GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A yearslong mission to provide a storefront for local women and minority makers in downtown Grand Rapids was finally realized Friday.

The Marketplace powered by Pack Elephant celebrated its grand opening at Studio Park with a 1 p.m. ribbon cutting ceremony.

“We had happened to sponsor a market here last year for the holidays. So, it just really kind of came full circle for us to be back in this space,” said Pack Elephant owner and CEO Winsome Kirton.

The Marketplace was baked into the plans for Studio Park from the start. Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and developer Jackson Entertainment LLC agreed the $160 million project would include a nonprofit ground-floor retail business incubator to create more business diversity downtown and support entrepreneurs not yet ready to open their own storefront.

Early on in the search for someone to sublease the space, developers focused on Kirton’s Pack Elephant – a boutique store that specializes in gift baskets filled with West Michigan made artisanal products.

“I think now more than ever, people are being conscious consumers. We are not only aware of the needs to support businesses locally, but the need to support businesses from communities that are typically, excluded or underserved by some of our resources,” said Kirton. “I think our business model is unique in that it does provide sort of a one-stop shop where we hope to make it more convenient, to be intentional and deliver on those goals.”

She says uninspiring corporate gifts she received while working in advertising in New York started her down the path to Pack Elephant.

“I am a creative individual and I thought, ‘You know, there was a gap there in the marketplace that connects some of these really talented entrepreneurs with corporate buyers who had the ability to create an impact on their business,” she explained.

Pack Elephant won Spring Garden’s 5X5 pitch competition in 2018. The next year, the business that started out of Kirton’s Grand Rapids home grew to include a pipeline of 117 makers and 43 corporate customers. It also recently expanded to include consumer gifting.

The Marketplace powered by Pack Elephant features 150 creations from nearly three dozen local makers, from foods to bath and body products. The 3,000-square-foot store offers prepared gift boxes or customers can work with store employees to pick and pack their own. Kirton says customers can expect to spend between $5-$30 for individual items; curated boxes run about $30-$100.

Each item comes with a QR code that shares the journey and background of its creator when scanned. Pack Elephant also shares the measured impact of customer purchases on its website,

“It’s part of our mission and it’s important to us that our customers and our clients are able to understand the impact that they’re making across communities when they do purchase gifts that support these communities,” she explained.

Kirton says more than 80% of businesses Pack Elephant supports are owned by women and about 40% are Black and Hispanic-owned businesses. Pack Elephant is also working with veteran and LGBTQ businesses.

“Having access to buyers and customers at scale is typically something that many underserved communities doesn’t have access to,” Kirton explained. “And what you see as a Black woman-owned business is that sometimes there is winner-take-all effect where once one business has the access to volume, the access stops there and it doesn’t really ever get shared with many of the other businesses in our community.”

“(Pack Elephant) is not a winner-take-all model. This is a win-win model, especially in the way that we have forged partnerships with the makers and our community,” she emphasized.

(December 2020 photos provided by Winsome Kirton shows the transformation that happened within days of Pack Elephant moving into the 3,000-square-foot storefront.)

The past two weeks have been busy for Pack Elephant. The business started moving into its new space last week. Wednesday, the Downtown Development Authority approved a $67,500 retail innovation program grant to cover 18 months of rent as the store builds business and recoups its $50,000 investment into the space.

The Marketplace powered by Pack Elephant will also host events and programs to support budding entrepreneurs. Emily Loeks with Studio Park said an additional 1,000-square-foot space that’s attached to The Marketplace will serve as a pop-up storefront for makers. The first artist moved into the storefront overlooking Ionia Avenue Friday.

“We’ve talked about this for a long time and I think it aligns with a lot of our goals — not just to activate this space, but to also provide incubator space and to support our local makers and local businesses. And so I really see this as a win, win win,” Bliss said Wednesday.

“Grand Rapids is a really unique place. I was really amazed by how much talent lives in this very small city and then how passionate people were about supporting their community,” said Kirton. “I don’t think I ever felt this type of sense of community dedication to making sure that local businesses thrive.”

Hours after the announcement, Pack Elephant was alive with people building store shelves and inventory coming in.

“It’s been a pretty wild ride,” said Kirton.

The store’s décor is also a tribute to local artists. Pieces from Lions and Rabbits hang throughout Pack Elephant and a mural by Jasmine Bruce adorns one wall.

(A December 2020 photo provided by Winsome Kirton shows the mural Jasmine Bruce created on a wall of The Marketplace powered by Pack Elephant.)

Kirton says the store aims to eventually showcase about 75 makers.

“We’re just honored to be the ones selected to drive this vision forward, and (we) hope that things do go well and that we can be here for a very, very long time,” said Kirton.

Pack Elephant will be open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the holiday season. Kirton says they’ll consider longer hours starting in 2021, depending on business.

Makers interested in selling their creations through Pack Elephant are encouraged to reach out to the business at