A Collaborative Approach to Community Building and a Newly Renovated Facility Create a Platform for Transformation in Grand Rapids’ Third Ward April 19, 2022

The Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation (GRCCT) is many things: a newly renovated 33,000-square-foot facility that’s a hub for social and economic impact; a partnership between five organizations with distinct missions but a shared vision for a stronger, more equitable city; and a movement to create a future in which all Grand Rapids residents have the opportunity to thrive. Most importantly, however, is that GRCCT’s status is a symbol of what’s possible in a community overflowing with potential but in need of a catalyst to propel it into the next chapter of its history.

In a Nutshell

What: An overview of how a group of nonprofits and social enterprises joined forces to create a cross-sectoral partnership and brick-and-mortar center designed to create unhindered access to opportunity for residents of Grand Rapids’ Third Ward by providing holistic personal and professional development support to approximately 1,000 people each year.
Sector: Community Development
Location: Grand Rapids, MI (Madison Square)
Size: 33,000 square feet
Cost: $5 million
Sources of Funding & Financing: IFF bridge loan and a capital campaign that included the support of almost 20 private foundations and corporations + more than 100 individual donors
IFF Support: $750,000 capital campaign bridge loan closed in September 2020, providing capital for the acquisition of the facility, renovations, and FFE (furniture, fixtures, and equipment)
IFF Staff Leads: Lettice Crawford, Director of Lending – Michigan; Rodney Prahl, Director of Lending – Michigan
Design: AMDG Architects
General Contractor: Building Bridges Professional Services and Willink Construction
Impact: Six permanent FTE jobs created

“The Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation represents hope, especially for those in the Madison Square community,” says Justin Beene, the founder and visionary of the GRCCT. “It demonstrates that when we embrace radical inclusivity and bring people together who don’t necessarily believe the same things but care about the same things, we can create opportunities for transformation that strengthen our community.”

Established in 2015, the GRCCT is comprised of three nonprofits and two social enterprises – NAACP Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project and its two social enterprises, Building Bridges Professional Services and Rising Grinds Café, and Bethany Christian Services Youth and Community Development programs (note: see the sidebar at the end of the story for details on each of these organizations).

The businesses and organizations share space, staff, resources, and learnings, all of which are being leveraged to create economic prosperity through community development, social innovation, and entrepreneurship in the Madison Square neighborhood, where the center is located, and in Grand Rapids’ Third Ward – a collection of neighborhoods southeast of the city’s downtown area. Beene, a Grand Rapids native, first conceived of the idea for a cross-sectoral partnership and accompanying brick-and-mortar facility in the Third Ward because of his own experiences growing up there and being frustrated with the lack of movement in the Southeast Community.

“The vision for GRCCT came from a discontent that things are not the way they ought to be,” says Beene. “Forbes has ranked Grand Rapids as one of the best places in the country to live, raise children, invest in, and retire in, but there are vast disparities here. The Third Ward, which has the highest concentration of African-American residents in the city, has also received the least investment. I was frustrated with these realities and started studying new approaches that utilize business as a mechanism to solve social challenges.”

IFF in Grand Rapids' Third Ward

In 2018, an IFF research study identified a need for additional early childhood education (ECE) seats in Grand Rapids, prompting our development of a new, 12,000-square-foot ECE center in the Third Ward that is expected to open this fall. The completion of the center will follow the grand opening of IFF’s first office in Grand Rapids in the coming months, to be located one block north of the GRCCT.

This led to the development of a white paper in 2010 that Beene recalls was “originally laughed at by many,” though it “created a fire” in him that led to collaborative work with other community leaders for the next five years to refine the concept and build grassroots buy in. When a local business – Double O – outgrew its facility in Byron Center, MI, and was looking for a new location where it could positively impact a local neighborhood by revitalizing a blighted property and creating jobs, it opened the door for the GRCCT to make the leap from concept to reality.

Together, employees from Double O and the GRCCT partners converted a 120-year-old abandoned warehouse into office space, with the GRCCT partners leasing space in the facility after minimal renovations were completed in 2015. Though more work remained, the facility provided the spark needed for multiple sectors to begin leaning into their efforts to create an ecosystem of support for people in the community.

“Many of our residents have been labeled high-risk, but more than anything they have been traumatized and then trapped by an unjust and inequitable system,” says Beene. “The GRCCT helps all of us – residents, staff, investors, and volunteers alike – experience real hope and transformation through tangible avenues for education, employment, and community revitalization.”

An opportunity to provide more tangible avenues arose when Double O relocated elsewhere in 2018, more than doubling the space in the facility available for the GRCCT’s operations. Two years later, the GRCCT achieved a significant milestone when Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project accepted the lead role for the partners at the GRCCT and purchased the facility, leading to renovations in the time since then that have both expanded the capacity of the organizations working at the GRCCT and created new opportunities to meet community needs.

Many of our residents have been labeled high-risk, but more than anything they have been traumatized and then trapped by an unjust and inequitable system.

Designed by AMDG Architects, the facility was renovated by internal social enterprise Building Bridges Professional Services and local partner Willink Construction. A large portion of the work was completed by local minority-owned contractors, providing important economic vitality during the pandemic when other projects in Grand Rapids were temporarily paused.

Renovations included the addition of a 2,100-square-foot, LEED-certified commercial kitchen, community meeting rooms, and a large event space that can hold up to 320 people. In addition to renting the space out, the GRCCT is also establishing partnerships with local universities to host on-site business, social work, public policy, and community development courses. Other updates to the facility included the installation of a green roof and rooftop deck, the implementation of an urban stormwater management system, modifications to increase accessibility within the facility, new A/V equipment and lighting, expanded office space, and the addition of outdoor seating.

Purchasing and renovating the facility signaled to the community that we are here to stay.

“The commercial kitchen is incredible and is going to create lots of opportunities for local food entrepreneurs, but I especially love the green rooftop,” says Beene. “Before it was installed, most people said it couldn’t be done on a building this old — but we did it. I love that our youth and employees installed the plants, trees, and sedum. It was important to us that our community and local minority-owned business had their hands all over this project.”

IFF provided a $750,000 loan for the acquisition and renovation, as well as the purchase of furniture, fixtures, and equipment. Additional costs for the $5 million project were covered by a multitude of private foundations, corporations, and individual donors who contributed to GRCCT’s Ignite the Movement campaign.

“Purchasing and renovating the facility signaled to the community that we are here to stay,” says Beene. “It’s also given us a sense of permanence and stability that was needed. More tangibly, the new commercial kitchen and events space allows us to constantly have people in our building who then want to learn more about what we do and why we do it….and we love to share the story with them and how they can get involved in this movement.”

To take a virtual tour of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation and see the newly renovated space, click the photo below.

Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation Virtual Tour Screengrab


Meet the GRCCT Partners

  • Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project: With a vision “to see all people flourish,” the Grand Rapids Nehemiah Project is the parent nonprofit of multiple social enterprises: Rising Grinds Café, Building Bridges Professional Services, The 1530, and Good Honey – all of which provide job training and employment opportunities for residents in the Third Ward. The Nehemiah Project has offices in the GRCCT and will continue to incubate and develop additional community-based initiatives and social enterprises out of the facility.
  • Rising Grinds Café Events & Catering: Rising Grinds Café is a specialty coffee shop located two blocks north of the GRCCT, where the social enterprise employs four Third Ward residents. The Café began as a training program in 2014 at the GRCCT and by 2017 had outgrown its incubator space – necessitating a move to its own facility. With a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen at the newly renovated GRCCT, Rising Grinds is launching an events and catering division that will provide hospitality training for local residents and youth while planning and catering community events.
  • Building Bridges Professional Services: Established in 2006, Building Bridges has grown from a small summer-only job training and community clean‐up program for local youth into a full-service landscaping, lawn care, construction, and snow removal enterprise. Despite its growth, Building Bridges remains committed to training and employing local residents in landscaping and construction, and provides discounted services to seniors with limited economic means and to businesses and institutions located through Grand Rapids. Building Bridges currently employs 32 people and has the capacity to double in size in the newly renovated GRCCT. In addition to office space in the facility, the social enterprise also has warehouse space to store equipment.
  • Bethany Christian Services’ Youth Services Department: Occupying 16,000 square feet on the GRCCT’s lower level, the department provides nearly 600 young people between the ages of 14 and 24 each year with mentors, case management, recreational opportunities, housing support services, education, workforce development training, and opportunities for civic engagement.
  • NAACP Grand Rapids: The local chapter of the national organization, NAACP Grand Rapids has worked in the community for 103 years, focusing on advocacy and community organizing. The chapter has four offices at the GRCCT and continues to expand its slate of community meetings, legal redress services, and advocacy in the renovated facility.