Human Resources and Real Estate

It’s no secret hard work pays off for building manager

After 43 years at the Masonic Center helm, Tom Van Kampen’s career is almost done.

January 15, 2016
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Tom Van Kampen
Tom Van Kampen started working at the Grand Rapids Masonic Center just after high school and became building manager at the age of 21. Photo by Michael Buck

Tom Van Kampen has spent a career guarding a building of secrets.

Now, after almost 43 years of serving as building manager of the Grand Rapids Masonic Center, he’s retiring.

Van Kampen, who runs the downtown building that’s home to West Michigan’s fraternity of Masons, said the group isn’t as mysterious as myth and conspiracy have made it out to be.

“You want to know what’s the biggest secret about the fraternity? There’s no secret,” he said. “It’s not a secret society; it’s a fraternity that has secrets. It’s more hype than anything else, to be honest.”

Van Kampen has served as building manager of the eight-story, approximately 90,000-square-foot building, 233 E. Fulton St., since he was 21.

He started working there in 1973. At the time, he was fresh out of high-school, an 18-year old electrician and unsatisfied with his work. His father, who was a contractor and working on the building’s parking garage, told him to apply for a job as maintenance foreman for the building.

Van Kampen got the job and three years later was hired as building manager.

He’s been there ever since and will be until his last official day: Jan. 29.

“I’m a workaholic, so I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. I’m only 61. It’s scary to think ‘this is the end.’ Are you kidding?” he said. “The hourglass is empty. (This is) that thing you think about from the day you start working. It’s already here.”

Van Kampen, who was president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Grand Rapids in 1991-92, experienced many of the city’s major downtown real estate changes during his career.

Downtown Grand Rapids in the 1970s was not a good place, he remarked, adding that the early 1980’s addition to the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, in his opinion, was the major catalyst that turned things around in downtown.

The city’s downtown streets didn’t used to be a good place to wander around at night, but now it’s wonderful, he said.

“It was backwards: It got worse and worse every year. Crime was high, vacancy was high — not a lot of activities or promise. Entertainment was nonexistent.

“That (hotel is) what really started the movement back in downtown, and then it’s been steady — no one thing.

“My generation was different. We wanted a picket fence, with wood chips and a yard. Now everybody wants a loft with an entertainment center across from The B.O.B.”

The biggest change for Van Kampen’s building came in 1985, when management almost lost the building because “we couldn’t pay the bills.” But that year, management began a process to convert about 50 percent of the building into rental office space — a move Van Kampen considers “the salvation of the building.”

“We came to a point in the 1980s where we knew we were living in too big a house,” he said. “In 1985, we started with two floors, and then in 2000, we added another floor. Now we have three floors of commercial. … And we’re at the point as a fraternity where we might need to (add more commercial again).”

Part of the reason comes from a decline in Mason membership. In the 1920s, the building was home to 27,000 members, but it’s home to “just a small fraction of that now,” he said.

“The fraternity itself is doing fine; it’s just we had such a huge membership at one time. It’s still doing fine, though, still very active here. (It does) a lot of charity work,” he said.

He said fraternities such as the Masons were once “the focal point of social activities. There was no computer or social media. People worked and stayed in their communities. You don’t see country clubs flourishing like they used to (either). There’s just too much competition for people’s time today,” he said.

“We’ve had 96.3 percent occupation for 30 years straight … and we’re 100 percent debt-free. That isn’t a bad way to go out.”

Van Kampen said he likes fishing and hunting — he insists using a crossbow is cheating — and will probably spend some of his retirement exploring those hobbies, as well as “monkeying around” on other projects, the first of which is to take his grandchild to Disney World.

He’s also going to remain on in an advisory role for the next couple of months and help mentor and guide whoever takes over for him. After all, Masons stick together.

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