Old school, new purpose: ‘To go far, you go as a team’

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The old home of Grand Rapids Christian High School, which sat vacant for more than a decade, is now buzzing with life as a six-year endeavor nears an end.

“We believe in that phrase: If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, you go as a team,” said Madison Church: Franklin Pastor Brad Knetsch.

The marathon his church is now wrapping up started in 2015 when developer Ed DeVries donated the property at 415 Franklin St. SE to Madison Church. Over six years, the organization forged a community-focused plan and partnerships to utilize the space 24/7.

(An image taken April 28, 2021 shows the former Grand Rapids Christian High School at 415 Franklin Street SE, which has been redeveloped into offices, apartments, a church worship area and community space.)

“We’re a church. We’re not experts in affordable housing, we’re not experts in early childhood development. But by building partnerships with organizations that are experts in those areas, we’re really able to bring a lot more together under this roof and to serve people more holistically,” Madison Church Executive Director Joanna DeMoor-Tannor explained.

INSIDE 415 FRANKLIN

The building at the corner of Franklin Street and Madison Avenue SE is now home to Inner City Christian Federation, Madison Church: Franklin and dozens of families who began moving in within the past couple months. This summer, YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids will join the mix with an early childhood program.

(A visitor waves goodbye to the receptionist at ICCF’s new office inside the building at 415 Franklin Street SE.)

“The energy just permeates through the walls and there’s just lots of energy in the building,” said Michelle Covington, the ICCF’s vice president for advancement.

Madison Church: Franklin had been worshipping across the street in the gym of the Gerald R. Ford Academic Center since 2008. The church held its first service in its new home on Valentine’s Day.

(An April 28, 2021 photo shows the worship area for Madison Church: Franklin at 415 Franklin Street SE.)

“This is exhilarating. It’s hard really to put into words,” said Knetsch.

“This has exceeded our expectations on a whole host of levels. It’s beautiful. It’s stunning,” he added.

Contractors are expected to finish the last few renovations at 415 Franklin Street SE over the next couple months. In the past 18 months, they’ve transformed an overgrown open atrium into a glass-enclosed gathering space, redesigned the ground floor into offices, refurbished the old chapel into a worship area, and renovated the upper level into apartments.

Stairways, walls, ornate columns and a cornerstone still offer glimpses into the building’s history.

(An April 28, 2021 image shows the original tile on a stairway at 415 Franklin Street SE.)

“People who came here as a student when this was Grand Rapids Christian High School come in and they recognize the spaces a lot of times,” DeMoor-Tannor said. “But it’s definitely restored, it’s transformed and it’s taking on a new life as it steps into a new season here.”

ADRESSING AN INTENSIFIED HOUSING CRISIS

Residents have been moving into the 40 affordable apartments on the second and third floor since spring break, according to Covington, who recalled one of their reactions during a tour.

“He just started screaming and (the leasing agent) goes, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ And then he started crying and he said, ‘I can’t believe I have a washer and dryer in my apartment. I don’t have to go to the laundromat,'” Covington, of ICCF, said, adding that the tenant needed to wash his work uniform daily.

“I think the little things are what are important. To have access to a washer and dryer right in your apartment is something that we take — that I take — for granted. And it’s the little things that count,” she added.

(An April 28, 2021 photo shows one of the 40 affordable housing units at 415 Franklin Street SE in Grand Rapids.)

The demand for affordable housing in Grand Rapids is startling. Covington says 1,000 people were on the wait list for this development a year ago. Now, that number stands around 650.

Covington says the affordable housing crisis has only intensified during the pandemic, with low housing inventory and out-of-town investors.

“Rental rates and home values are steady rising and wages are not keeping up. And so what you have is if a young family is looking to purchase their first time home, they are not able to do that if they don’t have cash, or if they’re able to bid 10, 20, $30,000 over the asking price,” she said.

Covington says ICCF’s donors have stepped up during the pandemic to help keep tenants who lost jobs in their homes and fed.

The ICCF’s new hub also helps. Covington said it’s located within half a mile of 61% of affordable rentals owned and managed by the organization in this area.

(An April 28, 2021 photo shows the ICCF offices at 415 Franklin Street SE in Grand Rapids.)

“Now that we’re close to our neighbors, we can get to know them better and find out what their needs and their goals are,” she explained.

ANSWERING AN EVOLVING NEED FOR CHILD CARE

Sitting on the building’s first floor, the Jaqueline Baber-Bey Early Childhood Center is named for a beloved church elder who died last year in a house fire that also killed her 5-year-old great-grandson.

(An image from video provided by Madison Church: Franklin shows late church elder Jaqueline Baber-Bey.)

Baber-Bey was a Head Start teacher for many years and an early supporter of the project, according to DeMoor-Tannor.

“She loved her family, loved children, loved this community, loved the church and most of all loved God and made it known to all those she came into contact with,” DeMoor-Tannor said in a statement.

“We’ve named the early childhood center in her honor so that her legacy will continue to inspire generations of children who are nurtured within these walls,” she added.

YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, which provides child care to about 400 families at all income levels, is in charge of the early childhood program.

“We haven’t had a center in this community before, and we’re really excited to kind of branch out into this neighborhood,” said Heather Walczewski, early learning child care director for the organization.

As parents return to work, demand for daycare is increasing.

“We are now seeing a big need across the county actually for child care workers. And so that is our main focus right now, is on recruitment strategies of getting new folks in to come care for the kids,” Walczewski explained.

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids is currently hiring 15 staff for its program at 415 Franklin. The organization expects to open the first two classrooms on July 1 and grow to serve about 76 children from birth through age 5 in all five classrooms by fall.

WHAT’S NEXT

Leaders of the ICCF and the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids agree: Partnerships made the $23 million project possible.

“God does care about people having homes and children having education and all of those things. In that, to be able to be a part of that, to be able to be part of bringing that together, that’s been a real honor for us as a church,” DeMoor-Tannor said.

The ICCF and Madison Church are building on that relationship by building redeveloping the former Eastern Elementary School into Emerald Flats, which will house more affordable housing and another Madison Church.

“There’s no way that we could have done that without coming together and working together and thinking about how can we make, how can we walk alongside our neighbors and give them the things that they need,” Covington said.

The ICCF is also working to find “mission-aligned” organizations to use the old firehouse at 816 Madison Ave. SE, which served as the ICCF’s headquarters from 1986 to 1995. The ICCF reacquired the property when it sold its old headquarters at 920 Cherry St. SE to Monarch Investments last month.

Meanwhile, Madison Church: Franklin is working towards paying for its share of redeveloping 415 Franklin. The church has collected about $3.8 million of the $4.9 million it needs. If you’d like to donate, visit https://www.415franklin.org/

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