Inside Track: Change catalyst brings vision to fruition in Midtown
Christine Helms-Maletic will draw on neighborhood and nonprofit experience as WMEAC’s new board president.
Christine Helms-Maletic likes to spend her Saturdays enjoying the Midtown neighborhood she and her husband, Tim Maletic, and their two teenage daughters, Malory and Lauren, call home.
Helms-Maletic said she often starts her Saturday morning with a trip to the Fulton Street Farmers Market to stock up on fresh produce, milk and eggs for the week; then she stops in at a few of her favorite retail stores nearby, finally enjoying lunch at one of the area’s bustling restaurants.
“Grand Rapids is a very different place than when we moved here,” she said. “When we first moved here (in 1997), Gaia was the only restaurant in town where you could get a good vegetarian meal; now I can walk to eight of my favorite restaurants.”
Helms-Maletic has had a hand in the positive changes that have occurred in the Midtown neighborhood during the past decade.
As an active member of the Midtown Neighborhood Association — serving as its president at one point — she has played a role in developing the Midtown corridor improvement plan, which has helped serve as a road map for the neighborhood.
She also recently wrapped up a consulting role with the Fulton Street Farmers Market Capital Campaign, serving as project manager and grant writer.
“I became involved with the Midtown Neighborhood Association and that is where I first started working on grant writing for the projects we wanted to do,” she said. “Our first one was around creating an area-specific plan for the neighborhood.”
She said the corridor improvement plan led to her work with Fulton Street Farmers Market.
“Over the next eight years, we continued to run down the road of what needed to happen in our neighborhood — and, in particular, with the Fulton Street Farmers Market,” she said. As a consultant for the capital campaign, Helms-Maletic served as the face of the $3 million fundraising effort.
“I was the go-to person on the capital campaign,” she said.
Going into its second year following the completion of several upgrades — including a rooftop, indoor market area and infrastructure upgrades — the market is busier than ever.
Reflecting on this year’s opening day in early May, Helms-Maletic said, “The stalls were filled, the parking lot was full. I would say before we did our project, the Saturday of opening day wasn’t that busy. It took it a while to gear up.”
She credits the capital campaign and a shifting culture that’s all about buying local food for the newfound interest.
“One, our farmers are doing a better job of figuring out how to grow stuff in the winter so there is more to bring to market; and two, the national local food trend is happening in Grand Rapids like it is everywhere else,” she said.
She said Fulton Street Farmers Market has become a destination, not just for Midtown residents but also for surrounding neighborhoods like Wealthy Street, East Hills and Eastown. It is also attracting people from out of the city who drive in to visit the market and end up shopping in the many retail stores in the Fulton Street and Fuller Avenue neighborhood.
She noted economic development in the neighborhood was the goal when the neighborhood association first began working on the corridor improvement plan.
“That was part of the intention.”
Helms-Maletic said corridor improvement plans all over the city are leading to vast improvements, and she thinks they are an important step in economic development because they foster a sense of commitment that attracts new businesses and investment.
“It demonstrates there is commitment,” she said. “I feel like it makes it more attractive to a potential new business owner or someone looking to move from one location to another.
“There are more of these area-specific plans, and I hope to see — and I think I do see — the planning and zoning committees paying attention to those plans and the wishes of the neighbors. A lot of money and volunteer hours were spent on those, so I think it’s important for them to consider as development happens. I think development is going to really start to push hard in the edges of these neighborhoods.”
With her work on the farmers market completed, Helms-Maletic is embarking on a new project. She was elected West Michigan Environmental Action Council board president in April and is hoping to apply her fundraising skills to the organization.
“I think WMEAC was particularly interested in me because of my fund development and project management experience with the market,” she said. “I hope to be able to be helpful in making connections and helping WMEAC’s funding to be steady and strong.”
She said she plans to not only tap into her Grand Rapids connections but also to pursue new connections, noting WMEAC encompasses an eight-county region: Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo and Ottawa.
“I would say I am looking forward to looking beyond Grand Rapids — in particular, the lakeshore.”
She said the work WMEAC does involving waterways hits particularly close to home for her.
“I have a real fondness for the lakeshore and our public lands and our beaches and rivers,” she said.
“My family and I are kayakers, hikers, swimmers, campers and backpackers,” she said. “We love all that outdoorsy kind of stuff. It’s one of the main reasons we live in Michigan. Our natural resources keep us in the state in a big way.”
Helms-Maletic, who grew up in Flint, noted a love of the outdoors was instilled in her at a young age by her parents. The family spent many vacations camping throughout West Michigan.
“I don’t think there is a campground from Benton Harbor to the (Mackinac) Bridge on the west side of the state that I haven’t been to — I’ve been to them all.”
Her knowledge of fundraising is an important asset, especially given the worthy competition for philanthropy dollars in West Michigan and the growing influence of social media on philanthropy.
“There will always be those funders who just want to write a check, and that is fine — we’ll take your money, not a problem — but I think people are becoming more community minded. They are looking for ways to participate.
“There never have been as many nonprofits as there are today so there are a lot of people with their hands out, but I think there has never been more opportunity than there is today to connect with people who are passionate about what you do as a nonprofit. You begin to engage those people.
“When you engage with them and create a relationship with them, that is how you create a long-term relationship and you also help to support your organization with that.”
She noted cultivating volunteers is just as important as engaging with donors because often volunteers become donors down the road, especially high school and college students.
She is looking forward to her new role with the 45-year-old organization.
“I’m really excited about it. I think there is a lot of good work to be done at WMEAC.”