The first phase of construction work to turn the former South Christian High School into a $20 million Special Olympics Michigan Inc. Unified Sports and Inclusion Center is expected to wrap up in May.
The 17-acre campus is being transformed into what will be the largest Special Olympics facility in the world. A $10 million capital campaign for the initial phase of the project launched in June 2021 to repurpose the 127,000-square-foot former school.
The massive renovation project has already benefited athletes and families served by the nonprofit and partner organizations also housed in the building. The project also took a large amount of private and public funding, as well as collaboration, earning it the nonprofit deal of the year in MiBiz’s 2022 M&A Deals & Dealmakers Awards.
Special Olympics Michigan Inc.
Top executive: Tim Hileman, president and CEO
Total Michigan employees: 35 full-time employees and more than 23,000 volunteers
Company description: Nonprofit providing year-round sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities
The first phase of renovations focus mostly on the former school, including making the building universally accessible and renovating space for various nonprofits’ offices. The next phase will focus more on the outdoor elements of the campus.
Honor Construction has served as the owner’s representative throughout the construction process. Mathison | Mathison Architects and Fishbeck are the design and engineering team on the project, and Erhardt Construction Co. is the general contractor.
“From the athletes’ and families’ perspective, the benefit of having all of these organizations come together is that it improves the range of services,” Special Olympics Michigan President and CEO Tim Hileman told MiBiz. “That has provided increased efficiency across all our organizations to save costs on infrastructure and put that back toward programming, as well as bringing so many more ideas and connections together.”
Organizations with office space in the Special Olympics facility or that are planning to move their office there this year are: Autism Support of Kent County, Brody’s Be Cafe, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, Disability Advocates of Kent County, Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, Far Out Volleyball Club, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan/Be Nice, Moka and Thresholds.
“When we were first reviewing and looking at purchasing the building itself, we recognized that from a pure space standpoint there was more square footage than (Special Olympics Michigan) would likely use or need,” Hileman said. “We reached out to some organizations immediately that were service-minded, and that is helping us create a more sustainable model.”
Early in his tenure as president and CEO roughly three years ago, Hileman brought the idea of buying South Christian High School to the nonprofit’s board of directors, said board member Erik Daly. Special Olympics Michigan acquired the property from South Christian High School for $3.5 million in June 2019.
“Bringing that to the board was a really bold thing to do,” Daly said. “Then we continued on with the project and a successful campaign was pulled together during the pandemic. The project pivoted in some ways to a more collaborative effort that brought together all of these organizations to make it a more economical model for everyone.”
Sharing the space with various nonprofits helps all of the organizations, and has helped Special Olympics Michigan create a deferred maintenance fund to make the building sustainable long term, Hileman said.
“Navigating a community mental health system can be tough, and nonprofit resources can be tough to access, so by walking through the door and having answers there together has been tremendous for families, parents and our athletes,” Hileman said.
Pre-pandemic, Special Olympics Michigan served about 20,000 athletes and unified partners throughout the state on an annual basis, Hileman said. The organization previously relied on partnerships with schools and other organizations for practice and competition space.
“Throughout their lives, our athletes have been playing on someone else’s court, and now they’re playing on their own court,” Hileman said.
Competitions and practice for Special Olympics athletes, as well as programming from partner organizations, has been ongoing during construction work at the building.
“It’s been great because we have a controlled environment where we know we can put in all the safety measures and protocols to help bring athletes back,” Hileman said. “We’re seeing an increase in our athletes returning week over week since the pandemic hit, and the building was a big part of that.”
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