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Friday, 11 September 2015 10:56

Westown Collaborative receives $450k grant from GRCF to give voice to residents

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Projects like Fulton Place are bringing much needed housing options to Grand Rapids’ west side neighborhood. A $450,000 grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation to Westown Collaborative aims to ensure that local residents have their voices heard as the neighborhood becomes a target for more developments. Projects like Fulton Place are bringing much needed housing options to Grand Rapids’ west side neighborhood. A $450,000 grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation to Westown Collaborative aims to ensure that local residents have their voices heard as the neighborhood becomes a target for more developments. COURTESY RENDERING

GRAND RAPIDS — As the west side of Grand Rapids undergoes significant transition with a variety of development projects, one group of organizations is working to ensure the changes will benefit local residents rather than displace them.

“There is certainly some anxiety,” said Kurt Reppart, executive director of The Other Way Ministries, speaking on behalf of residents of the west side. “To some degree, there has really only been one project completed (600 Douglas), and the rest they’re breaking ground on.

“People are just seeing dollar signs and trying to ride the wave. That’s probably the state we’re in now. (Residents) are seeing construction and road closing signs and that’s raising anxiety.”

The Other Way Ministries serves as the primary fiduciary and one of the eight partner organizations that make up the Westown Collaborative. This group, which was formed in 2011, is designed to coordinate, focus and support development efforts on the city’s west side.

In addition to The Other Way, the collaborative consists of Westown Jubilee Housing, Servants Community Church, Gold Avenue Church, John Ball Area Neighbors, Esperanza Covenant Church, Bridge Street House of Prayer and Keystone Community Church, in addition to other participatory groups.

The collaborative’s work has proven so important and necessary that it attracted the attention of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, which announced at the end of August that it was issuing a three-year, $450,000 grant to The Other Way Ministries for the Westown Collaborative.

Reppart said the funds would go to bolster its operations as a whole, but specifically to ramp up efforts to connect the community members to the businesses and projects that are springing up in the area.

“The number one thing (we do to help residents) is that we have connectors that are out in the community talking to residents and listening to them about their hopes and concerns,” Reppart said. “Sometimes it’s informal or through focus groups or in the form of a survey. We’ve done surveys around health, employment, housing. We’ve done a focus group on race-related difficulty in the neighborhood and we take that information and represent it.

“The other thing is getting residents to turn out. That’s the part we hope to expand over the next three years with the grant. Up until now, it has been mostly going to them and listening to them. The next three years, we want to be more proactive in exercising their voice.”

The Westown Collaborative recently hired a project director and plans to hire two more community connectors to help with the advocacy efforts.

Reppart said that the Westown Collaborative also wants to improve how it alerts residents about public meetings and notices, whether via social media or through word-of-mouth. The reason: They want residents to be a more integral part of the conversation.

Kate Luckert Schmid, program director for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, echoed many of Reppart’s sentiments over the importance of integrating residents into the process.

“We’re certainly seeing the tension between residents and the developers and investors that are bringing some wonderful resources to the west side,” she said. “Our position is that residents should have more than just a view — they should have a voice.”

“We are pro-development and we just think that great things can happen from that process,” she added.


GROWING ROOTS IN THE WEST SIDE

Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s grant is the latest example of what has already been a strong focus on the city’s west side for the organization. The foundation has also grown roots in that area with its Challenge Scholars program, which was created in partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools to offer academic, health and social support for students of Harrison Park and Westwood Middle Schools.

Participating students from those schools transition into Union High School, where they will receive a scholarship to a Michigan public college or university upon graduation.

Schmid said that the latest grant to the Westown Collaborative was intentional to further the efforts of Challenge Scholars.

“We’ve actually been very specific about that,” Schmid said. “We have asked that all of our community connectors make home visits to the Challenge Scholars families specifically to check in with them.”

The Challenge Scholars program precedes the current wave of activity on the west side and became a focus of GRCF’s efforts for other reasons.

“At the time, we looked where other donors were investing and the makeup of the community — income levels, all the other factors — when we decided to make our stand on the west side,” Schmid said. “Now that we have, we made a long-term commitment to it.”

A significant wave of projects is currently in progress in the area, including Fulton Place (a mixed-use development), the New Holland Brewing Co. expansion and 616 Development LLC’s Lofts on Alabama.

Reppart said the scale of these projects is notable, pointing to the fact that the area is undergoing a lot more significant changes than simply adding a restaurant or an apartment complex.

But with the right approach, he said that residents could also benefit from this gold rush to Grand Rapids’ west side.

“Our hope is to continue to advocate for a good, affordable housing policy and advocate to these business owners that are moving in to hire locally and pay living wages,” Reppart said. “(Hiring local residents) will improve the culture of these companies. Our neighbors are incredibly gifted and lovely people. We think there is a great benefit for the business community, too.”

Read 4528 times Last modified on Monday, 28 September 2015 11:05
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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