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New developments take a small stab at affordable housing crisis

In October, the Grand Rapids’ City Commission took action to advance plans for three proposed affordable housing developments: Garfield Park Lofts, developed by LINC Up Nonprofit Housing Corporation; Plaza Roosevelt, a Habitat for Humanity of Kent County project; and Inner City Christian Federation’s Eastern Elementary School renovation.

“Combined, these projects plan to build 151 units of housing, of which 136 units will be available to households earning 80 percent of area median income, or below, helping achieve the goals of the Housing NOW! Initiative,” says Kara Wood, the City’s managing director of Economic Development Services. “These three projects also mark the first significant investment of grants by the City’s Local Brownfield Revolving Fund program.”

LINC Up Nonprofit Housing Corporation has already broken ground on the $9.4 million Garfield Park Lofts project. The three-story residential building at 100 Burton St. SE will provide 36 rental units to households earning 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) or below. Fifteen units will be available to households earning 30 percent AMI or below. On the path to LEED Silver certification, the building will be a significant part of the public infrastructure improvements planned along Burton Street SE via the South Division, Burton, Hall, Grandville Avenue Corridor Improvement Authority. The new apartment building is slated to open November 2019.

“The Garfield Park Lofts project really came about in response to a need for affordable housing. Our residents will be, typically, working families making between $10 and $15 an hour. Affordable housing is the number one concern we hear when talking to residents,” says Jeremy DeRoo, Executive Director, LINC Up. “Right now, in every part of Grand Rapids, affordable housing is being lifted up as a high priority.”

A few miles northwest, the $40 million Plaza Roosevelt redevelopment project includes 17 Habitat Kent homes, two 24-unit residential buildings with first-floor commercial space built by Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids, a new Grand Rapids Public Schools high school, and a plaza or park.

The Eastern Elementary redevelopment, a $14.5 million project at 815 Malta St. NE, will renovate the historic building into a mixed-use development that includes 50 residential apartments and approximately 2,000 square feet of office space on the ground floor.

While 151 households will find affordable homes in these projects, they only make a minor dent in the issue at hand. Policy regulating rent increases, finding ways to stop gentrification from displacing families, and offering jobs that pay more — rather than hype about more jobs — could be part of a real solution. (In 2017, the average CEO earned 312 times as much as the average worker.) DeRoo agrees that local wages have not kept step with the region’s growing economy and the growing costs of living here.

“There are too many people who are not making enough money to be able to afford a home that they can live in. We have very low unemployment, yet many still cannot afford to live in the City of Grand Rapids,” he says. “We need to find ways to make sure people have access to career pathways that allow them to fully participate in the growing economy that exists here in West Michigan.”

Garfield Park Lofts rendering courtesy LINC Up Nonprofit Housing Corporation


Mokaya expansion is nothing to be truffled with

Founded in 2016, Grand Rapids’ own Mesoamerican inspired chocolate boutique, Mokaya, recently expanded into a new space at 638 Wealthy Street SE. The Mokaya, or Corn People, predated the Mayans and may have been the first peoples to create a cacao drink. The Mokaya logo copies imagery found on bowls unearthed by archaeologists, bowls which also had traces of several compounds found in chocolate.

“We have 80 to 120 items, truffles and bon bons, pastries, tarts, custard, ice cream — all sorts of things,” says Max Golczynski, Mokaya’s general manager, who happens to have a degree in archeology. “The biggest reason for our expansion was production space. We quickly hit capacity in the tiny kitchen that we had. Last year, during the holidays, we couldn’t keep up. We sold out every day.”

The chocolatier behind Mokaya’s artisan chocolates and confections, Charles Golczynski, Max’s father, served as chef for his own business, The Catering Company, for 20 some years before falling in love with chocolate. In 2000, a client requested that he create an extravagant dessert buffet that looked like a jewelry store display. This led him to discover a company in Las Vegas that offered colored cocoa butters. Golczynski also was good friends with a Mexican chocolatier. The experience and the friendship ignited Golczynski’s new passion for all things chocolate. After perfecting this passion under the tutelage of world-renowned pastry chef and chocolatier, Chef Luis Amado, he was more than ready to create his chocolate-covered business.

Working with his father is nothing new for Max Golczynski. He grew up helping at the family’s other business, Jersey Junction, in East Grand Rapids, and helping out at the catering business. Max’s sister, Isabelle Golczynski; mother, Tamra Crampton; and uncle, Michael Crampton, also pitch in.

The expanded Mokaya not only provides more kitchen space, it also offers seating and space for classes and chocolate-inspired events.

“We’ve done a beer and dessert dinner with Brewery Vivant,” Golczynski says. “Last week, we did our first six-course dinner with chocolate in every course. After the holidays, we are planning on doing those more regularly.”

Each dinner will showcase different themes. The recent dinner’s theme was “French Countryside,” featuring chocolate goat cheese dip, white chocolate sage mac-and-cheese, elk meatballs with mole sauce, bison chocolate chili, cocoa-rubbed chicken wings with chocolate barbecue sauces, and chocolate brioche with roasted white chocolate and vanilla bean ice cream.

As the holidays approach, Mokaya will also offer small plate lunches featuring three or four chocolate-inspired selections. Hours are 12 to 5 p.m. Sunday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Whether for lunch, an extravagant event, or a quick, luscious truffle, Golczynski believes all of Grand Rapids should take time to treat themselves. As he simply explains, “Everyone deserves good chocolate.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy of Mokaya


City of Grand Rapids honored with 2018 Invest in Ability Award

On October 22, Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC) awarded the City of Grand Rapids its 2018 Invest in Ability Award during the Invest in Ability Dinner at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. The award recognizes an organization or individual who has advanced and improved the lives of local people with disabilities.

“Our entire City staff is committed to becoming more and more accessible for persons with disabilities,” says Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. “While we know there is always more work to be done, we are extremely honored to receive this prestigious award.”

Dave Bulkowski, executive director of DAKC, says, “We are thrilled to recognize the great work of the City of Grand Rapids. They have made intentional choices, and put plans to action, while constantly seeking new knowledge and best practices. This work is a journey, and they are an outstanding partner.”

Bulkowski notes that while racial and gender equity are popular agenda items across the country, concerns about creating equity for people with disabilities often takes a back seat. He explains that when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, accessibility was viewed as “slapping a ramp on it.” DAKC has been a local force in helping that mindset evolve into one of true equity.

“If it’s not accessible, it’s not going to be inviting and if it’s not inviting, it won’t be welcoming,” he says. “It’s absolutely critical to start with accessible. Then, we can worry about ‘Are we inviting everybody to the table, or to the conversation, or to the party?’ Once we invite them, then we have to ask the question, ‘Do we really welcome them?’”

When people with disabilities are unable to access a public space — for example, have to use a back entrance or reroute their path when outdoor restaurant seating blocks a sidewalk — the result is not only inconvenience but also a confirmation that they are unwelcome, second-class citizens. Bulkowski explains that people without disabilities have trouble grasping the hardships that inaccessible places put on those with disabilities, until they or one of their family members experience it.

“One of the challenges of disabilities is you don’t ‘get it’ until you get it. We keep looking to educate and create more ambassadors who get it,” he says. “We’ve been talking with the City and other municipalities for 37 years now. The City of Grand Rapids gets it. A small example of how the City is getting it was seen at the ribbon cutting at the new playground where kids of all abilities can play together on one big fun playground.”

Other examples of how the City of Grand Rapids gets it include recruiting people with disabilities to sit on planning committees and participating in activities that help those without disabilities to experience the world through a different lens.

“Over the last decade, the City has been extremely intentional that a person with a disability is a part of every planning effort. And, we’ve done creative things," says Bulkowski. "When the City was doing the initial Michigan Street Corridor planning, we put blindfolds on some of the planning committee — it was literally the blind leading the blind. We had them cross Michigan Street. It was scary for them. Today, you see wider sidewalks, better curb cuts, and better crossings there.”

Other considerations in giving the City of Grand Rapids the award included the Parks Master Plan, adopted in June 2017, that has a significant commitment to Universal Design, that is, space that all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability can access. The City will soon break ground on its first park planned according to Universal Design standards.

“This is not a lifetime achievement award. It does not mean the City is 100 percent accessible. And, they understand that,” Bulkowski concludes. “If people encounter barriers in the community, we do have staff that follow up on those. You go to a restaurant, bar, or hotel and don’t believe they are accessible, give us a shout. We also do trainings on how to best include folks with disabilities. We are proactive and reactive —both perspectives.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy Disability Advocates of Kent County


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

On Oct. 3, HVAC renovations began at the Grand Rapids City Hall and Kent County Administration buildings, 300 Monroe Ave. NW. The $11 million project is expected to last through early 2020. Read more here.

On Oct. 4, the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) welcomed 14 new police officers to its ranks. All 14 recruits trained in-house at GRPD over the past two months. The 14 officers fill vacancies created due to retirements over the past six months. Read more here.

On Oct. 8, The City of Grand Rapids announced it had received the Michigan Green Communities Network’s highest honor — gold certification — for taking on a wide range of environmental sustainability projects in the Michigan Green Communities Challenge. Read more here.

On Oct. 9, the City of Grand Rapids swore in new City Manager Mark Washington. “I am eager to be a Grand Rapidian,” he said. “I look forward to spending time with the City Commission, City staff, partners and community stakeholders to listen to their ideas and concerns and dig deeper into the issues that are important to our city.”

On Oct. 11, The City of Grand Rapids celebrated grand reopening ceremonies at Mooney Park, 314 Logan St. SE; Cheseboro Park, 951 Merritt St. SE; and Ottawa Hills Park, 2060 Oakfield Ave. SE. The $765,000 construction project at Ottawa Hills Park includes a fully universally accessible playground with areas for older and younger children.

On Oct. 18, the Grand Rapids Brownfield Redevelopment Authority announced a grant application submission to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for a Brownfield site cleanup at 438 Stocking Ave. The site will be redeveloped as a BP/Meijer gas station adjacent to the Meijer’s Bridge Street Market. Read more here.

On Oct. 25 and Nov. 20, the Grand Rapids Police Department’s “Speed of Trust” initiative will pair off community members one-to-one with police officers for interactive trust-building sessions. Spots are available during morning, afternoon, and evening hours. To participate, residents and community stakeholders can email TrustGRPD@grcity.us. Read more here. In addition, GRPD has posted its Manual of Policy and Procedures online for the first time.

Residents voting via absentee ballot can stop by the Grand Rapids City Clerk’s office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as Thursday, Oct. 25 from 5 to 7 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 28 from 12 to 5 p.m.; Tuesday, Oct. 30 from 5 to 7 p.m.; or Saturday, Nov. 3 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Absentee ballots are available at the City Clerk’s Office, 300 Monroe Ave. NW until 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 5. Read more here.

On Nov. 1 at St. Alphonsus Church, 224 Carrier St. NE, and Nov. 15 at Baxter Community, 935 Baxter St. SE, the City of Grand Rapids invites residents for an overview of the new residential rental application fees ordinance (part of its Housing NOW! initiative) from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Learn more here.

On Nov. 1, seasonal odd-even and same-side parking restrictions begin in Grand Rapids. Streets with restrictions have parking signs posted. More information here.

Through Nov. 6, The Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department invites community members to enter its competition to redesign and modernize park entry signs across the city. The competition is open to everyone. Learn more here.

Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids


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

 

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