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Rockford Construction considers Grand Rapids West Side factory for possible relocation to downtown

After several years of working out of its headquarters in Cascade Township, Rockford Construction has almost decided to move its operations to a vacant factory building on Grand Rapids' West Side. The move is dependent on city and state approval of a nearly $1.2 million Brownfield Redevelopment Authority tax credit to help pay for the abatement of chemical contamination at the former Miller Products manufacturing site, 601 First St. NW.

If approved, work on the site could begin in late July. The $4.7 million project includes razing part of the existing building, the construction of an infill building and a proposed multi-story addition, plus the creation of new green space for a courtyard, says Mike VanGessel, founding partner.

"This is a heavy industrial site, so the [contamination] cleanup is pretty extensive," VanGessel says. "This has nice exposure, a lot of room for growth for us, and it's a corporate culture thing to be able to get us all on one floor. It allows us to become more efficient, and puts us in a walkable community that we love."

About 85 of Rockford's 170 employees work at the headquarters and will move with the relocation, which will also bring all of Rockford's three companies -- Rockford Construction, Rockford Development and Rockford Trades -- under one roof for the first time.

Rockford has been instrumental in redeveloping several major areas of downtown Grand Rapids, including GRid70, the Steketee Building, The Shops @ Monroe Center & Division (MoDiv), the Grand Rapids Art Museum and Cathedral Square.

Source: Mike VanGessel, Rockford Construction
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

Kalamazoo bank says promising West MI economy is reason for new branch in downtown Grand Rapids

Kalamazoo-based First National Bank of Michigan is venturing outside its Southwest Michigan territory for the first time since it went into business six years ago. Daniel Bitzer, the bank's market president, says the promising economy in West Michigan was a deciding factor in establishing a branch in downtown Grand Rapids on the corner of Ionia Avenue and Lyon St. NW.

"West Michigan is probably one of the strongest markets in Michigan, and this was a natural expansion for us," Bitzer says. "We have been doing a fair amount in Grand Rapids in the last five to six years and decided to make the step into moving into downtown."

First National Bank will occupy some 3,500 square feet of the main level of 141 Ionia Ave. NW, a building that has been vacant for several years. A complete renovation of the space is underway. Bitzer says the new bank will have an upscale, modern look and feel when it opens this fall.

The bank is privately owned and has $210 million in assets, Bitzer says. He adds that the new branch will offer a full line of financial services including credit cards, commercial banking, commercial real estate banking, mortgage services and more. Customers will receive free parking in the Ellis Parking lot next door, paid for by the bank. Mike Ellis of Ellis Parking owns the building.

"We're a locally-owned bank servicing locally-owned businesses and decisions are made locally," Bitzer says. "We're excited to be in Grand Rapids."

Hours: Mon. - Fri., 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Construction manager: Pioneer Construction
Architectural design: Concept Design Group

Source: Daniel E. Bitzer, First National Bank of West Michigan
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

Construction ready to ramp up on Byron Center Public Schools building renovations

Following voter approval of a $23.6 million bond proposal in November 2011, Byron Center Public Schools is nearly ready to launch millions of dollars of major renovations and improvements of its school buildings.

The project will take 17 months to complete and will touch every building in the school district, says Frank Stanek, operations director and project manager for Owen-Ames-Kimball, the company handling the work.

The project includes:
+ Installation of security vestibules at Countryside Elementary, Nickels Intermediate, West Middle and Byron Center High School. Construction will be completed in time for next school year.
* Improved airflow and air quality at Nickels Elementary.
* Adding eight classrooms and enlarging some existing classrooms at Brown Elementary, plus renovating the cafeteria, media center, art and music rooms and administrative spaces.
* Revamping existing classrooms at the High School, and relocating the band and choir areas for better use of the building. Work will take place beginning the winter of 2013 through the summer of 2013.
* Renovation of the adult education facility into an efficient Early Childhood Center so all kindergartens can be in one location, freeing up space in the school buildings.

"[These improvements] will provide security and a better learning environment for the students," Stanek says. "It will make it easier for the kids to learn because they'll be in a more comfortable environment."

Source: Frank Stanek, Owen-Ames-Kimball
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

Zeeland Vitale's completes 1,500 square foot expansion, enhances customer experience

In 2006, the city of Zeeland voted to repeal its nearly century-old liquor ban, a decision some worried would lead to mayhem and disrepair. Ryan Snyder, owner of Vitale's Zeeland (59 W. Washington), was one of the first to offer his restaurant in support of the repeal and is now reaping the rewards.

Nearly five years after receiving its liquor license, Vitale's has completed a 1,500-square-foot renovation project, bringing the restaurant to 4,000 square feet. The $200,000 project included expanding the kitchen, dining area, bar, bathrooms and waiting area, as well as adding a 600-square-foot outdoor patio that seats 40. Vitale's can now seat between 150 and 200 people depending on the season.

"[Before the expansion] there were a bunch of places that lacked space. One was the foyer, where people waited for tables," Snyder says. "They had to share it with people who were coming to pick up pizzas and ordering pizzas."

The restaurant often finds itself with long waits on weekends, and many customers walked out the door. Snyder hopes that having more dining space and more seating will help decrease wait times and give patrons a more comfortable space to sit and talk while waiting for a table.

In addition to more space, Snyder says there are now nine additional TVs in the bar area and they've added live music on Saturdays and team trivia on Wednesdays.

Snyder hopes the changes will help the restaurant continue to serve as a place for family-friendly dining while at the same time catering to the many enthusiastic amateur athletes in Zeeland. Vitale's regularly sponsors area sports teams and Snyder says serving those two very different crowds could be a challenge. The additional space allows both demographics to enjoy their dining experience.

Source: Ryan Snyder, Vitale's Zeeland
Writer: Charlsie Dewey, Freelance Reporter

Grand Rapids' Reflections senior housing project re-opens after $6.5 million renovation

Senior citizens in Grand Rapids' Madison Square neighborhood have something to be excited about with the reopening of the area's senior housing apartment building, renamed Reflections.

Located at 500 Hall Street SE, the $6.5 million renovation was a gut rehabilitation of the former Madison Square Apartments by Dwelling Place, Inc. The project was undertaken following Dwelling Place's purchase of the building from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority in 2011.

The renovation includes two additions, a new front entrance, and an upgrade to all of the systems in the facility. The building was expanded from 45,811 square feet to 65,486 square feet.

New and returning residents will find that 25 of the 60 units have been expanded and the community room and sitting areas are larger. There are now three laundry rooms instead of one, the building now has a large craft room, a deck and energy-efficient geothermal heating.

"The residents love it," says Jarrett DeWyse, director of housing development at Dwelling Place. "It is so much improved. It's so bright and cheery. We used light wells, so the natural light comes in from the ceiling. It's very well insulated, so the utility bills will be a lot lower. It's just a beautiful building."

All the units are one-bedroom apartments and residents must be 62 or older and meet the requirements for subsidized housing. The project is one of several attempts to revitalize the area.

"It's really important," DeWyse says. "It's a whole revitalization of the neighborhood . . . we changed the name to give it the status of being new. Across the street, LINC Community Revitalization is also doing some new housing in that neighborhood and there's some other housing around there that is being redone as well."

Source: Jarrett DeWyse, Dwelling Place, Inc.
Writer: Charlsie Dewey, Freelance Reporter

Klipper Kingdom barbershop brings inspiration to Grand Rapids' Madison Square neighborhood

The buzz of hair clippers hums through the air Tuesdays through Saturdays at Klipper Kingdom, where owner Israel Johnson says his business is growing.

Having opened in fall 2011 as part of the LINC Community Revitalization retail incubator, Klipper Kingdom is among eight new businesses to set up shop at the LINC Business Center (1258 Madison Ave. SE). The incubator program assists entrepreneurs in building the foundation for a successful business and hopes to revitalize the neighborhood through creating a thriving business community.

"I'm proud to be down here because, number one, it brings a positive atmosphere to this community," Johnson says. "A lot of people look at this community and just see negative. I'm proud to be a young, black business owner and show kids that they are able to achieve their goals when they apply themselves."

To create an inspirational environment, Johnson has filled the 700-square-foot space with boxing memorabilia collected through the local boxing community. Clients will find boxing gloves hanging from the walls, photos of Little Floyd (Mayweather), Floyd Mayweather, Sr., and Larry Holmes, as well as a TV that is almost always tuned to a boxing match.

Johnson invested $3,000 to convert the one-time clothing store into a barbershop. The renovation included gutting the space, electrical and plumbing upgrades, the creation of hair cutting stations and building a break room.

So far the investment is paying off. Johnson is looking to add a third employee to help keep up with demand.

Johnson is taking advantage of all of the opportunities provided by the incubator program, which include several classes and resources, so that within three years he will graduate the program and possibly continue his business in a new permanent location.

Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tues. - Sat.

Source: Israel Johnson, Klipper Kingdom
Writer: Charlsie Dewey, Freelance Reporter

Proposed university prep school to add energy to revitalization of Grand Rapids' S. Division

The Grand Rapids University Preparatory Association has begun construction on a 53,000-square-foot building that could bring new energy to other revitalization efforts along Grand Rapids' South Division Avenue.

Joining other construction that is underway or recently completed, such as the Inner City Christian Federation's Wealthy/Jefferson project, Cathedral Square, and renovation of vacant buildings into Division Park Avenue and Serrano Lofts apartment buildings, the proposed $9.2 million project for the University Prep Academy (UPrep) will put a new face on a depressed area of the city.

UPrep, a Centers of Innovation school of the Grand Rapids Public Schools, is currently located in a building on the Central High School campus (111 College Ave. NE). The new facility at 512 S. Division could accommodate over 500 sixth through twelfth graders when at full capacity. The academy model is based on the successful University Preparatory Academy-Detroit, which has a 90 percent graduation rate with a high number of those students going on to college.

"This is the first school in Grand Rapids that will be built from scratch without any taxpayer dollars," says Grand Rapids Board of Education President Senita Lanear. "This school has a high expectation for graduation, college enrollment and college graduation, and these things are instilled in the students from day one."

A $3 million donation from Steve Van Andel, Amway Chairman, in memory of his wife Cindy Van Andel kicked off the fundraising.

UPrep opened in 2008, the result of the efforts of several business leaders who wanted to establish a college and career-oriented school in Grand Rapids, says Lanear. UPrep adds a grade level each year and now has 300 students in grades six through ten. The school will be a full middle and high school by 2013, says a media release from GRPS.

The new building will be EnergyStar certified and should be ready for occupancy by fall 2013.  The building was designed by Grand Rapids based architecture and engineering firm ProgressiveAE.

Source: Senita Lanear, Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education; media release, Grand Rapids Public Schools
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

Proposed $4M biodigester to convert cow manure, restaurant grease to power for Lowell Light & Power

Developers of a proposed anaerobic digester that could supply Lowell Light & Power with 10 percent of its electric power requirement are well on their way to finalizing construction plans for the $4 million project. Sustainable Partners, LLC, (Spart) has partnered with Germany-based enCO2 to design and build the biodigester in a vacant factory building at 625 Chatham St., Lowell.

Plans are to process some 8,000 tons of cow manure per year from Swisslane Dairy Farm (Alto), over 400,000 gallons of used restaurant grease per year from Kerkstra Services (Hudsonville), and an undetermined amount of liquid waste from Litehouse Foods (Lowell). This will all then be converted into clean electricity, fed back into Lowell Light & Power's grid for the company's 2600 customers in Lowell, Lowell Township and Vergennes Township.

"There are 8,000 biodigesters in Germany and less than 200 in the U.S.," Northrup says. "That's why we have a German partner with [experience with] over 60 different projects. We're trying to do this to eventually build 500 projects for communities across the Midwest, so we're developing it as a template."

Northrup says the 25,000 square feet available in the former factory provides enough room to house nearly the entire biodigester, plus allows space for the trucks to offload manure and grease directly into the digester's holding tanks. He says the digester doesn't produce the foul odors of a farm's slurry pond. It also provides a means to divert hundreds of thousands of gallons of used restaurant grease from local landfills.

Rockford Construction will begin the construction process once the financing is completed. Northrup expects the biodigester to begin operations by December 2012 or January 2013.

Source: Greg Northrup, Sustainable Partners, LLC (Spart)
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

$28.5M renovation of Grand Rapids' Historic Federal Building several steps closer to completion

The $28.5 million renovation of the former Federal Building in Grand Rapids (17 Pearl St. NW) is close to being ready for students and faculty this fall. The renovation will provide some 91,000 square feet of classroom and gallery space for Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.

A soft opening earlier this week showcased the art of Kendall’s Studio Excellence Award winners -- students selected from the graduating class of 2012 -- and allowed visitors to take self-guided tours, the only sneak peek for the public until the facility opens later this fall.

"All the interior renovation is complete," says Dr. Oliver H. Evans, Kendall president. "We have expanded our sculpture program, so there are ceramics and metal facilities. We've established space for our new fashion studies program, and space for our new undergrad in collaborative design, which includes a materials library."

The building's most recent long-term use was as the site of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which used the third and fourth floors as storage space. Those floors "have been completely redone and will be completely utilized," says Dr. Evans.

The original wide stairwells, the marble throughout the building, and many other historic aspects of the facility have been maintained, says Dr. Evans. The façade has been cleaned and the original windows replaced with historically accurate new windows.  

In addition to more gallery and studio space for students, the building will have a small café.

"This building really allows Kendall to expand and to grow how it serves our credit and non-credit students," Evans says. "Kendall now occupies three city blocks -- where we are now (17 Fountain St. NW), the Federal Building and 5 Lyon student housing. We really have been able to create a community of learning in a revitalized downtown area where there's a developing and very rich arts community."

Construction and renovation: The Christman Company

Source: Dr. Oliver H. Evans, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

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Law firm Bloom Sluggett Morgan opens in Grand Rapids' entertainment district

In the midst of Grand Rapids' thriving entertainment district, a new law firm quietly opened its doors last week and the owners can't wait to become fixtures in this neighborhood of change.

Bloom Sluggett Morgan (15 Ionia Ave. SW) chose to put down roots in the growing Heartside neighborhood next to the Van Andel Arena because of its vitality.

"We really wanted to be in the middle of everything," says Crystal Morgan, a partner in the firm with Cliff Bloom and Jeff Sluggett. "It feels very positive and all the restaurants give us an opportunity to get out into the community and to bring clients to a fun area."

Morgan says that, although the firm just launched, the three partners and attorney Richard Butler have some 75 years' experience in general municipal law -- a niche market of government, municipal and public sector clients. In addition to the municipal law background of each attorney, Morgan says Bloom is an expert in riparian law and Butler has library law expertise.

The 2,500-square-foot office on the sixth floor has a traditional loft feel with high ceilings and exposed-brick walls.

"West Michigan is a growing area and there are a lot of exciting [municipal] projects," Morgan says. "Though cities are strapped for money, they're really looking for ways to share services and survive in this economy. We're here to stay; we're dedicated to the area and to our clients."

Source: Crystal Morgan, Bloom Sluggett Morgan; Andrea Snyder, STUDIO3TWENTY
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

Zeeland's first downtown restaurant with liquor license opens in May

Zeeland's Main Street is about to get its first sit-down restaurant to ever serve beer, wine and liquor by the glass, and owner Lucas Grill says the business community has welcomed him with open arms.

The public voted in 2006 to repeal a nearly 100-year-old ban on liquor sales. But downtown Zeeland continued to have a gap in amenities -- namely a restaurant that served liquor and could attract folks to the business district in the evenings or entice them to stick around after work.

With the May 7 opening of Public (131 E. Main St.), that gap will be filled by a classic sit-down eatery where diners can enjoy a cocktail, a beer or a glass of wine with their meals.

"The amount of support from city hall, the business owners, the community and the chamber has been amazing," says Grill, 29. "When I was looking for a space, people in Zeeland met with me and walked me through the downtown."

The restaurant slogan of Handcrafted Comfort Food is reflected in its menu, says Grill, who is a chef and was recently the front house manager of the former 1913 Room in Grand Rapids.  

"The premise of the menu is to take any comfort food -- meatloaf, pot pie, mac and cheese, brownies, cookies -- and put my twist to it," he says. "Like our patty melt -- it will still be a classic dish, but it will be made with homemade meatloaf and homemade ketchup."

Grill revamped the 1,700-square-foot space to be family friendly and yet serve as a "great first date" eatery. Banquettes line three walls, the bar features a marble top, and the host stand is an old whiskey barrel that used to contain Founders beer. The restaurant seats 63 inside and 24 on the sidewalk patio.

"If you have great service and great food, you're only two-thirds of the way there," Grill says. "You still need a great atmosphere."

Hours: Mon. through Fri., lunch 11:30 to 4; Mon. through Thurs., dinner 4 to 9; Fri. and Sat., dinner 4 to 10.

Source: Lucas Grill, Public; Abigail deRoo, City of Zeeland
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

Sydney's Boutique brings a new shopping experience to Grand Rapids' Madison Square

Bringing women's fashions and accessories to the Madison Square business district in southeast Grand Rapids wasn't what owner Kristian Grant thought she'd be doing when she hit age 25. But the budding entrepreneur says she couldn't pass up the opportunity LINC Community Revitalization's retail incubator program provided. So she opened Sydney's Boutique (1258 Madison Ave. SE) a few months ago and hasn't looked back.

"I thought this [store] would be something I'd do when I was retired and sitting on a beach," Grant says with a laugh. "I was blogging about being a young professional in West Michigan and was looking for a reason to stay here. I wanted to do something that would leave a mark. When I sat down with LINC and talked to them about their [incubator] program, I thought this would be perfect."

The shop, named after Grant's eight-year-old daughter Sydney, has a unique selection of women's business, casual and evening attire in sizes zero to 28. Shoppers will find delightful jewelry items, chic purses, phone accessories and other fashion-forward items, as well. The boutique also offers an extensive online shopping selection at www.sydneysboutiquegr.com.

LINC's business incubator program is a three-year program that offers business owners one-on-one assistance with marketing, legal advice, accounting and other business services at reduced rates or free. All participants meet as a group each month, and many have storefront spaces at reduced rates.

"I could have started my own store and decided to create some change myself," Grant says. "But LINC has a real niche in this community. Ten years ago, Madison Square wasn't like this. LINC is really creating a space where kids and families can be, and I decided to be a part of it."

Hours: Thurs. and Fri., 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.; Sat. noon to 7; and open by appointment.

Source: Kristian Grant, Sydney's Boutique
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

$3M renovation of Grand Rapids' Fulton Street Farmers Market on schedule for May 5 opening

The long-awaited $3 million renovation of the Fulton Street Farmers Market in Grand Rapids is nearly ready with construction wrapping up soon on phase 2 of the project. The market's traditional opening day is May 5 and Development Project Manager Christine Helms-Maletic says the market will open on schedule.

The market began in 1922 thanks to a grassroots citizen campaign to make farm-fresh goods available to the public, says Helms-Maletic. The overhaul, which began last November, updated the market with all new infrastructure that includes a modern stormwater retention system, as well as the aboveground amenities. Those include 118 vendor stalls with a permanent roof structure with lighting and overhead fans, a plaza area on the Fulton St. end of the market, improved traffic flow for vehicles, and adequate electricity for vendors.

"We upgraded the [electrical] capacity, so when somebody plugs in their coffeemaker they don't bring the whole market down, which would happen before," Helms-Maletic says. "This is a community gathering place and I can't tell you how many people say 'I love the farmers market'. It has created a real strong sense of place and a sense of tradition."

The plaza will have space for hot food vendors. Patrons will be able to sit in the shade on benches that each encircles a tree -- which will be planted soon.

Phase three of the project will take place next fall with the construction of a 2,000-square-foot building for year-round vendor opportunities.

Fundraising is ongoing with $2.5 million contributed so far and another $250,000 still needed. Helms-Maletic says commemorative bricks and pavers are still available for purchase at www.ourgoodnessisgrowing.org or via a brochure, which will be available at the market.

Source: Christine Helms-Maletic, Fulton Street Farmers Market Development
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
Photographs: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

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Grand Rapids' LightHouse Furnishings shifts direction with new focus, new name

LightHouse Furnishings, a longtime go-to source for many West Michigan antiques collectors, has closed its doors and reopened as Always, Betti, a cozy boutique specializing in vintage and costume jewelry, sterling silver, and fine crystal.

Shop proprietor Betti Allen and her husband, Bob, redesigned the interior of the former LightHouse Furnishings space (1141 E. Fulton, next to the Fulton Street Farmers Market) to create a 200-square-foot boutique for Always, Betti. The remainder of the building is now home to UserEasy Computer Systems, Inc., owned by their son, Paolo Ladomato (see related article here).

"I've wanted to focus on selling smaller items for a while, and with the renovation and reopening of the farmers market, it was an opportune time to restructure our business," Allen says. "We have the best spot in town because of being next to the farmers market. We get a lot of foot traffic from there."

The shop offers an intriguing mix of fine, vintage and costume jewelry, sterling silver flatware, bowls and candlesticks, and high-end crystal and porcelain. The Allens have collected pieces from their travels in India, Hawaii and other U.S. states.

Allen says some of her best sellers are vintage furs, which she'll continue to have on hand. She will also still offer the occasional furniture piece, such as the circa 19th Century handpainted tall case clock by Scottish clock maker George Lumsden.

Store hours: 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Weds. through Sat.

Source: Betti Allen, Always, Betti
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
Photographs: Deborah Johnson Wood

Longtime computer services company moves back to Midtown Grand Rapids

UserEasy Computer Systems, Inc. used to be a familiar face in the Midtown/Fulton Heights area of Grand Rapids. The one-person shop occupied about 300 square feet in the rear of LightHouse Furnishings next to The Schnitz Deli. Now, after 12 years of operating UserEasy in an industrial area south of 28th St., owner Paolo Ladomato has moved the company and his seven employees back to E. Fulton St.  

Family ties run deep. Ladomato's parents, Bob and Betti Allen, owned LightHouse Furnishings, now located at 1141 E. Fulton, next door to the Fulton Street Farmers Market. Recent changes at LightHouse (see related story here) freed up some 3,500-square-feet in the building for UserEasy Computers.  

The shop, which opened this week, repairs and services desktop and laptop computers, sells computer accessories, sets up networking for residential and corporate needs, custom builds desktop computers and custom designs laptops. UserEasy also designs software businesses can use to track inventory and sales, handle accounting and perform other functions.

Internet sales a large part of the business, with sales coming through UserEasy's website, as well as Amazon and eBay, says Allen.

"We moved back to the city to be more centrally located to our customer base," says Bob Allen, who has worked for his son for the past eight years. "Plus we have more exposure being right on Fulton Street."

Source: Bob Allen, UserEasy Computer Systems, Inc.
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
Photographs: Deborah Johnson Wood
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