,” says Trevor Corlett, CEO of Madcap Coffee Company and Local First board member.

“Good For Michigan recognizes the growing number of businesses that are taking steps to make a positive impact on people and the environment, and we are looking forward to seeing more businesses partner with Good For Michigan in their own communities.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Local First and Community Automotive Repair


GR one of 12 "Cities of Opportunity": Initiative to develop equitable solutions for residents

In many ways, Grand Rapids is a tale of two cities. One is a story of success in green building, economic growth, and renewal of aging neighborhoods. Here, initiatives like Michigan street’s Medical Mile and Grand Valley State University’s downtown expansion have brought in scores of affluent professional residents while downtown has transformed from a ghost town into a hotspot.

The other story tells about people with income challenges and people of color facing overwhelming economic, housing, and health challenges. Here, disparities in infant mortality, longevity, income, and incarceration underscore the presence of institutional racism and a lack of living wage jobs.

The City of Grand Rapids has been working hard to change these conflicting narratives. It has adopted a Racial Equity Plan, established a department of Diversity and Inclusion, joined the Racial Equity Here Cohort, was selected for The Mayor’s Challenge, and recently created a Rental Assistance Center for low-income households. Because of its work for equity across these and other initiatives, Grand Rapids has been chosen as one of 12 cities to join the National League of Cities (NLC) Cities of Opportunity initiative.

“Grand Rapids has really been undertaking a lot of initiatives related to equity,” says Alex Melton, City of Grand Rapids community liaison. “We were able to work with a lot of leading experts in the public sector to bring together all of our equity-related data sets. This is work we always knew that we wanted to do, that is really important for the city. This gave us the opportunity to really hone in on how to do this the best way.”

Other cities chosen for the Initiative are Lansing, Michigan; Atlanta and East Point, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Charlotte, North Carolina; Fort Collins, Colorado; Hopewell and Roanoke, Virginia; Huntington, West Virginia; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Rancho Cucamonga, California. In its pilot phase, this NLC effort will bring these cities together to implement cross-cutting and collaborative approaches in three challenge areas: economic opportunity, healthy and affordable housing, and city planning and design.

“Some of the cities are vastly different in terms of geography and demographic makeup, but a lot of the issues are similar. For example, affordable housing is an issue across the nation,” Melton says. “It will really be beneficial for us to learn from bigger cities at their level and scale and then change our approach, scale it to Grand Rapids.”

As new initiatives are moved forward locally, the City plans on engaging community members for input and feedback. Residents will be engaged via social media, focus groups, and other outreach methods that are tracked to ensure voices from all neighborhoods and demographics are heard.

“It will be very worthwhile to get residents’ feedback upfront,” Melton says.

The NLC states that the goal is “to help local leaders build cities where all residents can reach their potential and live productive, fulfilling, and healthy lives in thriving communities — and ultimately ensure cities of opportunity for all residents.” In October, City of Grand Rapids representatives will begin working with their peers from the other cities in Atlanta.

“I am thrilled that Grand Rapids will collaborate with other cities on ways to improve factors that affect the health of our communities and our residents,” says Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. “We have many exciting initiatives rooted in racial equity that align with the Cities of Opportunity priority areas.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids


Rapid Glance: September news bits from the City of Grand Rapids

On Sept. 11, the Grand Rapids Police Policy and Procedure Review Task Force released 38 recommendations identified in six areas to address disparate outcomes and strengthening community and police relations. “This is not a top-to-bottom look at the police department. It’s looking at these six areas and how they may lead to disparities,” says Ron Davis, principal of 21st Century Policing and Task Force’s facilitator. Read more HERE.

From Sept. 16 through 21, Teresa Severini, deputy mayor of culture, tourism, and universities of Perugia, Italy, was in Grand Rapids to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Grand Rapids and Perugia. To commemorate the milestone, Ms. Severini participated in the signing of the declaration of the 25th anniversary. In October, Mayor Bliss and Chef Jenna Arcididacono of local restaurant Amore Trattoria Italiana will lead a food tour group to Umbria, Italy, with a stop in Perugia to celebrate the signing of the 25th anniversary document, as well. Read more HERE.

On Sept. 18, the Grand Rapids Police Civilian Appeal Board released a report of its 2016 and 2017 activities, including the adoption of bylaws, an educational effort to ensure community members know how to access the board and GRPD’s Internal Affairs Unit, and a total of four appeal hearings, among other highlights. Read more HERE.

On Sept. 21, the City celebrated its 65th Anniversary Civil Rights Celebration, “Braiding Generations: Past, Present and Future," featuring keynote speaker Angela Rye, an attorney, CEO of IMPACT Strategies, commentator on CNN, and NPR analyst. Helen Jackson Claytor Civil Rights Awards were presented to Elias Lumpkins, former Grand Rapids Third Ward city commissioner; Nancy Haynes, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan; and Lorena Aguayo-Márquez, Kellogg community recruitment specialist at Grand Rapids Community College. Read more HERE.

On Sept. 27, Third Ward residents can join Third Ward commissioners, Senita Lenear and Nathaniel Moody, for their fall listening tour, 6 to 8 p.m. at Beacon Hill Community House Auditorium, 1919 Boston St. SE. A second session takes place 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30 at Gerald R. Ford Academic Center, 851 Madison Ave. SE. Read more HERE.

The City of Grand Rapids Clerk’s Office is hiring Election Day workers for midterm elections, Tuesday, Nov. 6. Election workers must be U.S. citizens, 16 or older, and registered voters if at least 18. Workers are paid for training and earn between $150 and $175 on Election Day. Read more HERE.


Transformando West Michigan helps Latinx restaurants achieve more than a delicious menu

Grand Rapids’ authentic Mexican restaurants serve some of the most delicious cuisine in the area. Traditional recipes, authentic ingredients, and highly seasoned culinary skills are evident in every bite. However, it takes more than good food to make a restaurant a profitable endeavor. Business savvy, marketing know-how, and financial management expertise are important ingredients, as well.

The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is stepping in to provide those skills — in Spanish. Thanks to up to $94,628 in support from the City of Grand Rapids’ Economic Development Corporation (EDC), “Transformando West Michigan Phase I: Feeding Minds, Mouths and Pockets” is currently working with 21 representatives from 11 existing food businesses to provide essential skills for a successful business owner.

“Our support of this program aligns with the City’s commitment to collaborate with entrepreneurial support organizations to serve entrepreneurs at the neighborhood level, create new businesses, and increase the diversity of business types downtown,” says Kara Wood, the City’s managing director of economic development services.

Food businesses participating in the program include El Desayuno Loco, El Globo Restaurant, El Granjero Mexican Grill, El Jalapeño Food Truck, El Toro Bravo, La Casa del Pollo Loco, Lindo Mexico, Mi Casa Restaurante, Tacos El Cuñado Bridge St., Tamales Mary, and Taquería El Rincón Mexicano.

As part of the first phase, Culinary Cultivations will teach ServSafe food safety certification.

“It’s not just business owners but cooks, managers, those who wanted to be a part of this first food safety certification,” says Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber. “These programs focus on established businesses that have been struggling for years with no access to capital, no processes, and no systems in place.”

Cisneros shares that of the 11 restaurants currently enrolled, 80 percent don’t even have a financial strategy.

“They are excellent at cooking. Their food is amazing. But, they don’t know how to grow their businesses. The beauty of this program is that all of the knowledge we are bringing is in Spanish. Ninety percent of the participants in these programs feel more comfortable in Spanish. Sometimes these concepts are hard to understand even in your own language. If we want them to grow and implement processes, they need to fully understand.”

In subsequent phases of the Transformando program, consultants and volunteers will share information about accounting, human resources, marketing, and technology. Having these skills and strategies will also enable the businesses to find financing for building improvements and expansion.

“In order for them to get a loan, they first need to put their systems in place and be organized internally. There's no way for them to get loans because they don’t have a financial statement,” Cisneros says. “It’s is not a racism thing. The businesses are not prepared.”

Cisneros has great gratitude for the partnerships that make the program possible. Funds from the Wege Foundation allowed the Hispanic Chamber to hire a bilingual and bicultural program manager, Ana Jose, to coach all of the program participants. Brewery Vivant, Martha’s Vineyard, MeXo, Restaurant Partners, Inc., and Terra GR are providing volunteer mentors for program participants. Principal Financial is flying Spanish-speaking teachers in from Phoenix, Arizona at no charge. Gordon Food Services and Varnum Law are providing financial support and in-kind services. In addition, the Grand Valley State University Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is sending a professor and business students to help participants write business plans.

“We are bringing incredible partners,” Cisneros says. “The next cohort will include human resources and customer service. Gradually, we will be bringing all of the knowledge and surround all of the businesses with experts. The mentors are volunteers but some consultants are paid. Also, the participants pay a fee in order to be a part of the cohort. It’s not free. There is commitment from these restaurants, as well.”

Launched in May 2018, the Transformando program is a first in the history of the Hispanic Chamber. Its long-standing “Talleres Empresariales,” a monthly business workshop, addresses different topics for all types of businesses on the fourth Thursday of each month. Conducted in Spanish, the workshop includes a free breakfast and one-hour presentation.

“We firmly believe that for the economy of the entire region to prosper, we need each community working at the same pace. If we have a strong Latino business community, we will see the benefits in the economy of the entire region. These businesses will contribute more taxes and hire more people — all will benefit,” Cisneros says. “That’s the main goal, that we can have everyone on the same playing field.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor.

Photos courtesy West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.


Unexpected duo demolishes stereotypes with their handy-work

As West Michigan’s housing market continues its frenzy of home sales, sellers are anxious to make repairs and improvements that ensure they get top dollar. Handywoman, Kate Kaminski, and handyman, Darius Williams, are two locals doing the work.

Kaminski grew up with tools in her hands — her father and grandfather were both builders, so she found plenty of tools around. While other fathers might object to their daughters playing with saws, hammers, nuts, and bolts, Kaminski’s dad encouraged her inclinations.

“My dad taught me everything. He never told me ‘No,’ that I couldn’t do something,” she says. “I remember as a kid, I’d go in quietly, take the tools, some nails, and go out and build forts and stuff. Dad would be at the window, watching what I was doing, making sure I was okay, but never stopped me.”

After finishing a bachelor of fine arts that focused on sculpture, Kaminski operated a Boyne City gallery shop that featured her own jewelry as well as work by local and international artists. As a next step, she moved to New Hampshire. When her parents disclosed that her father was in the last stages of cancer, she offered to come back to the Grand Rapids area to help. Her mother suggested she move into her grandmother’s empty house and fix it up so they could put it on the market.

“When the Realtor that my mom chose saw what I could do, she told me, ‘I can keep you really busy.’ I thought about it a little bit, decided I could use some work, and it kind of took off from there,” Kaminski says. “We do all that little handy stuff, pound a nail here, put up a door there.”

Work took off so well that Kaminski brought another person on board to help. Darius Williams rounds out Kaminski’s skill-set quite nicely. As a team, they can tackle a very wide range of home fix-it and remodel projects. They are staying so busy that Kaminski has plans to hire a third team member in the spring.

“We do painting, sanding, trim work, laying floors, and tile. We just did some concrete work in a basement,” Kaminski says. “Darius has the same kind of experience that I do. He can do a little plumbing and electrical — he’s a little more knowledgeable than I am with those.”

The duo refers any major or complex electrical and plumbing chores to technicians licensed in those trades.

When Kaminski and Williams knock on a door, some customers are surprised to be face-to-face with a white woman and African-American man. However, once they see their level of expertise, the surprise turns to gratitude and stereotypes dissolve.

“The clients I have been working with have been pretty cool. Most of them are surprised when I come in through the door. On one job, it was so funny watching peoples’ expressions. We kind of surprise them. Once we start doing the work, we get compliments,” Kaminski says. “I’m sure I probably don’t look like the typical handyperson, which kind of goes along with Darius, too.”

Don’t try to find Kaminski online or via social media. She’s too busy working — and finds plenty of work by word-of-mouth.

“I like that every day is different, that I am not in an office building. If I had to sit in front of a computer all day, I’d be drooling on the keyboard,” she says. “I love the different challenges to fix something, improve something. I love seeing the outcome. It’s almost instant gratification.”

If you’d like to get in touch with Kaminski or WIlliams, email the RGM development news editor, Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy Kate Kaminski.


Grant dollars increase local LGBT older adults' access to care and resources

The Grand Rapids Pride Center and the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan (AAAWM) are taking action for older LGBT adults thanks to a Michigan Health Endowment Fund grant. SAGE Metro Detroit, in partnership with the ACLU of Michigan, is leveraging the $400,000 to launch a statewide LGBT and Aging Initiative.

In Grand Rapids, the Initiative will support developing a directory of gay and supportive businesses, healthcare providers, and resources that specifically targets older lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender adults. In addition, the Grand Rapids Pride Center will offer trainings at area businesses and healthcare facilities so more LGBT-friendly resources will become available. Trainings have already been held at Arbor Circle, Meijer, Kent County Friend of the Court, and Farmers’ Insurance. The Grand Rapids Pride Center has provided a LGBTQ Resource Directory for all ages since 1988.

“With this program, there is very specific information for older adults,” says Larry DeShane Jr., center administrator of Grand Rapids Pride Center .

In addition, the grant is funding a campaign, “Today is THE DAY,” that encourages older LGBT adults to pick up the phone and call Grand Rapids Pride Center for help connecting with the services they need.

“This initiative really fits inside of our mission of ‘Empowering our LGBTQ community through supportive services and awareness,’” DeShane says. “Sometimes you need directed services. I’ll be 46 years-old this year. I’ll need this — very soon.”

DeShane shares that older LGBT folks face phenomenal hurdles here in Grand Rapids. For one, the State of Michigan offers limited legal protections from discriminatory treatment. While the Michigan Department of Civil Rights recently expanded protections through the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act, as soon as it was defined for enforcement, Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a formal opinion stating that its protections do not extend to LGBTQ persons.

With many living isolated lives, Michigan’s aging LGBT population often lacks access to appropriate medical and mental health care and other needed resources. Older LGBT folks lived through harsher times. Marriage was not an option. So, many lack the support that a family or partner bring other aging populations.

“They could never hold a partner’s hand in public. Marriage was never even a thought. Thanks to them, I have more,” DeShane says. “Eighty percent of care for older adults, in general, is done by family members … Many LGBT people from this older generation do not have children. If they do, they are four times more likely not to be involved with those children’s lives.”

Because they reasonably fear discrimination, LGBT people often hide their sexuality from their doctors. Therefore, the elderly among them may not get the health screenings that they need.

“We find that many LGBT older adults do not feel comfortable sharing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and reach out for support only when they are enduring a health crisis,” says Jackie O’Connor, AAAWM executive director. “Not feeling accepted by your local community or personal healthcare provider increases the isolation experienced in LGBT seniors, leaving them at risk for serious health concerns.”

“Also, you’re less likely to tell your doctor the truth,” adds DeShane. “I have a gay doctor because I don’t have to educate him on my needs as a gay man.”

While Pilgrim Manor has recently been reaching out to the LGBTQ demographic, DeShane points out that most local assistive living and long-term healthcare facilities have religious affiliations — and no track record of working with the LGBTQ population. The costs of residential care are often too steep considering that most LGBTQ people are economically disadvantaged, as well.

“If you’re going in, you’re going into the closet,” he says. “I’ve heard accounts of nurses still double gloving and double masking when working with patients with HIV. I heard another account of a [gay man’s] roommate who got violent, screaming that he ‘didn’t want to share the room with a fag.’”

Homebound elderly LGBT people fear repercussions, as well. Many fear for their safety when home healthcare or home repair workers come into their homes. As Grand Rapids has a rising number of housing violations stemming from landlords refusing to rent to LGBTQ tenants, another fear is homelessness.

“A lot of time, they go back in the closet. They have to de-gay their homes,” DeShane says. “It’s quite rancid — to only live openly out for a third of your life and be safe. [Going back in the closet] leads to depression, suicide, suicidal ideation, riskier sexual behaviors, the potential of not protecting yourself, and higher risks for HIV.”

DeShane concludes that the entire Grand Rapids area community benefits when everyone, including its LGBTQ residents, has access to needed resources and care.

“One, you have happier, healthier, more well-adjusted older adults. Two, by reducing barriers to care, including mental health, you reduce stress on the infrastructure. Every time you make people healthier, you reduce costs for everybody. End of life is so much harder for marginalized communities. Why not work towards making it easier? That’s just the right thing to do.”

Those needing services can call Grand Rapids Pride Center, 616-458-3511, or Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan, 616-456-5664.

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor


Museum School high school on exhibit

On the morning of August 15th, students, teachers, administrators, local officials, and community members celebrated the opening of the Grand Rapids Public Museum School high school in the old Public Museum building, 54 Jefferson Ave. SE.

After the ribbon cutting, highlighted by remarks from 9th graders Jourdin Merrill and Haley Miller, tours and a street party continued the celebration. Those old enough to remember visits to the building when it functioned as a museum appreciated a renovation that has not altered the character of the building.

“The purpose of all the spaces is to be dynamic and used in different ways for different purposes,” says Chris Hanks, Museum School principal.

The main hall remains intact, its display cases updated for exhibits made by the school’s students. North of the main hall, the front half of the first floor is a multi-purpose space for theatre, music, and videography. A large common area and glass-walled rehearsal spaces have all the tech needed to support student projects. Retractable glass doors opening on the main hall open up both spaces for large group activities. The back half provides instructional space and labs for studying existing museum artifacts, processing new artifacts for the collection, and designing exhibits. In addition, the building connects to the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s archives building.

“The students will have a close relationship with (the Public Museum’s) curatorial staff,” Hanks says. “They will bring artifacts here. They will do research on artifacts and learn about protecting and preserving artifacts.”

South of the main hall, a small cafeteria offers limited seating as students and teachers will be encouraged to eat lunch together in collaborative spaces throughout the school. To the front, the design lab brings shop class into the 21st century.

“Design lab is an arts space, a maker space. I think of it like shop class for creative professionals,” Hanks says. “Students will do a lot of computer-based design. We have a 3D printer, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, all sorts of printing, a miter saw, and other tools. A separate clean lab maintains air quality for the 3D printers and laser cutters. We hope our students will start businesses using that equipment, serving small businesses downtown.”

Upstairs, the north wing, dedicated to English, language arts, science, and social studies, has classrooms on either side with a large, casual common space in between. The curriculum is organized for three or four teachers to co-teach 80 to 90 students in different configurations. The south wing is set up for teaching design, tech, and mathematics. Throughout the school, video displays, mics, and speakers give every student front-row access to instruction. Built-in benches along both long upstairs hallways provide further space for students to study or collaborate in small groups.

“It is a different model in the sense that we are trying to break down barriers between teachers and students,” Hanks says. “We encourage them to have lunch together, work together, and collaborate.”

The ribbon-cutting event not only celebrated the Museum School’s expansion but also applauded its status as one of ten XQ Super Schools in the U.S. The XQ: The Super School Project launched in September 2015 as an open call to rethink and design the American high school.

When the public museum was first founded, the Grand Rapids School Board oversaw it; artifacts were displayed at Central High School. When Grand Rapids architect, Roger Allen, designed the 54 Jefferson building in the late 1930s, he created a space that met visitors at street level, symbolizing accessibility and free dissemination of knowledge to all. The GRPS Museum School “utilizes design thinking techniques, an immersive environment, and real-life experiences that inspire passionate curiosity, nurture creative problem solving, cultivate critical thinking, and instigate innovation.”

Reconnecting the historic Grand Rapids Public Museum building with Grand Rapids Public School students both honors its past and continues its original mission into the future.

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor


HireReach: Hiring strategy that reduces biases unexpectedly increased diversity

Michigan Works! and Talent 2025 have joined forces to launch HireReach, an initiative based on Mercy Health’s recent successes in revolutionizing its hiring practices. Mercy Health fills 3,200 positions per year, including 2,100 external hires. When the healthcare system developed an Evidence Based Selection Process (EBSP), the goal was to reduce turnover and improve job performance. After its launch in 2010, the EBSP strategy successfully accomplished those goals, in part, by eliminating biases that traditionally hamper the hiring process. With these biases out of the way, Mercy Health also reached another of its hiring goal by surprise: increased diversity. According to HireReach project manager Rachel Cleveland, Mercy Health hired nearly twice as many people of color as it had in years past.

“When Mercy Health first launched EBSP, they were looking to increase the quality of new hires and reduce turnover by finding the right person for the job. That was the focus and reason behind it,” Cleveland says. “However, we started tracking diversity to make sure there were no adverse impacts. What we found was quite the opposite.”

Cleveland agrees that the data shows that lessening personal biases helped to diminish the impact that racism played in the hiring process. Other data reflecting decreased turnover, improved customer satisfaction, and improved employee morale could be interpreted as showing racial discrimination is simply not good for business.

Mercy Health developed the EBSP to “complement the skills and experience of talented recruiters and hiring managers with data-driven methods and analysis.” EBSP evaluates candidates’ skills, knowledge, and abilities while eliminating unconscious bias by removing markers like names and appearance from most of the selection process.

“With EBSP, one of the things that really is valuable is its compensatory approach,” says Jacob Maas, CEO of West Michigan Works. “It uses assessments, two interviews, and a reference check and takes the results of all of those to come up with one score. EBSP looks at the candidate holistically instead of cutting them out because of one arbitrary score.”

By organizing open positions into job families with specific competencies, the process screens candidates’ cognitive and character features before they interview. This reduces reliance on personal impressions, which often reflect unconscious bias.

While providing employers the benefits of a more diverse workforce, reduced turnover, improved performance, boosted employee morale, and increased customer satisfaction, EBSP also benefits job seekers and new hires because they are happier doing a job that fits their skill-set and personality traits.

“EBSP ensures they are a good fit. That’s where we see the dual benefit,” Maas says. “It’s all about the job seeker being a good fit so they can grow and be successful in that organization.”

To introduce West Michigan employers to the EBSP initiative, HireReach is hosting four Employer Awareness Workshops: August 22 at Herman Miller in Zeeland; September 12 in Spring Lake; October 3 at ADAC Automotive in Muskegon; and October 31 at Mercy Health St. Mary’s in Grand Rapids. The free, three-hour workshops will provide an EBSP overview, an introduction to HireReach, a panel discussion with Mercy Health, and structured table discussions to help participants plan next steps. For information, email Rachel Cleveland or Whitney White at info@hirereach.org.

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos Courtesy Talent 2025, West Michigan Works!


SpringGR launching local entrepreneurs who have ideas and little else

In 2015, Stephanie Dolly and her children flew from Atlanta to Grand Rapids to live closer to family. She did not have a job waiting for her — all she had was an idea and $40 to invest. SpringGR empowered her to take her idea for a custom cake and sweet treats bakery, Dolly’s Delights, from dream to reality. According to Arlene Campbell, the grassroots nonprofit’s chief creator of opportunities, Dolly is now known as the “Willy Wonka of Grand Rapids.” In April 2018, Start Garden chose Dolly as one of its 100 finalists in its “100 Ideas” competition, earning her $1,000 to invest in her business.

 

“She basically had everything against her, no money, nothing,” Campbell says. “She is a great story of drive and tenacity. She didn’t allow obstacles to hold her back.”

 

Dolly is also a great story of SpringGR’s approach to launching Grand Rapids area entrepreneurs into successful small businesses. Its 12-week business training experience teaches people with ideas, like Dolly, who want to start and succeed in their own businesses. The coursework relies on the CO-STARTERS curriculum developed by a similar entrepreneurial training program based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In addition to meeting one evening each week, each participant meets one-on-one weekly with a business coach who helps them dial in on the specifics of their own business idea.

 

“We’re a grassroots business training program,” Campbell says. “We teach the foundations of business, finance, and marketing, and we pair each student with a business coach.”

 

In the five years since SpringGR was founded, 313 area entrepreneurs have graduated the course to establish 206 businesses and create 257 jobs.

 

“We work with people who are at the beginning level. Generally, programs help a more mature entrepreneur — you need a business plan, numbers, a prototype,” says Attah Obande, director of dream fulfillment. “At SpringGR, the only requirement is to have a business idea. If you’ve got an idea, come to us. We will help you move it forward.”

 

Obande notes that a third of the past year’s Start Garden’s 5x5 Night winners were SpringGR graduates, as well as 14 of its 100 "Big Idea" finalists.

 

SpringGR offers continuing support to program graduates through a five-week alumni course and promotion of graduate businesses on its website. In addition, alumni form strong relationships that provide an enduring connection for support and networking. For example, a group of eight SpringGR graduates came together to host a successful, minority-focused wedding expo, “Tying The Knot,” at the Richard App Gallery in October 2017.

 

“It’s really fun to watch them support one another, network. It’s grassroots for sure. It just kind of happens,” Campbell says. “They come in not knowing each other and leave as friends. They learn that ‘I really need to surround myself with other like-minded entrepreneurs so I can have the support I need to move my business forward.’ It’s exciting.”

 

SpringGR is still accepting applications for its two, 12-week fall business training courses. On Monday evenings, the course will take place at The Goei Center and Wednesday evenings as part of the Restorers, Inc. programming at Madison Square Church. The course costs $100. Dinner and childcare are provided.

 

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
 

Photos courtesy SpringGR

 


From the Heart Yoga and Tai Chi Center finds new home in old neighborhood

One of Grand Rapids’ most venerated studios, From the Heart Yoga and Tai Chi Center has found a new home among the treetops on the City’s northeast side at 776 Leonard St. NE. Rick Powell taught the first class—advanced tai chi—in the new second-floor space on July 16. He and his wife, Behnje Masson, have been teaching under the name From the Heart since the mid ‘90s when they met at the Dominican Center on Marywood Campus, where both were teaching classes for its holistic health ministry.

“Marywood provided a great way to introduce yoga to the community and for me to begin teaching in a sacred space,” Masson says. “So many people came through that location that were interested in yoga.”

In 2000, they moved From the Heart into its first brick-and-mortar location on East Fulton street. “We were one of the first storefront yoga studios in the city,” she says.

In 2010, From the Heart moved to 714 Wealthy St. SE with hopes of becoming partner-owners in the building. When, for various reasons, that didn’t work out as planned, they began looking for another location. After three years of searching, Powell noticed the Leonard building and its seemingly vacant second floor as he drove by one day. He did some digging to find the building’s owner, Tommy Schichtel, and messaged him to inquire if the space above his Goon Lagoon Recording Studio might be available.

“He said, ‘Funny you should ask. My wife and I were just thinking about it.’ We met three hours later, went to look at the space, and made a connection,” Powell says. “He needed to have quiet from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. We teach 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then, evenings. It’s a perfect fit.”

Powell and Masson love the old building’s earthy feel, hardwood floors, high ceilings, abundant natural light, and welcoming layout.

“It’s up in the trees, which is a different perspective. The stairway leads to the greeting area, a large studio, a room for talks, a deck, and bathroom. The space flows really nice. It’s gorgeous,” Powell says. “The whole space feels gracious. It’s kind of a homecoming because both Behnje and I were born on the Northeast side.”

Both Powell and Masson have certifications as E-RYT 500 Hatha yoga instructors. Powell began studying Kung Fu and Tai Chi with Master Yen Hoa Lee in 1984. He continues to study with Sifu Lee, whom he considers a father figure, and also assists at classes Lee teaches. “When I was younger, I was quite frequently sick with allergies, circulation issues, and asthma-like symptoms,” Powell says. “Tai chi changed my health. I got extremely strong and healthy. There are also deeper benefits, the feeling like your connected to a flow [of] something larger.”

Powell teaches Tai Chi Jeung, a style that originated in northern China’s Daoist temples. All Tai Chi methods combine the breath, meditation, and movement to find the middle, the center—balance. Finding physical balance helps Tai Chi students feel more centered, grounded, and stable mentally and spiritually as well.

“You flow with things better,” Powell says. “The more rooted you are, the less things knock you over.”

Tai Chi can decrease stress, anxiety, and depression; increase aerobic capacity, stamina, and energy; improve flexibility, strength, balance, and agility; relieve sleep issues and joint pain; and reduce blood pressure and risk of falls.

Masson took her first yoga class 30 years ago. She had been a dancer and wanted to find another way to express herself. While many yoga classes today focus on physical fitness, she sees yoga as a way of life.

“It’s not a trend. It’s a lifestyle. We honor and pass on the traditional arts and honor the countries and cultures that they came from,” Masson says. “We really want to keep the focus on the whole person and how it cultivates you as a human being. That’s why we chose the word ‘center’ not ‘studio.’ It’s about living a well-rounded life and staying connected to something bigger—nature, consciousness, the divine.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy From the Heart Yoga and Tai Chi Center


By Juliette: A stitch in time saves precious memories

A lifelong passion for needle and thread has led local entrepreneur Juliette Cowall in a new direction. Past endeavors have included 20 years as an editor, publishing Grand Gardens magazine in the 2000s, and certifications as a master composter and cannabis specialist. She continues to work as a marketing professional through her own firm, Guided Communications. Today, when not ensuring a client’s website places first in a Google search, her start-up, By Juliette, breathes new life into heirloom garments and textiles.

“My tag-line is ‘Stitching generations together.’ What I do, I take garments that have sentimental value, like wedding dresses or military uniforms, and create something new from them,” Cowall says. “I get them out of the closet and back into people’s lives.”

For example, three siblings had their grandfather’s century-old, Soo Woolen Mills’ red-plaid wool hunting clothes in storage. Last fall, they commissioned Cowall to transform the jacket and three pairs of pants into a messenger bag, knitting tote, two pillows, two Christmas stockings, a lap robe, and a cell phone tote to share among them.

Another customer brought Cowall her late grandmother’s chenille bedspread. As a child, she had spent summers at her grandmother’s home and took naps on the bedspread with her. Cowall turned it into a cozy bathrobe.

“It was sitting in a closet and she didn’t want to let it go. Now, she gets to have her grandma wrap her arms around her every day,” Cowall says. “Sometimes, the family knows what they want and sometimes, I get to be creative.”

As one of nine children, Cowall learned from a mother who spent a great deal of time mending and repurposing garments for the family. Cowall began sewing her own clothes as a teenager—and estimates that 60 percent of her current wardrobe is homemade. She sets Mondays aside for mending, guaranteeing customers that, no matter when they get a mending job to her during the week, she’ll have it back to them on Tuesday. Since launching By Juliette, she has sewn wedding dresses into satchels and ring-bearer cushions, t-shirts into quilts, and men’s shirts into bib aprons.

“The aprons are great for a family who has lost a grandfather or father. Most men have a collection of button front shirts. I cut the sleeves and back off and add ties. Everyone in the family can now have an apron,” she says. “Those same shirts, I use the sleeves for little totes.”

Cowall starts every new project off with a conversation about the garment. What is it? How old is it? What is the customer’s idea for its repurpose?

“Most of the time they have their own ideas,” Cowall says. “You just never know what people are going to hang onto—and what we can do with them.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Juliette Cowall


Biodigesting beer wastes brings City closer to renewable energy goals

The City of Grand Rapids has been recognized as a green city and a beer city. Now that Founders Brewing Co. is sending brewing wastes to the City’s new biodigester, those designations are converging to literally energize the city. Each day, the two-mile-long, 10-inch waste transmission pipeline under Market Avenue SW will deliver approximately 140,000 gallons of water discharge carrying highly concentrated brewing wastes from Founders to the City’s Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF) at 1300 Market Ave. SW.

“Most people know how beer is made. You put hops and water in a tank with yeast,” says Mike Lunn, City of Grand Rapids utilities director. “The biodigester heats the wastes from the process to 98 degrees for 15 to 18 days. Bacteria and microorganisms break down the waste and make biogas and you end up with less solids [to dispose of].”

After treating the biogas—gaseous fuel, especially methane, produced by the fermentation of organic matter—the recovered methane will fuel a generator to produce electricity. Lunn calculates that the biodigester will produce 15- to 16-million kilowatts of energy a year, “a good chunk” of the 23-million kilowatts a year used to operate the WRRF facility. As the City adds more biodigester customers, Lunn expects it to provide 100 percent of the WRRF facility’s electricity by 2023, including the energy required to heat the biodigester tanks. This is two years ahead of the City’s goal to provide all energy for City facilities from renewable sources by 2025. The City expects the biodigester project to reduce operating costs mainly by lowering solids volumes by 20 percent and producing electricity savings of $600,000. This Youtube video demonstrates how a biodigester works.

“We’ll also have ability to bring in liquid industrial byproduct that will help,” Lunn says. “The biodigester project is addressing growth in the region. We have a much larger plan. We’d like to start out first year with ten trucks a day and work up to maybe forty or fifty trucks—10,000 gallons each of waste.”

While Founders is the biodigester’s first customer, SET Environmental, also located on Market Avenue, is in line to be the next. The City plans on receiving wastes from additional business customers located along the pipeline.

“It’s been great working with the City of Grand Rapids on the biodigester project,” says Brad Stevenson, Founders' chief production officer. “This coming together of the public and private sectors in the name of sustainability will have a positive impact on the future of our brewery and our city.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development news Editor
Photo courtesy City of Grand Rapids


Former Red Lion site to offer attainable housing

Hot diggety dog! Thanks to investment dollars from Michigan Community Capital and a $330,000 Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) grant award to the City of Grand Rapids’ Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the former Red Lion restaurant site at 449 - 499 Bridge St. NW will become a red-hot housing destination for people earning less than 80 percent of the area median income.

 

When Ann Arbor-based real estate development firm, 3 Mission Partners, first considered the site, the plan was to do what the company usually does: historic preservation. On closer inspection, 3 Mission partners Liz Marek, Rob Eisman, Jon Carlson, and Greg Lobdell found that restoring the old building would be impossible.

 

“When we got in there, we realized the building was sitting on unstable soil. Its back corner had sunk 15 inches. So, there was not the opportunity to do a historic preservation,” he says. “Another thing happening—a zoning transition allowed us to build a taller building. When we looked at the neighborhood, with the new Meijer store and the New Holland Brewery apartments, it clearly appeared that the best use of the site was to do an infill project with retail on the ground floor and residential above.”

 

The MDEQ grant will help cover the demolition, transportation, and disposal of the contaminated soils. 3 Mission Partners plans on breaking ground for construction in July 2018. In addition to developing real estate, the company owns restaurants and breweries throughout the state.

 

“We have 1,100 employees throughout the state that work for our restaurants,” Lobdell says. “It’s impossible for our people that work at the restaurants to find housing. We understand that firsthand.”
 

In Michigan, the average salary for a server is $8.52 per hour, which is 13 percent below the national average. Line cooks come in at the national average at $11.67. Chefs average $13.23, 16 percent below the national average. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) calculates the living wage in Michigan at $10.87 per hour for one adult. For a single parent raising two children, that amount jumps to $27.77.

Tenants in 55 percent of the new building’s 44 apartments will pay an “attainable” rent of $930 to $965 a month for studio and one-bedroom apartments.

 

“That number is amazing when you consider the costs. We had to acquire the property, then we had to do a lot of ground work and get a construction company to build it. We had to work really hard to get that 55 percent number.”

 

Designed by Grand Rapids' Concept Design - Grand Rapids Architecture & Interior Design, the five-story structure will feature a black brick façade for the MASH bar/lounge’s ground-floor retail space. Large windows will look out on a completely renovated streetscape that will include sidewalk seating area and new street trees. Upper floors sheathed in metal panels will sport balconies projecting from the building.

 

“The apartment interiors will have a very warm industrial-modern feel—wood floors, wood shelving, tile, stainless appliances,” Lobdell says. “There will be a small, shared green space for residents at the rear of the building.”

 

Michigan Community Capital, a nonprofit organization, lends and invests “in income diverse, race diverse, and occupationally diverse communities to counter gentrification and create upward mobility and wealth building opportunities for underserved individuals and families in Michigan.” The project is expected to create 20 full-time jobs and 35 part-time jobs with wages ranging from $15 to $30 per hour as well as 40 to 50 temporary construction jobs. An estimated $11.4 million in private investment will also fund the development.

 

Though based in Ann Arbor, Lobdell is excited about being involved in a Grand Rapids project that will result in attainable housing. “We spend a lot of time in Grand Rapids—we like Grand Rapids a lot,” Lobdell concludes. “We’re really excited about this growth of the West Side. It’s an up-and-coming, nice neighborhood. We met with neighborhood groups, got good comments and feedback. The city of Grand Rapids has been great to work with, very encouraging.”

 

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Design and rendering courtesy of Ghafari // Concept Design

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