New hire helps build up community
Former health-care administrator leads engagement efforts at Rockford.
As he enters his third month in a newly created position at Rockford Construction, Brad Mathis knows his community and family values can help the company.
Mathis, who was with Mercy Health for nearly 20 years, grew up in Grand Rapids. He has seen and even helped the city develop. Now, through the friendship he’s developed with Rockford CEO Mike VanGessel, he’s left health-care administration to join a company helping to shape the city’s future.
This spring, Mathis joined Grand Rapids-based Rockford as the company’s first community development director. He said his job is to lead engagement on projects that improve and help serve neighborhoods better for everyone in the city.
“These opportunities don’t come around often,” Mathis said. “It takes a number of like-minded organizations and engagement from residents, neighborhoods and businesses to have a successful impact that I believe will help enhance the vibrancy of some of our communities.”
He said this vibrancy comes from a mix of residences and businesses and a variety of income levels. To achieve diversity within a community, a developer must engage and design around conversations with community stakeholders.
Mathis, 46, has deep roots and “broad expanded family” in the area. He left to earn an undergraduate degree in economics and a graduate degree in health-care administration and public policy from the University of Michigan before following in his family’s footsteps in the Grand Rapids health-care industry.
He said good, bad and in-between family dynamics have taught him how to look at community development as a whole.
When he was managing physician offices, Mercy moved one and left a strip of vacant land on Madison Avenue. Mathis looked at the vacant land every day, until he decided to take its development into his own hands.
“It’s not going to save the community, but I can do this one thing,” Mathis said of his decision to buy the land on the corner of Madison Avenue and Hall Street and build 12 units of affordable housing and 5,000 square feet of retail in 2005. He said he knew that a healthy community doesn’t happen within the walls of health-care facilities but starts with quality housing and education.
Mathis had recently met VanGessel as both served on the board of Inner City Christian Federation. Rockford built the Madison housing, as well as a larger mixed-use project Mathis developed at Wealthy Street and Diamond Avenue in 2007.
As Mathis’ and VanGessel’s friendship developed, the Rockford CEO began thinking about a community development director position — with one person in mind.
“Everyone you’re friends with, you can’t always do business with, but it had gone well,” Mathis said. “Eventually he said, ‘One of these days we’ll do something big.’ And I just said, ‘Yeah, OK.’
“As time went on and I’d continued to build my career, lo and behold Mike has been thinking about this position for two, two-and-a-half years, and I didn’t know until he told me three months ago.”
Mathis’ first reaction was “absolutely shocked.” He realized his values and beliefs aligned with VanGessel’s, but he didn’t know about the rest of Rockford’s leadership. He was very happy in his role with Mercy and had no intention of switching careers, he said.
He knew he had to at least vet the situation.
“That’s a big jump, going from faith-based to secular and not-for-profit to for-profit,” Mathis said. “I talked to Mike, I met a number of people at Rockford and came into the building and just said, ‘This is a really, really cool idea and an opportunity to blend much of my experience and philosophy together.’”
As Rockford dives deeper into development of the west side — including a major development with Meijer near Bridge Street and Seward Avenue — and the southeast side, VanGessel and the Rockford leadership understand community feedback is important. Mathis is a great fit to further those efforts, VanGessel said.
“Brad and I have been friends for more than 15 years, and I have always admired his integrity, work ethic and passion for community,” he said. “His unique skill set is very complimentary to our work, and his ideas enrich not only our team, but our partners and neighbors. As Rockford continues to develop for a changing world, Brad’s perspective is invaluable.”
After two weeks learning the company’s core initiatives, Mathis spent time catching up on discussions with community stakeholders and neighborhood residents.
He said it’s important to him and Rockford to foster social, economic and racial diversity in a community, making sure housing remains affordable for middle earners and engagement happens throughout the development process.
“This is a big step for me, and it’s been about learning where it’s headed as an organization. I’d hate to get in and run one way but find out they’re going another,” Mathis said. “Certainly Rockford has been successful for 30 years in my absence.”