Inside Track: Urban developer builds more than just buildings
Derek Coppess is big on creating living spaces where people can become part of a community.
As a 7-year-old working on his father’s summer building crew, Derek Coppess became known as “Trash Boy.” But last fall, as founder and owner of 616 Lofts and 616 Development, the Downtown Alliance gave him another identity.
The alliance named him “Emerging Entrepreneur” for reviving two vacant and adjacent Ionia Avenue buildings and having the courage to take on the restoration of the dilapidated Kendall Building at 16 Monroe Center.
“My parents were public school teachers. My dad, Ron, was actually a high-school drafting teacher, and I started to learn my love for creation and design through my dad. As a family we built a house every summer because my parents had the summer off and my dad was a builder.
“I don’t think I ever graduated from ‘Trash Boy,’ but I learned how to work and I learned the building process from growing up in that arena.”
After finishing high school in Lake Odessa, Coppess enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where he played quarterback and receiver on the football team until a couple of concussions cut his athletic career short after two seasons.
“That was one of my first disappointing moments in life because at that age, it’s kind of your identity — even though now it seems kind of funny to think about,” he said.
While in Williamsburg — which was founded in 1632 — Coppess developed his passion for older buildings and architecture. He went to work for a developer, a quiet southern gentleman who owned thousands of units across the country. “They really taught me their model in Virginia, and I really learned a lot. I brought that back to Grand Rapids when I came back 11 years ago,” he said.
He started the Coppess Group at that time and immediately made a big splash in the market.
“I had a goal of buying one property per week for as long as I could, and I actually ended up with 37 weeks of at least buying one property a week when I was 21. So right out of the gate, I had 150 units, I think, right when I started here,” he said. “It was going on a good track.”
Then the financial crisis came along. Coppess and his wife divorced, and he watched real estate firms drop off the face of the planet. “So life hit me all at once, but I really emerged as a healthy new person. Through that whole process, I rebranded my business and refocused it, and (it) re-emerged as 616 Lofts,” he said of his new start in 2010.
“That was the first time in my life that I actually let others around me help me. I was surrounded by amazing people. Any success I’ve had in the last couple of years, I owe to some select people who believed in me when no one else should have. For the first time in my life, I realized that I’m not here because of Derek. I’m here because of a tribe of people who believed in a vision and really rallied behind me.”
Coppess recently became engaged to Amanda Spadafore, and they’ll be tying the knot in August. Amanda is from East Lansing, an MSU graduate who works in the global procurement division at Steelcase Inc. “She is great, and my best friend,” he said. “She has two children, Kendall and Carter.”
Derek and Amanda were friends before they began dating four years ago. They met because both are runners. This May will mark the fourth time they’ve run the Fifth Third River Bank Run together.
When Coppess resurfaced in the market with 616 Lofts and then 616 Development, he chose to be a different type of developer. For him, developing a project is a means to an end. The reason he and the 616 team renovate urban buildings is to establish a downtown community.
“We talk about our ‘why’ and not necessarily about the ‘what’ and ‘how.’ At 616, we talk about why we do things and we really operate out of a place of inspired leadership. We believe that we’re building something bigger than just buildings, and doing that is all real hard and complex — but really it’s nothing,” he said.
“It pales in comparison to actually building a community and designing it in a way where it can organically just take on its own being, and we don’t have to manipulate it. But we can create spaces and places where people can move back into the city and then connect and learn to live together.”
Some have mentioned that it’s unusual that a guy who was raised in tiny Lake Odessa is so committed to creating a tight urban community. But for Coppess, it’s the natural thing to do.
“I actually grew up in a real tight community, a real small community. I understand the value of community and I think that’s lost to my generation, specifically — the generation that was born into ‘you can put your iPod on and tune out the world, and text instead of talk,’” he said.
“I’m old school; I like to sit down face-to-face. I like to shake your hand, I like to touch. I like to really understand people and I hate texting. It’s efficient, it’s nice, but if I ever want to get a real deal done with somebody or really spend some time with somebody, there’s nothing better than looking them in their eyes. And I think my generation has lost that.”
Coppess does a lot of personal communicating serving on the board of directors for Sunny Crest Youth Ranch, which his parents, Ron and Ellyn Coppess, started in Eaton County not far from Lake Odessa. The ranch is a home where abused and neglected boys can learn and work. Before he retired, Ron Coppess served as an assistant principal in a public school, and Derek said during that stint his dad noticed a growing number of boys who needed someone to look out for them.
“We have a family farm that we grew up hunting on. It’s 180 acres in Sunfield, and he took a portion of that and created the Sunny Crest Youth Ranch. It’s actually a full-blown working ranch where there are house parents, horses, and other animals. It’s a great thing. My dad gets the kids from the county and the courts and takes them all in. He also takes the parents through a course called Common Sense Parenting, so parents can get their stuff together and the kids can get reconnected,” he said.
“It’s a pretty huge undertaking, and I sit on the board of directors. They’ve actually built homes on the property because the ranch is still growing. I’m able to leverage a lot my relationships from my development projects here and I’m able to save my dad a ton of money on construction.”
As for the immediate future, Coppess sees 616 starting another four or five projects this year that could result in another 400 units or so for the local market.
“I feel that I have a tribe of people that are all operating at a very high level right now. I feel like we’ve cut our teeth and learned through some of these incentive changes at the state and local level and the new normal of banking. I feel like we’ve learned a lot from our last round of projects, and so the pipeline we’re operating right now is going very well,” he said.
“So I feel real confident in putting in as many units in Grand Rapids as can fit. I have no idea what that number is, but until we can’t fit any more people in downtown, I think that’s the number.”