Foundation Benefits Lowell Projects

October 25, 2004
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LOWELL — Grand Rapids' evolving skyline shows that community advancement through philanthropy has become a local theme in recent years.

A new arena, convention center, research institute and two GVSU campuses, a new park and a botanical garden all resulted from local residents' generosity.

When discussing the subject of philanthropy, not much thought is generally given to Lowell. Yet the rural community east of the metro area is working hard to convert a windfall bequest of its own into community improvement.

Harold J. Englehardt came to Lowell in 1922 to work as a bank cashier at the Lowell State Bank.

In 1930, shortly after the bank closed in the wake of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, Englehardt purchased Lowell Granite Co. He then worked to acquire capital and investors to open a new bank, and did so in 1934 with the launch of State Savings Bank.

He became president of the bank in 1960, and later sold the granite business, which still exists.

According to the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Englehardt's concern for the community extended to helping stimulate commerce in business and agriculture and providing funds for several capital improvement programs.

He helped many people achieve home ownership. And if they didn't have a home, he reportedly made sure they had food. During the Depression he sent many homeless to Lou Racine's restaurant for a hot meal on his tab.

Later in life, he and his wife set up several scholarships for Lowell area students and donated $380,000 toward a new Lowell library, which now bears their name.

At the age of 96, Englehardt began seeking ways in which to continue his lifetime of generosity beyond his death.

His nephew John Darling was and still is a partner at Norris, Perne & French LLP, one of many financial institutions in which the Grand Rapids Community Foundation holds assets. Darling introduced Englehardt to the foundation's donor-advised funds program.

"Mr. Englehardt had been looking for a way to allow his involvement to continue and to keep helping the community past his death," explained Lon Swartzentruber, director of the foundation.

"He wanted something that could continue to grow. We explained to him what the foundation does and how grant-making helps the community, and at that time we began working to put a program together for him."

p>Through donor-advised funds and other measures, the foundation is able to facilitate grants with purposes parallel to its own mission. In doing so, the foundation shares its resources and expertise in financial management and grant-writing with the fledgling funds.

Englehardt wanted to establish a fund to be used in Lowell and the surrounding areas expressly concentrated on education. This interest led to the creation of the Lowell Area Community Fund, focusing on education, arts and culture, economic development, the natural environment, health, human services and recreation.

Upon his death in 1997, Englehardt's $12.7 million bequest became the largest gift ever received by the foundation.

"This is such an enormous fund for a community the size of Lowell," Swartzentruber said.

"This is a gift that will allow his legacy to continue in perpetuity for years to come. For the Grand Rapids Foundation — which serves roughly 200,000 people across Kent County and is now $185 million — to compare it to the Lowell fund per capita, our fund would have to be somewhere in excess of a billion dollars. There are only a handful of community foundations that large in the country. The only ones I know of are New York and Chicago."

The fund disbursed nearly $1.8 million in the next two years to a wide array of community endeavors in the city of Lowell and in Lowell and Vergennes townships.

Among more than 70 grants in that first round were:

  • $20,000 to the Flat River Outreach Ministries

  • $20,000 for a new ambulance

  • $250,000 for Grand River Riverfront Park
  • $90,000 for the preservation of Lowell's historic buildings

  • Hundreds of thousands of dollars donated for the Lowell Area Schools' Tots on Track for School program.
In fiscal 2003, the fund disbursed $823,088 in grants. Including new rounds of grants in 2004, the fund has dispersed over $4.7 million.

Keeping with Englehardt's wishes, a majority of those grants have gone to educational concerns, with the Lowell Public Schools receiving as much as 30 percent to 40 percent of those grants to date.

"They've been very, very supportive of the school district," explained Shari Miller, the superintendent of Lowell Area Schools, who inherited much of the grants' influence when she took over the position vacated by Bert Bleke, now superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

"Mr. Englehardt was very committed to education and wanted to make sure that an appropriate portion of the grants went into the school community as well as the community at large.

"It really has been a great thing for this community," she added. "There are so many projects and initiatives happening that never could have. Usually people would get an idea for something that would be good and helpful but never pursue it because they knew there wasn't any funding. Now everyone gets excited about building the community, because they know there is that backing there to make things happen."

Through interest and new donations, the fund had grown to $15,055,541 as of this past July.

Although by far the largest, the Lowell fund is one of several regional funds operating in the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Cascade, Ionia County, Southeast Ottawa, Sparta and Wyoming also have community funds.

Besides the Lowell fund, the Ionia County Community Fund is the only one with over a million dollars in assets, with just over $2.5 million.

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