A Swift Promise
GRAND RAPIDS — Making good on a promise, Walter Gutowski Jr. and Sr. have opened their hearts and their doors both to those needing printing and a place to live.
The pair, in cooperation with Genesis Nonprofit Housing Corp., renovated the floors above their printing company into residential units for disabled people.
The renovation entailed $1 million in repairs to Swift Printing itself and $4 million in improvements to the upstairs, $3 million alone in construction.
Swift occupies what was John Pershbocker's Oroiquis Building, which had a bare-bones upstairs boarding house. After Pershbocker died, his widow managed the boarding operation until it became too much for her.
When the Gutkowskis offered to buy the building in 1989, she exacted from them the promise that they would let the boarders stay on. "She didn't have to sell this to us and I know she had better offers elsewhere," said Gutowski Jr. "However, I promised her that I would continue taking in boarders and continue with the upkeep upstairs. I look at what we are doing now as simply making good on a promise."
In the late '90s, the Gutowskis bought the adjoining building and expanded Swift into it.
After taking over the responsibilities of running a successful print shop and being a landlord for upwards of 17 tenants — they now house 27 — Gutowski Jr. sought help from Genesis Nonprofit Housing Corp.
He already was a friend of Dennis Sturtevant, executive director of the Dwelling Place and a Genesis board member. "So I asked him if he would be interested in running the upstairs for me while I continued to run the print shop. About four years ago we actually decided to partner on this project.
"People aren't aware or are scared of mental illness and disabilities and think that people affected by it are a threat to society, and that is not true. My children help out here in the office and they frequently run into tenants. If I feel safe with that, then people can feel safe having a housing unit in their neighborhood.
"I have accepted some people with poor backgrounds and some ex-cons, and most of it is done from the heart," he added. "There are always a few who really succeed in putting their life together and making the most of what they have — and those are the ones that keep me doing what I am doing. Those are the ones that make it all worth it."
The Gutowskis' charitable giving doesn't end there. They also donate printing, coach youth sports, spend one Sunday a month preparing meals at a soup kitchen, serve on boards of several community organizations and fund scholarships at local Catholic high schools. "I fund a scholarship at West Catholic High School in honor of my former cross-country coach, as well as other ones in the schools and one through the Urban League," Gutowski Jr. noted.
Late last year, Swift and the Gutowskis were honored with the Gerald R. Helmholdt Grand Prize in the 12th edition of the Neighborhood Business Awards, and the Small Retailer of the Year Award from the Michigan Retailers Association.
Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Neighborhood Business Specialist Program noted, "I think they exemplify the best in neighborhood business districts by not only doing a commercial rehab that is very nice, but also by providing the housing for the disabled."
"It is so nice and humbling to receive these awards, but we are truly just doing what we have always done," said Gutowski Jr. "There is nothing better than feeling that you are making a difference."