GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A shuttered Grand Rapids auto body repair and sales shop at the corner of Oakdale Street and Kalamazoo Avenue SE is getting a tune-up by the community.
Soon the sign for Good Shepherd Properties will be replaced with one for Kzoo Station – an incubator for food startups that’ll have a commercial kitchen and café retail space.
It’s the first major project in the Boston Square Together plan. Amplify GR teamed up with city of Grand Rapids, Oakdale Neighbors and the Boston Square Neighborhood Association for the endeavor, which will bring parks, restaurants, an early learning center and health and wellness facilities to a community still impacted by redlining decades later.
“I think a lot changed downtown, (but) there are a lot of neighborhoods that haven’t changed. So I think the exciting thing about this work is that some of these are buildings that I’ve been riding past and then driving past… and seeing my entire life. And they’ve been vacant for most, if not all of that time. So the opportunity to really be a part of activating those spaces and making them assets in the community is really, really exciting,” Danielle Williams, director of economic opportunities for Amplify GR, said.
Williams has spent time in the neighborhood since she was a child.
“My dad has gotten his hair cut at Head N Sole my whole life. Both my grandparents lived around the corner. So the neighborhood itself is really near and dear to my heart and has been part of my upbringing,” she said.
While a tight housing market forced Williams to live elsewhere in the city, the group she works for is located in the community it’s now trying to help. Amplify GR is the only organization in Michigan involved with Purpose Built Communities, which strives to involve neighbors in every step of improving their community for racial equity and better health, economic and education outcomes. In this case, the focus is Boston Square and the overall 49507 zip code area.
“It’s really about focusing on neighborhoods that have been adversely affected by a lot of policy, redlining. We understand that there was a lot of intentionality that it took to create communities that were lacking… these resources. And so it’s going to take intentionality to bring those resources back,” Williams said.
Through several meetings over the years, neighbors have helped shape what Boston Square will look like in five to 10 years. It was the community who named Kzoo Station and identified the need for more diverse food options that’ll also support local entrepreneurs.
“Food businesses are a big entry point for a lot of entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurs of color and women,” Williams said.
Part of a $100,000 grant Amplify GR received from the Michigan Department of Agriculture will help by subsidizing the cost of the ingredients Kzoo Station startups will need. Amplify GR is working with South East Market, a women-owned business down the street that stocks its shelves with products from other Black, brown, indigenous and women-owned businesses.
“We know that these are groups that were in a lot of ways intentionally left out,” Williams said. “This is a way to be able to intentionally rectify some of that adverse damage that’s been done to the economies, the surrounding communities of color and women businesses, so really just making sure that those businesses have an opportunity to participate. But also we are a place-based organization and those are the majority of our neighbors. And so, we want to make sure that as economic opportunities are arising in the community, that they reflect the neighbors who live here.”
“Anytime that we’re able to increase access for local businesses to get affordable local food, that’s a win. So we’re really happy to be able to provide that to them,” South East Market co-founder Alita Kelly said.
The future home to Kzoo Station has been gutted. The buildout will include polished concrete and industrial vinyl plank floors, a wall of kitchen equipment and a café space, which will open once tenants are up and running smoothly. Kzoo Station will also eventually offer takeout services and possibly host food trucks.
Spring GR is now interviewing startups interested in working out of Kzoo Station. The goal is to have about 20 businesses using the incubator space, primarily Black, brown and women-owned, according to Williams.
She added that Amplify GR is also deliberate in selecting contractors “to make sure that the dollars that are spent to bring projects like this to fruition are being spent locally and with those Black and brown and women-owned companies.”
Construction on Kzoo Station is expected to wrap up in late spring or early summer. With proper health department approvals, the incubator kitchen could be cooking up food and hosting pop-up community events by mid-summer.
Williams said Amplify GR wants Kzoo Station to be “a catalyst to other things.” Boston Square Together’s next project will be an early learning center. Work there should start late this year or early next year, with retail and housing projects to follow.
“Folks want to live in neighborhoods where there’s great food and great schools and great parks. Those are things that everybody wants,” Williams said. “This neighborhood deserves those things just like any other neighborhood in our city.”