BYRON TWP. — Pam Liggett isn’t sure whether the nonprofit she leads would exist today if it wasn’t for Special Olympics Michigan Inc.’s new headquarters that’s anchoring a hub for several West Michigan nonprofits south of Grand Rapids.
Liggett, executive director of Autism Support of Kent County, called the facility a “godsend” for allocating space to local nonprofits at the former South Christian High School in Byron Township. Special Olympics Michigan acquired the building for $3.5 million in June 2019, and a $20 million renovation is underway. Autism Support of Kent County first moved into the building in December 2019.
“I really feel like we would have been stymied from COVID-19,” Liggett said. “Prior to this, we’ve just been borrowing space at schools. This space has been hugely beneficial for us because we’ve been able to double our programming in the last year.”
Construction and renovations are ongoing at the 127,000-square-foot former high school, but several nonprofits have already relocated their offices to the campus located at 160 68th St. SW. Mathison | Mathison Architects and Fishbeck are the design and engineering team on the project, with Erhardt Construction Co. serving as the general contractor.
Plans call for the 17-acre campus to be transformed into a world-class sports complex for Special Olympics programming and competitions. The facility will also house an array of nonprofits from West Michigan that would benefit Special Olympics athletes and their families.
“Our athletes and our families rely on many other organizations,” said Special Olympics Michigan President and CEO Tim Hileman. “There are incredible nonprofit providers within West Michigan, and having all of these other service providers in one space will provide this incredible wrap-around service care to individuals and families, and it’s all under one roof.”
In addition to Special Olympics Michigan, at least six other nonprofits have moved or plan to move into the Byron Township facility.
Special Olympics Michigan launched the public phase of a capital campaign in July to raise $20 million for construction and renovation costs. The campaign has raised about $8.1 million so far, Hileman said. When completed, the project would be the largest Special Olympics facility in the world. The project’s timeline and completion is dependent on funding, Hileman said.
Shared access, workable space
Autism Support of Kent County offers social programming for individuals on the autism spectrum by hosting various social groups, family gatherings and events. The organization shut down for about three months last year, but re-introduced programming in the summer of 2020 based on strong needs for safe social settings, Liggett said.
The pandemic has hindered the nonprofit’s fundraising efforts, and Liggett said Autism Support’s small size often disqualified it from grant programs.
Special Olympics’ flat lease rate provides a financial cushion for Autism Support, which has also been able to grow its programming in the new space as demand for its services surged during the pandemic, Liggett said.
Meanwhile, Autism Support clients will also be introduced to programming from Special Olympics and other related nonprofits in the new shared space.
The Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan moved its offices into the Special Olympics’ campus in January 2020. The organization was formerly located in downtown Grand Rapids at the Masonic Center, which posed challenges and concerns from some clients, said Executive Director Jennifer DeVault.
But being alongside like-minded nonprofits will be a key benefit.
“The main reason we wanted to move here is we wanted to partner with all of the other organizations that will be located here,” DeVault said. “For us, it’s full circle. We’re able to connect our families with more resources. And if they aren’t already involved with Special Olympics, now they will have easier access to that if they want.”
The move also allowed the Down Syndrome Association to expand its office square footage because of the cheaper lease and availability of shared event spaces, DeVault said.
“There is so much more room to spread out, and it has been a huge benefit to our members,” DeVault said. “We couldn’t afford the same amount of space in a different building.”
As well, the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan plans to expand its office space after moving into the new facility in January 2022, said Executive Director Christy Buck. The organization is working with Pioneer Construction Co. and GMB Architecture + Engineering to build out its space.
“We’re going to be able to double (our) workable space. In addition to that, we’re going to be able to build in really good technology, which is going to be key in providing our programming everywhere,” Buck said.
The foundation also plans to collaborate with other nonprofits while gaining access to larger event spaces, she said.
“It’s exciting that one of the first things we’ll be doing in January is hosting a high school symposium,” Buck said. “We’ve been doing this for the past five years at different school districts, but now we’ll be doing it in our own facility.”
The Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan was in the process of looking for a new space to move its offices before the Special Olympics space was made available, Buck said.
“It’s going to be a really engaging building,” Buck said. “It is going to be energizing for all of us and a great collaboration.”
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