BYRON TWP. — Special Olympics Michigan Inc. has launched the public phase of a capital campaign to raise $20 million to transform the former South Christian High School into what would be the largest Special Olympics facility in the world.
The nonprofit has raised nearly $7 million from various donors and organizations since February of 2020, and announced the public phase late last month.
The 127,000-square-foot facility on 17 acres at 160 68th St. SW in Byron Township would be transformed to house eight other nonprofit organizations, various meeting rooms and health services, along with an athletic complex and outdoor fields.
“We want this to be a world class sports complex for people with disabilities because that doesn’t really exist,” said Krista Paulin, Special Olympics Michigan’s (SOMI) senior director of development. “We’re not only going to be hosting local and regional events, but also national and international competitions as well.”
SOMI is known for its popular summer games held at Central Michigan University’s campus in Mount Pleasant. That event as of now is expected to remain at CMU, but the organization holds more than 700 competitions a year throughout the state, Paulin said.
The organization also does much more than just host sports competitions. The wide variety of SOMI’s resources — which include health screenings, nutrition classes and education initiatives like anti-bullying — will be included at the new facility. The organization will also host educational programs for teachers, law enforcement and health clinics.
Special Olympics Michigan serves about 20,000 people, though roughly 1 million people in Michigan have a disability. Paulin said the goal of the new facility will be to raise awareness about SOMI’s range of services.
“Our athletes will have a home where they will come first,” Paulin said. “There are a lot of gaps in services in awareness where this will also help bring that all together.”
Nonprofit officials also expect the facility to be an economic driver by drawing thousands of athletes and volunteers to the area annually and by hosting other organizations.
“This is a place where our athletes will always come first. We’re always renting someone else’s space,” Paulin said, adding that SOMI plans to rent out the new facility to others.
Creating a hub
The first construction phase is set to begin in late summer or early fall of this year. Nonprofit officials hope to complete office spaces for the eight other nonprofits so they can move in at the end of 2021, Paulin said. Those organizations are: Autism Support of Kent County, Brody’s Be Café, 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.
“This really snowballed into a collaborative hub of nonprofit organizations serving intellectual and physical disabilities and mental health challenges,” Paulin said. “If you’re a family member or someone showing up to a Special Olympics event, you can also go down the hall and get a health screening or other services.”
SOMI acquired the property from South Christian High School for $3.5 million in June 2019. Mathison | Mathison Architects and Fishbeck are the design and engineering team on the project, with Erhardt Construction Co. serving as the general contractor. The entire facility will be designed so anyone can access it, Paulin said.
“We want people of all abilities to be able to walk into this building. It’s for them, so we have to be mindful of that with every space,” Paulin said. “We are going to widen doorways, change handles on doors, all of those things we have to do with this building to transform it.”
The facility will also include a theater that is accessible for people of all abilities to perform and attend performances, a health care clinic to treat people with disabilities and to train health care providers on how to best care for people with disabilities, and a life skills and nutrition center with a learning kitchen.
“The fact that we were still able to raise $7 million during a global pandemic says so much about the Grand Rapids community,” Paulin said. “People still had the enthusiasm and excitement to support us through the pandemic, and because of some key players, we were able to really launch this forward with confidence. That was really special to us.”