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Sunday, 29 October 2017 12:11

DeVos-backed development nonprofit regroups to address community mistrust

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AmplifyGR is backing off on its plans to redevelop properties it owns in Grand Rapids’ southeast side neighborhoods as it seeks to forge stronger relationships with residents. AmplifyGR is backing off on its plans to redevelop properties it owns in Grand Rapids’ southeast side neighborhoods as it seeks to forge stronger relationships with residents. Courtesy Photo

GRAND RAPIDS — The would-be developers of approximately 35 acres of property in southeast Grand Rapids are stepping back from their plans, at least for now.

AmplifyGR, the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit founded with financial backing from the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, the Cheri DeVos Foundation and Rockford Construction Co. Inc., announced last month that it will halt the large community engagement meetings it’s been hosting since its formal launch in late June.

The organization that aims to increase jobs, housing, education and health care in three neighborhoods within the city’s southeast side believes that it will have more success earning the trust of the community’s residents by leveraging various partnerships and doing more small-scale engagement, according to AmplifyGR Executive Director Jon Ippel.

“Trust needs to be earned and it needs to be built,” Ippel said in an interview with MiBiz. “As we continue the journey with these community conversations, at the last meeting it just became more apparent that the community wanted us to slow down and dig a little more deeply, build more relationships in the community. I think to honor what we’ve heard, we’re committed to doing that.”

AmplifyGR’s three main geographic areas of focus in the city include Boston Square, Madison Square and the Cottage Grove corridor.

While real estate development is one emphasis for the organization, AmplifyGR has no intention of buying up single-family homes, according to Ippel. Rather, it intends over time to redevelop the various buildings and parcels of land it presently owns.

Ippel acknowledged the general scope and complexity of AmplifyGR’s mission pose their share of challenges, which drove the nonprofit to seek out partnerships to support its efforts.

“As we have these various conversations on a full breadth of topics, I think the largeness of it all, it’s a big scope to tackle,” Ippel said. “I (also) think there’s the aspect of getting to know you. What is our role as AmplifyGR in this work? I think those are very legitimate questions that folks have.”

ENSURING BENEFITS

The southeast side neighborhoods within AmplifyGR’s focus area have for decades been plagued by disinvestment and policies such as “redlining,” wherein capital and basic services were generally kept out. Many of the parcels are vacant or contain blighted buildings.

Given those dynamics, local residents are prepared to welcome groups pledging to bring revitalization, as long as it’s done in an equitable manner.

“We definitely welcome AmplifyGR to the community in regards to revitalization,” said Divine Booker, a 36-year-old lifetime resident of Grand Rapids’ southeast side. “I think the community issues and concerns are more so directly related to gentrification (and) displacement on the housing side and just the lack of real engagement. We want to be involved. We want to protect this community from displacement through involvement.”

Booker said he’d like to see memorandums of understanding (MOUs) and/or community benefits agreements signed with the city of Grand Rapids or other community partners.

Community benefits agreements are legal documents that developers sometimes deploy for major projects. They require businesses moving into the area to hire local residents at specified wages and mandate the inclusion of affordable housing and other benefits aimed at ensuring gentrification and displacement are kept to a minimum.

Detroit voters last November passed a form of the agreements, requiring developers to provide some form of benefits to local residents for projects worth at least $75 million that use either publicly owned land or receive tax breaks of at least $1 million.

Based on the various goals at AmplifyGR, the group’s executives believe some form of community benefits could be “easily included in an MOU with the City and/or community partners dedicated to collectively achieving these outcomes,” Ippel told MiBiz in a follow-up email. “We are early in this process and continue to work with the community to unify around a common vision that creates clear expectations around desired outcomes.”

TIME TO REGROUP

Sources contacted for this report noted they remain open to the AmplifyGR development; most said they welcome it, in fact.

However, the approach the organization took from the start earlier this year rubbed many longtime neighborhood advocates and real estate developers the wrong way.

Jeremy DeRoo, executive director of Grand Rapids-based LINC Community Revitalization Inc., said coming in from the outside and offering solutions rather than listening to the needs of residents proved to be a misstep.

“The onus is on the developer or the outside actor to articulate the opportunity that they are presenting to the community in a way that the neighborhood can respond to,” said DeRoo, whose organization engages in workforce, community and real estate development projects within a similar geographic area as the one targeted by AmplifyGR.

DeRoo said residents expressed considerable frustration in regards to the developers’ perceived lack of concrete plans.

“It’s very justifiable –– and even desirable –– to come in before it’s fully baked,” DeRoo said. “But to say that you don’t know what the ingredients are is a different conversation. They’re coming in and saying, ‘Here’s the solution this neighborhood needs.’ It’s the opposite approach of starting with a conversation of, ‘Hey, it seems like a pretty decent place and you’ve got a lot going for you. What will it take to get you over the top?’”

While AmplifyGR intends to regroup and come up with new strategies in light of the criticism, Ippel says the four core pillars of housing, education, jobs and health care ultimately remain the focus of the organization’s work.

“Too often, in any community, we’d work on these different issues in silos,” Ippel said. “Really, our goal and our vision is to integrate those different programs simultaneously through partnerships with others.”

Read 3611 times Last modified on Friday, 27 October 2017 13:06
Nick Manes

Staff writer

nmanes@mibiz.com

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