Like A Good Neighbor

July 22, 2007
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Not only does Erhardt Construction President Joe Erhardt respect Bob Israels, but even after two decades of working with him, Erhardt continues to be dazzled by him.

“We’ve worked with Bob on lots of projects over the last 20 years, and the thing that amazes me with Bob is that he appears to be tireless. He has so many things going on at once that I’m not sure how he does it. But at the end of the day, he figures out how to make things happen. So he is fun to work with in that respect,” he said.

Ben Wickstrom, Erhardt’s vice president of construction operation, has also had a close working relationship with Israels.

“The first thing I think of when I think about working with Bob is that he enjoys a good challenge. For Bob, there is nothing that can’t be done. So that positive energy kind of rubs off on those of us who are fortunate enough to work with him. There is nothing that he won’t do,” said Wickstrom.

Israels owns Israels Designs for Living, a company that designs and sells fine furniture worldwide. Israels is conducting most of his business from the firm’s campus on the city’s lower West Side, a onetime prosperous industrial neighborhood that nicely mixed furniture making with moderate housing and a handful of retail shops.

But as the manufacturing faded, so did the neighborhood — until five years ago when Israels decided to move his business back to the blocks of his youth. He bought vacant factories and empty warehouses from the former John Widdicomb Furniture Co. and the American Seating Co. All the century-old structures are situated along Seward Avenue between Fourth and Seventh streets, and Israels is in the process of renovating the last two.

Erhardt Construction is managing the renovation and expansion of the Widdicomb south building on Seward between Fourth and Fifth streets. When the project finishes next May, Israels will have another 120,000 square feet for his design business, and that building will be linked to the north Widdicomb structure that Erhardt renovated five years ago.

“We’re adding a fifth floor to the south portion of the existing building and we’re adding five floors of new construction in the northwest corner of the building, so the entire building will be five floors,” said Wickstrom.

The old roof was removed in July, as were some of the old timbers. Then work on the new space got started by installing steel members to reframe the floor and the roof.

“It will be an exact match to the north building, which we completed in 2002. We added a new floor to the roof of that building, as well,” said Wickstrom.

“On these very old buildings, we’re tearing parts out and beefing up other parts, and we run into a lot of, I’ll say, challenges when you get down below grade to make sure that the building we put up permanently here is going to be sound and stand for a long time,” added Erhardt.

Israels is also renovating and expanding a building at Seward Avenue and Seventh Street where American Seating once made church pews. A company retail outlet is planned for the first floor, and 26 residences, half of which will be live-work units, are in the works for the second and third levels.

Israels named the building the Aslan after the lion in “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a series of seven fantasy novels C.S. Lewis wrote for children between 1949 and 1954. Israels has nine grandchildren and admits to watching the movie made from one of the novels with them over and over.

“He has a tremendous sense for giving back to the community and for making it a better place,” said Erhardt.

“Everything Bob does, he does with the interest of the community in mind. Even during the regular construction process, he is always expanding the discussion beyond the project to include the neighborhood and what is good for the neighborhood,” added Wickstrom

Those statements were never truer than last November when the Neighborhood Business Alliance honored Israels with the John H. Logie Neighborhood Business Champion Award. Mayor George Heartwell presented the award to Israels, who is only the fourth person to be so honored.

“Bob Israels understands the importance of neighborhoods better than almost anybody. This neighborhood that he grew up in is now the neighborhood that he is investing in. His investments are not only strengthening the neighborhood, but are preserving important historical buildings and putting them back into productive use,” said the mayor.

“I believe Bob has changed the view of neighbors to a positive one, where homeowners now want to stay in the area. Bob is approachable and an excellent businessman. Bob just doesn’t invest in his property, but in the community around his property. As a commissioner and a West Sider, I am very thankful for his commitment to the neighborhood and our city,” said First Ward City Commissioner Roy Schmidt.

First Ward City Commissioner James Jendrasiak said the investment Israels is making in his West Side campus, which is in the First Ward, is significant. He was especially pleased that Israels was renovating the American Seating building, which had become an eyesore.

“Taking that very old, dilapidated building and turning into something that looks very nice is helping to, I guess, revitalize an old neighborhood. The building was starting to lean and sag in places. But he is putting a lot of work into it,” said Jendrasiak.

“I’ve met Bob a few times and have had the privilege of talking to him. He has hosted a fundraiser for Liz’s House that I attended.”

Liz’s House is just one of Israels’ causes. Others are the Child Discovery Center, a public chartered grade school, and the Child Development Center, a private preschool and child care center. Both are housed in the former St. Adalbert’s School, a more than 80-year-old building on Fifth Street near Davis Avenue, just a block west of the Israels campus. Israels is a key catalyst behind a $5.6 million fundraising effort to improve the building.

“He has been one of the instrumental players in trying to get that thing moving forward for an upgrade and a little bit of an expansion there,” said Erhardt.

Rev. Thomas De Young, pastor of the Basilica of St. Adalbert, has had an up-close view of what Israels has accomplished the past five years and has been privy to the businessman’s future plans.

“Bob Israels is a major player in the transformation of our near West Side neighborhood. His vision, commitment and personal investment in it has been a powerful force in its recreation. This neighborhood will play a much more vital role in the continued rebirth of downtown Grand Rapids and the near West Side in the years to come, thanks in large part to Bob Israels and his love for the area,” said De Young.

An unofficial estimate places the investment Israels has made and will make in the West Side neighborhood at well north of $30 million. Making that personal commitment to an area that had been largely ignored for more years than most can remember doesn’t surprise Jane Hanenburg, Israels’ executive assistant.

“He is a positive man who has a zest for life. I look forward to come in to work with him every day,” said Hanenburg, who has known Israels her entire life and has worked with him for 26 years. “He shares his knowledge of experience with everyone who works with him, and that makes him a great teacher. He is the one to call to get a job done.” CQ

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