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The Bear Necessities

So what do three siblings from Chicago, all with humanities degrees from Calvin College, decide to do with their lives? Why, start a construction company in the inner city of Grand Rapids, of course.

Managing partners Barry and Jackson VanDyke chose their career path about four years ago after a painting company they worked for went under. “We both really enjoyed that kind of work, so we bought a house in Heritage Hill and fixed it up, then bought another one after that, then three more after that,” says Barry, 29.

And Bear Manor Properties was born in January 2004. Their sister Heather VanDyke-Titus, 32, joined them two years later. And while we hear a lot about our talented young people heading for Chicago, this is a reverse exodus. They moved here because they believe Grand Rapids is a very happening place.

“We love it here,” Barry says. “Number one, it’s very affordable. And it’s a very exciting time right now, where the development in the inner city is really starting to snowball. It’s a whole new game.”

“It’s changed so much since I moved away after college,” adds Heather, the company's community liaison, who came here after living in New York for six years. Their dad, a lawyer in Chicago, is a silent partner.

“We’ve not only decided to stay,” says Barry. “We’ve kind of fallen in love with this city; we think it’s the bright spot in Michigan.”

Community Engagement Keys Success
And these three are definitely helping to make it shine. Since the company started, they’ve purchased and renovated more than 15 properties, many around the Wealthy Historic Theater District. They buy a house, fix it up, and hopefully sell it (although they’ve been forced to rent their renovations recently because of the downturn in the real estate market.)

They’ve also done a few commercial projects and are currently working on their first officially LEED-certified, or green, building located on Wealthy Street, right next to their office.

But their work just isn’t about buildings and houses. It’s about neighborhoods. “We all believe passionately in the revitalization of this city,” Barry says. “And it starts with the neighborhoods.”

The Bear Manor philosophy is based on “supporting urbanism, local economies, and the entrepreneurial spirit,” so the company works closely with neighborhood associations, historic preservation organizations, zoning administrators, and the city to make sure what they’re doing aligns with what the community wants.

“Their vision of incorporating social justice in a for-profit development company is pretty phenomenal,” says Mark Rumsey, executive director, East Hills Council of Neighbors. ”They really understand that neighbors have to have input on what’s happening in their neighborhoods."

"It can’t just be blind development where someone wants to put in a new drug store and then comes in and tears down a half a block to put up the building," Rumsey adds. "They’re constantly engaged with the neighborhoods and business associations to keep everyone up to date on what they’re doing or what they’d like to do.”

And they encourage other entrepreneurs to do the same. In fact, the first piece of advice they’d offer to anyone about to start a business is to contact the local business association. “Every business district has one,” says Jackson VanDyke, 27. “And it’s really important that you get involved with them right away.”

“It’s a good way to meet people and find out what’s going on,” Heather adds. ”It’s also a ready-made group in the community where you can step in and find support.”

Ten Years to Liftoff
As for working together, the three siblings say they’ve always gotten along and are happy not only to be working together, but to be raising their families near one another, too. All live in the city, and they each define their locale by the nearby parks: Wilcox, Martin Luther King, and Highland.

They share work duties – no one’s afraid to pick up a hammer – and they employ seven others, including fine craftsmen, to do the custom work on old period houses. They take pride in the homes they restore and enjoy getting to know the people who live around them. “A lot of people have lived in this neighborhood for 20 or 30 years,” Jackson says. “In fact, two people we met recently got married in one of the houses we’re fixing up right now.”

Another fun fact in their own history: Their grandfather, also a Calvin grad, used to have an occasional drink in the neighborhood tavern just down the street from Bear Manor. The pub will soon re-open as the Meanwhile Bar, thanks in part to this busy three-some. “Friends of ours bought it and didn’t have the financial resources to do the renovation themselves, so we stepped in and helped them out,” Barry explains.

“We feel there are huge possibilities in these older neighborhoods,” Heather says. ”That’s where you find the diversity and the creative mix. We really want to develop that whole unique flavor and make them little pockets of culture throughout the whole city.”

They believe there’s much on the horizon for Grand Rapids, especially because so many people are working toward the same goals. “People are feeling empowered and they’re making an impact,” said Heather. “That’s inspiring to us; it gets us excited, too. It’s like that whole ‘Cool Cities’ campaign – Grand Rapids is attracting a lot of people like us.”

“We think this is going to be an amazing town,” Barry says. “Give it 10 years and people from all over will come here because it’s such a cool place to live.”

Keasha Palmer is a freelance writer who lives near Rockford. She recently wrote for RGM about The Amazing Chocolate Tree exhibit at Meijer Gardens which ends September 3, 2007.


Abbey Road??  Nope, it's the VanDyke siblings near the corner of Wealthy and Diamond

Heather, Jackson, Barry VanDyke inside the new Meanwhile Bar

Jackson VanDyke

Heather VanDyke

Barry VanDyke

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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