From seminary to STEM: Local pastor heads up huge education project at Steelcase pyramid

Local businessman, educator and seminary graduate Jerry Zandstra is keeping busy on the heels of a November announcement of his company’s pending acquisition of the Steelcase pyramid, which he plans to turn into a groundbreaking STEM education hub.
On first glance, Jerry Zandstra, the co-founder of the Pyramid Campus Group that recently announced its finalization of a $7.5 million purchase agreement for the Steelcase pyramid building, doesn’t exactly fit the mold you’d imagine for a player in ambitious real estate deals and cutting-edge experiments in incubator-style spaces.

A native of Highland, Ind. who moved to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College, Zandstra graduated from the seminary at Calvin with two master’s degrees before he undertook doctoral studies in 16th century history. He’s served at the same church in Wayland for years and still shows up to preach every Sunday, although, as he notes, he doesn’t have an office there and “doesn’t even have keys to the joint.”

But Zandstra also received a Ph.D from Western Michigan in public policy and administration, and he’s taught global business and economics in the MBA program at Cornerstone University for the past 10 years. He’s been part of several area companies and served on the boards of manufacturing groups, he says, and in keeping in touch with his friends and connections in industry, he began to understand West Michigan’s dire need for more workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“Every manufacturer I talk to has more orders than they can fill right now,” Zandstra says. “What they don’t have is people. From the business perspective, the manufacturing renaissance is alive and well, but from the people development and education perspective, we have a bit of a lag time here.”

The Pyramid P20 Campus is Zandstra’s solution to help address that lag: a 663,000-square foot collaborative education compound for STEM fields and the arts (STEAM) in the area-iconic former Steelcase R&D facility and its surrounding 181 acres of land in Caledonia. The Pyramid Campus will house a number of K-12 public schools, charter schools, faith-based schools and even home-school students, plus a number of universities and businesses, all working in close proximity and with access to the cutting-edge manufacturing facilities, design studios and communal spaces that Steelcase designed into the building, Zandstra says.

The “P20” in the name represents the wide range of education levels that the facility, which is located at 6100 East Paris Ave. SE, intends to cover: from preschool all the way through post-graduate studies.

The idea for the Pyramid Campus came about after a fateful meeting with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, whom Zandstra says he has known for years. Zandstra’s most recent business venture before Pyramid Campus has been Inno-versity, a still-active Lowell-based company he founded to create training modules and presentations for a wide range of companies.

While operating Inno-versity, Zandstra also served as part of the InnoGroup, a group of Zeeland-area companies that frequently collaborate and work in education, among other areas. After InnoGroup founded two charter schools in Zeeland, Innocademy and iCademy, Gov. Snyder came to visit and take a tour of the schools.

Zandstra had a brief meeting with the governor where Zandstra mentioned an idea that had been rattling around in his head: the concept of converting the Steelcase pyramid into an education facility. Zandstra told the governor he wasn’t sure, though, what kind of school or education project could fill the vast compound.

“[Governor Snyder] said, ‘Nah, you’re thinking way too small,’” Zandstra says. “‘You need to think from preschool to grad school, bring in multiple schools, multiple kinds of schools.’ And so it really came in that 20-minute conversation of us just kicking ideas around.”

Zandstra next approached Steelcase, took a tour of the building, and broached the idea to company officials. After a number of conversations with the company and a series of consultations with teachers, school superintendents and other education professionals, Zandstra formed Pyramid Campus Group and the company began to fine-tune the details for the project.

Among those details: The facility will feature innovations like a leadership council, funded with $200,000 and headed by Bert Bleke, a Grand Rapids Community College board chairman and former superintendent of Grand Rapids public schools. The leadership council will work to research new ideas, assist the schools and encourage collaboration, and is part of a two-pronged approach that Zandstra says will shape the sort of “incubator spirit” of the Pyramid Campus, along with aspects of spatial design like shared teachers’ lounges, classroom areas and arts and music facilities.

In addition, the Pyramid Campus project will include a $2,500 scholarship fund for graduating seniors to attend one of the universities involved in the campus; an angel fund that will grant money for student projects and will include students, faculty and business people on its committee; and a law firm that will donate time on-campus to help students learn entrepreneurial skills like creating a business plan, forming an LLC and filing for patents and trademarks.

Besides opportunities for students, Zandstra says the Pyramid Campus model has grown to include a significant higher education component that will allow prospective teachers to study education and work closely with K-12 students in a STEM context throughout their degree programs.

“In teacher training, typically you go to school for three years and go to the classroom in your fourth year,” Zandstra says. “Here they’ll be in the midst of a bunch of different types of schools at all different levels from day one, surrounded by engineers, scientists. In that context, what kind of teachers can you produce that have an impact on the whole state?”

Many of these ideas, Zandstra adds, have taken shape in recent months as the project continues to evolve.

“I would imagine five years from now, a bunch of other stuff will have evolved that we never saw coming,” he says.

The real estate deal with Steelcase should close during the first quarter of 2015, Zandstra says, with the first schools moving into the facility in fall of that year. He says that so far, several area schools are on board, including at least one and possibly two public schools, a charter school, a Christian school and at least some presence from home-school students.

Zandstra declined to name any of the schools or businesses he expects to join the campus, saying that he would allow those organizations to make the announcements for themselves. He did say, however, that he expects at least one school to announce their participation by Christmas of this year.

At the moment, Zandstra says, Pyramid Campus Group expects something like a five-year rollout for the project, beginning next fall when the first schools move in.

“It’s not like in September 2015 it’s going to be 100 percent full,” he says. “Some schools can move faster, some schools have more laborious processes they have to go through; some of them it takes two years or three years to get through boards or committees. But we’ll work with them as long as they understand the collaborative spirit and they get what we’re doing.”

Originally, Zandstra says, Steelcase planned to donate the pyramid building to Pyramid Campus Group, but later turned the deal into what Zandstra calls “a straight-up real estate transaction” using traditional funding methods, at Pyramid Campus Group’s behest.

“Donations are really tricky,” Zandstra says. “There’s financing components you have to do. Finally we went to them and said, ‘How about we purchase the building and just make this a straight up real estate deal?’ That just clarifies things, and so all of the funkiness you get when you make things a donation… It just became so much easier for them and for us.”

For the same reason, Zandstra says he wasn’t upset when state lawmakers denied an effort by State Sen. Mark Jansen from Gaines Township to grant the Pyramid Campus $5.5 million in funding as part of Gov. Snyder’s recent supplemental spending plan. The funding effort was appreciated, he says, but not solicited by the Pyramid Campus Group.

Zandstra credits Steelcase’s openness to his vision and the company’s cooperation as a major factor in bringing the Pyramid Campus project to its current stage. Steelcase declined to comment on the project, however, except to say they were excited to watch Zandstra’s vision unfold.

“While we’re excited about the Pyramid Campus project and its education focus, we’ve decided to keep the story from a Steelcase perspective as purely a real estate transaction,” wrote Laura VanSlyke of Steelcase corporate communications in an e-mail to Rapid Growth.

“The pyramid is a unique building that required a unique vision for how it might be re-purposed,” Dave Sylvester, Steelcase chief financial officer, said in a November press release on the project. “It was originally designed as a place to inspire innovation, and we’re pleased that it now has the potential to inspire future generations of innovators.”

Zandstra says the renovations on the building should prove minimal — some minor demolition and “a lot of paint and carpet,” as he puts it — and credits Steelcase for keeping the building clean and up-to-date over the years. He also notes that the Pyramid Campus Group has already taken on a chief of security, to help with wayfinding and ensuring that the building is safe for students and tenants to travel to and attend.

For those who drove by the looming Steelcase pyramid for years and wondered what the interior held, Zandstra says it includes about 200,000 square feet below grade of film studios, manufacturing space and test labs that Steelcase used for research and development. Above that lies about 450,000 square feet of office space, with many of the upper floors resembling a “doughnut hole,” as Zandstra puts it — a core of rooms surrounded by wide-open space, which Zandstra notes already resembles the design of many modern schools.

“In tandem with Steelcase’s movable walls and furniture, it becomes very flexible very fast,” he says. “We’re not putting up a lot of drywall and all of that. And the kitchen for the culinary school is outfitted down to the dishes and silverware. the manufacturing spaces is wired exactly like you’d need it — all of this infrastructure stuff is already there.”

To help with renovations and managing the facility, Pyramid Campus Group partnered with Rockford Construction Company, which created and currently maintains business spaces like Blue35 and GRid70 in Grand Rapids. Zandstra says that the modern design and collaborative spirit of those two projects provided part of the inspiration for his vision with the pyramid, so it was only natural to contact Rockford when the time came to find a company to help remodel the building.

Kurt Hassberger, chairman of the board at Rockford Construction, says his company brings long-time expertise in the rehabilitation and repurposing of buildings, and adds that Rockford is excited to work on a unique facility like the pyramid, with its wide range of aspects and applications.

“Just from a management standpoint, we’ve been involved in a lot of creative, collaborative projects like GRid70 and Blue35,” Hassberger says. “It’s not just managing the building and changing lightbulbs, but helping the tenants work together and enhancing their experience. So that’s something we think we really bring to the table.”

Zandstra says he can’t provide a current estimate for what a school might pay to join the Pyramid Campus, but says that the facility’s business model will include a tiered payment structure that will make it as affordable as possible for schools to participate. Businesses will pay the most to join and keep offices, he says, with universities paying less and K-12 schools paying the least.

“Businesses will pay far and away the most,” Zandstra says “and every company we’ve taken through that wants to be in there is fine with that. They can’t be in it just to be in it; they have to have an internship or apprenticeship program [for the students]. And they have to help subsidize the schools, because they have access to all these great minds.”

Zandstra also says that Pyramid Campus Group will explore all possible means to leverage the space, including hosting open houses for the community next fall, using the campus as a community gathering space and a convention center on the weekends, and allowing groups to host events in the pyramid.

“The more stuff we’re doing like that, the more we’re driving the cost down for the schools,” Zandstra says.

Zandstra says that one of his main hopes for the Pyramid Campus is that it will show K-12 students that manufacturing is not a dead industry or “your grandfather’s job.” If only he and other education innovators can help provide the workforce, he says, the area’s manufacturing economy is ready to go.

“The last 20 years, I think lots of people said, ‘Don’t go into manufacturing,’” he says. “Well, I think that’s been both untrue and harmful, particularly to Michigan. I think through apprenticeships and internships, if kids can really see what manufacturing is, what it means to build stuff from the design stage to hands-on — if kids can really see that live, I think we’ll see a manufacturing renaissance in our area.”

For Zandstra, the recent explosion of interest in the Pyramid Campus project has brought on sort of a good problem: more meetings, media requests and tour requests than he can handle. It’s a blessing, but he hates picking people based on their utility, he says.

“When a 67-year-old retired schoolteacher just wants to go see [the pyramid] and volunteer any way he can, I would love to get that guy through,” Zandstra says. “Unfortunately, I probably need to take the university that wants to go through, and I hate making those value choices.”

“Hopefully the 67-year-old guy will hang around a while and we can give him a private tour once things settle down,” he adds. “We’re gonna do our best.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. Stalk him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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