Grassroots Upstart Lighthouse Communities Becomes LINC with New Plans, New Tools

Malikah Pimpleton had an idea, a business plan and cash flow projections for a take-and-bake pizzeria -- take-and-bake meaning that low-income individuals could purchase a pizza using EBT because it would not be considered prepared food, as in a traditional parlor. Pimpleton was in her early thirties and on her way to a master's degree in business administration at Cornerstone University. She even had an "employee" who would volunteer several hours a week -- her mom, Betty Pimpleton.

What Malikah Pimpleton didn't have was a lot of money, an affordable location within her target market and a network for success. But, thanks to Grand Rapids' grassroots nonprofit Lighthouse Communities, Inc. and its new business incubator program, Pimpleton's brainchild, Urban Pizza, is in a brand new retail bay in the high profile Uptown Building (950 Wealthy St. SE) with a subsidized lease rate Pimpleton can manage.

Since its inception in 2001, Lighthouse Communities has leveraged some $40 million for community revitalization, investing in the rehab and resale of Grand Rapids houses that might otherwise have been left abandoned and rotting, and to re-develop abandoned commercial properties in Madison Square, Wealthy Street's Uptown Building and along the southwest end of Grandville Avenue.

Today, as a kickoff to its tenth anniversary year, Lighthouse announced it has adopted a chic new brand identity, LINC Community Revitalization, Inc.

LINC encompasses the three "C"s represented by its spelling: connection, collaboration and community. Co-executive Directors Darel Ross and Jeremy DeRoo say the new identity embraces the organization's holistic approach to neighborhood revitalization.

"To LINC, neighborhoods are systems, and it's aligning those systems in concert that makes a strong neighborhood," Ross says. "You can't do economic development without touching the people. Conversely, you can't bring in human services without touching economic development."

"Communities have three major assets to preserve and maximize," DeRoo adds. "The people who live there, the value of the housing and real estate and the businesses that operate there. The businesses, and the goods and services people buy, are a very important part of a healthy neighborhood."

When LINC's $1.7 million Development Center (1167 Madison Ave. SE) opens this spring, it will be a symbol of the organization's philosophy for renewal, providing more than just a new home base for LINC. The center combines the renovation of a formerly vacant and dilapidated storefront with new construction, offers a community gathering space, brings Southtown its first co-working environment to attract professionals and provides incubator spaces for retail startups. A portion of the building will house Madison Square's only sit-down restaurant, under development by Southern Fish Fry owner Robert Ball, and a neighborhood post of the Grand Rapids Police Department.

LINC's vision for the near future includes:
•    The proposed $5.5 million development of the abandoned TJ's Appliance building (413 Hall St. SE) a half block down the street from the Development Center, which could bring 21 affordable-rate apartments and 6,600 square feet of retail space to Madison Square.
•    Attracting a grocery store to fill the commercial bays in LINC's $5 million renovation of the vacant Hekman Biscuit Company building into Roosevelt Park Lofts (1363 Grandville Ave. SW).
•    Incubating 10 businesses in 2011, part of a push to attract 75 businesses and develop another 75,000 square feet of commercial space in targeted business districts -- the combination of which could spur 150 new jobs by 2016.

The vision capitalizes on millions of dollars of infrastructure improvements in Madison Square and along Grandville Avenue already completed by the City of Grand Rapids, the Madison Square Corridor Improvement District and the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association.

"Nationwide, most small businesses fail in the first five years due to lack of training," says Jorge Gonzalez, LINC's first-ever economic development director. "They may have the best product, but if they lack in accounting, tax structures, a business plan, marketing or legal knowledge, that's where our new on-location incubator program comes in."

Gonzalez, 38, is a husband and father of five children ages 2 to 12, and was raised by Mexican immigrant parents in a Spanish-speaking home near Pleasant and Franklin streets. He joined LINC in November after 15 years in banking, including a five-year stint as Macatawa Bank's Community Development Officer. As President Emeritus of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Gonzalez has a network of contacts in both English- and Spanish-speaking business environments.

"I'm working to develop a three-year on-location incubator program," Gonzalez says. "That means that in any business district where LINC is doing commercial development, we will dedicate at least one subsidized space for a startup business in our incubator program."

Gonzalez says that could put entrepreneurs in new and renovated locations throughout the city with the goal of helping the startup become established with a customer base in a local market.

Besides subsidized rent, the program will offer free business training by area professionals and training centers. To-date, Gonzalez has met with the Michigan Small Business Technology and Development Center, Grand Rapids Community College and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber and plans to meet with other community stakeholders.

"We're not looking to reinvent the wheel, but to form partnerships with those who are already providing the training," Gonzalez says. "We don't want entrepreneurs to sign up just to get low rent. The emphasis is on the training. I will serve as a bridge between the business owner and the professional, and will be available to the entrepreneur to find out where they're struggling and where they want to grow."

Malikah Pimpleton says Gonzalez and others from LINC have listened and responded to her needs as she grows her six-month-old Urban Pizza business.

"Jorge is working with me so I can develop additional marketing to the Hispanic population," Pimpleton says. "I see daily the most important issues that need attention and he's helping me with those by getting me in the SBTDC's FastTrac program. I asked him, am I doing the most I can do so that at the end of the day, end of the week and end of the month we are hitting our projections?"

The result is that Urban Pizza, which already has one part-time employee, will soon add another; a big step, says Pimpleton, in the growth of the fledgling enterprise.

"I'm very secure in what I'm doing," says Pimpleton. "I have a lot of faith in everything I do and I'm a very determined person. But I still need help with my business. If anyone asked me if they should be part of (LINC's) incubator program I'd say, definitely! Definitely go! They have so many resources and programs people don't know about it. If you're a young person and you want to start a business, you should start there."

Note: To celebrate its 10th year and the name change, LINC will host an anniversary event in conjunction with the 2011 Community Spirit Awards. The event and awards ceremony will take place on Thursday, March 24, 2011 at DeVos Place.   

Deborah Johnson Wood is development news editor for Rapid Growth and the owner of Alpha2Omega Writing Services in Grand Rapids. She has been published in Arts Showcase Magazine, Eastown Fiction and is an award-winning poet. She is in a mad love affair with Grand Rapids.


Jorge Gonzalez - Economic Development Director of LINC

Malikah Pimpleton of Urban Pizza

Jorge Gonzalez

LINC's $1.7 million Development Center located at 1167 Madison Ave. SE (2)

Co-executive Directors Darel Ross and Jeremy DeRoo (left, right) and Jorge Gonzalez (middle)

Malikah Pimpleton makes pizza

Exterior of Urban Pizza

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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