GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A “historic” investment will spur a new center aimed at supporting West Michigan’s Latino business leaders.
The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is planning to purchase and renovate a former manufacturing building on Godfrey Avenue SW north of Hall Street and turn it into its new headquarters.
The plan comes after the chamber received $5 million in the new state budget. Chamber President Guillermo Cisneros said the local Hispanic community hasn’t seen that kind of support in a century.
“We haven’t seen investment in this community,” Cisneros said. “The levels of poverty in the Latino community in Grand Rapids continue to increase. The graduation rate is 10 points below the average rate for the state.”
Cisneros told News 8 the $9.5 million project will be transformational for businesses and the Hispanic community.
“I want a beautiful and dignified space in the heart of the Latino community led by Latinos for Latinos,” he said. “That’s my dream and we’re going to make it happen.”
Inside the new headquarters will be conference rooms with room for up to 200 people and a collaborative space for people to work. The building will include offices for the chamber’s staff, which has grown from two to 12 people in the last five years. Two more employees are expected to be hired soon. The chamber is planning to accommodate up to 25 staff members in the new building to accommodate future growth. The staff will help business owners grow and thrive in the new center, Cisneros said.
“We envision a true hub where Latino businesses can come and can really express their needs around their businesses,” Cisneros said. “We want to be able to provide technical assistance, connections, resources, tools that they need.”
Cisneros said the center hopes to provide training for business owners in Spanish, saying much of currently available training only happens in English.
“We get a lot of people who come from different countries and don’t speak the language yet,” Cisneros said. “Then they have to pass tests in Lansing that are not in their own language. We want to make sure we’re able to provide all these pieces in Spanish so the community feels comfortable.”
A commercial kitchen will be ready for future restaurant owners to start up their craft.
“(It will) provide support to the building but will also help incubate Latino restaurants that might want to start their own business,” Cisneros said.
The outdoor parking lot can fit 200 vehicles but also turn into something much more.
“I envision festivals, career fairs, business expos that we can do in the summer,” Cisneros said. “Attract partners, bring the community together.”
The chamber is still working to purchase the building. Once that is complete, it plans to conduct an environmental site assessment to learn if and how much remediation is needed.
“Those buildings are dilapidated from the 1900s,” Cisneros said. “I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of things inside those buildings. We want to make sure we know what is there.”
The group plans to approach the city next year with a site plan. Two weeks ago, it launched a capital campaign to fund the rest of the project. If everything goes well, construction could start next May and wrap up by the end of next year.
“We’re making history and I hope this support continues,” Cisneros said.
Cisneros said the new center will be especially helpful as the Hispanic community continues to grow in West Michigan. The Hispanic population is projected to grow by 130% by 2045, Cisneros said.
“I want to take them to a place where they are productive, successful and efficient,” he continued. “If we have a Latino community that is productive, the entire economy will benefit.”
The chamber president said West Michigan’s economy is “not complete,” and all of the region’s ethnic groups must succeed in order for the area to see sustained economic success.
“Sixteen percent of (West Michigan’s) population are Latinos,” he said. “Nineteen percent are African Americans. Thirty-five percent of the pie are people of color. If these two segments of the population don’t prosper or thrive, our economy will continue to cripple. We will never have a complete economy.”