KALAMAZOO — The Kalamazoo Community Foundation has dropped its membership with Southwest Michigan First effective immediately as backlash continues over the economic development organization’s hiring of former GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield as its CEO.
The nonprofit announced the move today after the Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously voted to withdraw $10,000 in annual funding for Southwest Michigan First earlier this week.
Chatfield’s record as a state lawmaker — particularly when he refused to expand the state’s civil rights law to include protections for the LGBTQ community — is driving the backlash from local governments, LGBTQ advocates, Western Michigan University and some prominent business owners.
“We are proud to support the LGBTQ civil rights advocacy agenda,” Kalamazoo Community Foundation said in a statement. “Our vision of Kalamazoo County as the most equitable place to live can only be realized by centering equity in all our community strategies including economic development.”
“Southwest Michigan First’s values and vision for economic development do not align with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation,” the nonprofit added.
Kalamazoo Community Foundation Spokesperson Jordan Duckens declined to say how much the nonprofit contributes to Southwest Michigan First in an “effort to keep the focus on concerns around the misalignment of vision and values.”
According to the most recent tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service, Kalamazoo Community Foundation contributed “community improvement/capacity building” grants to Southwest Michigan First for $6,000 in 2018, $15,900 in 2017, and $15,000 in 2016.
Southwest Michigan First Managing Partner Heather Smith Baker said Thursday afternoon the organization’s board was in the process of drafting a statement in response to the Community Foundation’s announcement.
Chatfield, 32, responded to the city of Kalamazoo’s action earlier this week by updating Southwest Michigan First’s “official handbook” to “more clearly articulate” how it prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation in its hiring process.
Chatfield also told FOX 17 Wednesday that he is going to support “an effort to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.”
Such support would be contrary to his record during his six years as a state lawmaker when he publicly opposed expanding the Elliott-Larsen unless it included religious exemptions. Chatfield also won his seat in the state House in 2014 after criticizing incumbent Republican Rep. Frank Foster for pushing to expand Elliott-Larsen.
Meanwhile, the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners also discussed potentially ending its $75,000 annual contribution to Southwest Michigan First at its Tuesday meeting, and is scheduled to vote on the matter early next month.
Larry Bell, founder and chairman of Bell’s Brewery Inc. in Kalamazoo, told Crain’s Detroit Business this week that Chatfield’s appointment was “welcoming divisiveness” and that his position on LGBTQ issues “have not aligned with how the majority of people in Kalamazoo feel.”
As well, Western Michigan University President Edward Montgomery said in a statement that the university was not part of the decision-making process in hiring Chatfield.
“At Western, we unequivocally value diversity, equity and inclusion,” Montgomery said. “We understand that a diverse and inclusive community will also come with a range of political perspectives. We believe the quality of life in our region is enhanced by our LGBTQ community. There is no equivocation or backing away from that commitment. We also expect the same of our partners, including Southwest Michigan First. We will judge this partnership not just by what is said but by what is done to promote a vibrant, inclusive community.”