KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Kalamazoo has been gifted with a massive $400 million donation to fund the Foundation for Excellence, thrilled city leaders announced Wednesday.
The anonymous donation will flow into the foundation over the next 10 years and back a total $500 million endowment meant to keep it alive forever.
“This remarkable gift is like none other,” City Manager Jim Ritsema, who also heads up the board of directors for the Foundation for Excellence, said at an afternoon press conference on the steps of City Hall. “This is, to our knowledge, the largest gift in history to support a municipality.”
Incorporated in 2017, the privately-funded Foundation for Excellence was designed to stabilize the city’s budget, keep property taxes low and pay for aspirational and social equity projects. Ritsema listed things like lead pipe replacement, parks construction, affordable housing initiatives, youth programs and small business support during the pandemic when explaining what it has already been used to fund.
“With this incredible gift, we can ensure that future allocations, future actions, will always come from our conversations with our community,” Deputy City Manager Laura Lam said. “Our future work will be guided and meaningfully inspired by our neighborhoods.”
The foundation also helps fund Imagine Kalamazoo, the city’s long-term plan.
“This is what I think probably excites me the most about the announcement is the predictability, is the commitment; that we can say every 10 years we are going to create collectively a strategic plan and we now have the resources to make sure they get implemented,” Lam said.
Mayor David Anderson said the foundation has helped turn the city’s finances around, providing public services and “changing lives.” While he said the effects of the $400 million gift won’t necessarily be felt by everyone tomorrow, he said it will serve future generations.
“We’re putting a stake in the ground for our children and our children’s children by creating and funding this endowment that will put us in the position of literally having a fund that will last in perpetuity, entirely aligned with our values in the city of Kalamazoo to make this a great place for all of us to live,” Anderson said. “This gives us the opportunity to dream big.”
Former Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell, who helped create the foundation, said the initial goal was to raise the full endowment in three years; it actually took about five.
“This is monumental for our city. This is game changing for our city,” he said. “We now have the opportunity to be bolder than we have been. We now have the opportunity to be more courageous than we have been. We have the opportunity to look at things differently, experiment and try and invest and work differently than we ever have in this community…”
He thanked the donors for their support.
“We know that whomever the donors are, with that kind of money, you can live anywhere you want,” Hopewell said. “You can give your money to anything you want. But instead, you gave it to our community — not to our city, but you gave it to our people, our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our friends and family.”
When the foundation was created, some in the community expressed concern the money could have influence over city officials.
Anderson says while he has guesses, he has been never told who the donors are.
Steve Brown, the manager of the foundation, defended it by saying it follows public meeting rules, allows Freedom of Information Act requests even through it is not legally required to and that the board is appointed by the city commission, which is made of publicly elected representatives.
“The foundation is possibly unique, certainly unusual, in that it operates just like a government body, so our investment subcommittee meetings, our finance committee, our executive committee, our board meeting are all public,” Brown said.