Firms partner to support Hispanic school in GR

November 10, 2008
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Don VanDine, regional vice president of Wells Fargo Commercial Bank, met teacher Ana Aleman-Putman, now principal at Cesar E. Chavez Elementary, at a nine-month Leadership Grand Rapids course in 2002-2003. A few years later, VanDine’s office had some used computer monitors available so he contacted Aleman-Putman to see if the school could use them. Aleman-Putman jumped at the offer, and that started the two talking about how Wells Fargo could help raise money for some of the school’s unmet needs.

VanDine’s motivation was simple: “The schools are on a tight budget. Ana is fighting the good fight every day, and her teachers are fighting the good fight every day.”

Of the 365 students at Cesar E. Chavez Elementary, nearly 85 percent are Hispanic, and some come from financially strapped households. High on Aleman-Putman’s list was having the funds to supply students with uniforms, hold educational assemblies and introduce students to the performing arts. She and VanDine figured it would take about $20,000 a year to provide each student with two uniforms, put on four assemblies, and treat students to an annual field trip.

VanDine has partners in the business community who also enjoy supporting the community. Attorney Tracy Larsen, managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg’s Grand Rapids office, was the first to come to mind. VanDine and Larsen opened their respective offices within a week of each other just over five years ago. The bank and the law firm decided to each pledge $10,000 a year for three years to the school.

Grand Rapids has presented Barnes & Thornburg with “loads of opportunities,” and with opportunity comes responsibility, Larsen said.

“Our firm historically has always been very supportive of the underprivileged and has had a strong commitment to education, so those motives sort of married up naturally in this partnership with Wells Fargo to support what I think is just a fantastic cause.” 

“Diversity is also one of the four key platforms of Leadership Grand Rapids, so it’s a really good tie throughout all three of these organizations,” VanDine remarked. “We know we can’t fix all the issues that confront these kids, but maybe we can generate some positive experiences for them, and that’s a good thing.”

Kevin Stotz also graduated from the 2002-2003 Leadership Grand Rapids course. He’s now vice president of community programs for the Center for Community Leadership, which facilitates the Leadership Grand Rapids program and five others. Stotz said he’s proud of the connection that VanDine made with Aleman-Putman through Leadership Grand Rapids. He said the donation made to the school exemplifies what the leadership program stands for: “It’s all about bringing a cross-section of future leaders together to learn about the community, see how they can best improve it, and meet others that share that commitment.”

The Grand Rapids Public School board recognized the two firms’ contribution to Cesar Chavez Elementary at the board’s meeting last week.

The story doesn’t end there. In December, Wells Fargo is teaming up with BDO Seidman to donate 25 gently used laptop computers to the school. 

Blowin’ in the wind

The Right Place Inc. recently wined and dined one of the largest wind energy firms in the world in a pitch for West Michigan. Back in March the Business Journal reported that Genzink Steel was firming up a contract to build generator frames that will serve as somewhat of a platform and support for windmills. Could they be one and the same?

Odds are the unnamed company comes out of Spain, one of the top three wind power users in the world. Three big name firms that hail from Spain are Gamesa Eólica, the second-largest wind turbine manufacturer in the world; Acciona Energy, the largest global wind park developer; and Iberdrola, the world’s largest wind farm operator. But if you’re a betting person, put it down on Acciona.

Lansing, here we come

The four amigos who chaired the historic first West Michigan Regional Policy Conference in September took the stage again the other day to update us on what's happening now.

To net it out (as they say in business): A steering committee will be formed immediately that "will have a legislative agenda by this time next year," according to Jim Dunlap. At that point, we're going to get what will amount to a progress report, according to Jeanne Englehart, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, a key part of the West Michigan Chamber Coalition that produced the policy conference.

Dunlap, president of Huntington Bank, was one of the featured speakers at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids last week, along with fellow policy conference co-chairs Doug DeVos of Amway, Peter Secchia, representing his real estate investment company, SIBSCO LLC, and Jeff Connolly of Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The fulminating foursome re-hashed the directives to Lansing that came out of the two-day conference:

**Eliminate the Michigan Business Tax with corresponding spending cuts by the state government.

**Implement a right-to-work status in Michigan.

**Increase funding for health care providers with effective prevention practices.

**Streamline the permitting process within state government.

**Update funding mechanisms for transportation infrastructure.

The MBT, aka Son of SBT, is notorious for its arcane complexity and the deep bite it threatens to take out of some business sectors in Michigan, so it was no wonder it ended up as the policy conference poster child for What's Wrong in Michigan.

"We are still learning about this confusing legislation," Secchia said, an understatement if ever he made one.

Secchia showed a slide comparing the MBT with business taxes levied in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. He said the MBT equals an effective average tax rate of about 17.5 percent, compared to an average rate in the other states of about 5.24 percent.

"You're paying a 12 percent penalty to do business in the state of Michigan," he said.

Secchia urged the hundreds of people in the Economic Club audience to contact their state legislators to demand an answer to the question: Has the MBT stopped growth in Grand Rapids?

PACs pack a punch

Sixteen health-care-related political action committees in Michigan reported raising a total of nearly $3 million in October pre-election reports, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The biggest is Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s PAC, which raised $943,852 between January 2007 and October. The smallest is Friends of Spectrum Health, which reported raising $43,675 during that period. According to Michigan Secretary of State records, most of the amount, $35,000, was donated by Amway co-founder and Spectrum Health board member Richard M. DeVos. The rest came from 21 other donors, including Spectrum Health President & CEO Richard Breon. Also among the donors: Spectrum Health System Board Vice Chairman Earl Holton and Treasurer Mark Murray, and board members Margaret Sellers Walker, Robert L. Hooker and Birgit Klohs.

Mark LeMoine, Spectrum Health’s government affairs director, said he works with the PAC on his own time, carefully noting that the IRS strictly prohibits political activity by federal tax-exempt nonprofits. “It’s used to support candidates at the state level,” he said, particularly those with an interest or influence on health care policy.

The expenditures were not as strictly partisan as the donor list might suggest. For example, for last week’s election, $1,000 went to the Michigan House Democratic Fund and another $1,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee. Another $500 backed Democrat Roy Schmidt’s winning state House campaign.

In 2007, the Friends of Spectrum Health PAC sent $150 to support state Rep. Mary Valentine, D-Muskegon; this year, $200 backed the campaign of Valentine’s unsuccessful opponent, GOP National Committeewoman Holly Hughes of Montague.

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