Nonprofit, employees get second chance
Next Step’s $2-million remodeled building offers employment for former inmates and people coming out of rehab.
Not even two years ago, 100 Garden St. SE was an unapproachable structure.
Its personality remains — the rust-colored façade of the building still is watched over by the towering blonde-bricked smokestack, stamped “KINDEL” down the side, a remnant from the building’s near-century long spell as the home of Kindel Furniture Co. But no longer are windows boarded up, broken or assorted in their opacities, betraying years of replacements.
The building has a history. After 98 years as Kindel Furniture’s Grand Rapids manufacturing plant, 100 Garden was left vacant in 2010 when the company merged with Taylor Company and production was moved to Wyoming. A raging fire the following year gutted the interior and reduced much of the building’s west end to rubble. It sat vacant until this past January — and its new tenants couldn’t be more fitting to give the building its second chance.
Next Step of West Michigan, a faith-based nonprofit that employs former inmates and people coming out of rehab, acquired the nearly 25,000-square-foot building and nearly 3 acres of surrounding parcels in June 2015 to house its expanding operations. Next Step got to work on a $2-million overhaul of the interior, refurbishing the once charred remains of the historic building into a sleek, new LEED-certified headquarters.
Next Step Executive Director Scott Jonkhoff said, so far, about half of the renovation has been completed, granting the nonprofit about 12,000 square feet of usable space. The process included building new offices, replacing waterlogged and bowed wooden floors, installing new windows, sandblasting the brick and ceiling, replacing portions of the roof that had collapsed during the fire and building new doors in Next Step’s former woodshop, 906 S. Division Ave. The build-out also included repainting the interior, installing plumbing and electrical, new mechanical operations and moving machinery and equipment.
“There was nothing in the building when we bought it,” Jonkhoff said. “It sat here for at least a few years, so there was no water or power. There was water coming through the roof — it wasn’t too far from the wrecking ball, really.”
The remodel is being financed via donations from various local foundations and individuals, including the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, The Wege Foundation, Sebastian Foundation, Dyer Ives Foundation and various members of the DeVos families. So far, Next Step has spent about $1 million of the $1.4 million it has raised for the project and has received some gifts in kind from local contractors to help subsidize some of those costs.
“It’s humbling to get checks in the mail for $100,000 — you think, ‘Man, these people see something good here, and they’re trusting us to keep it moving,’” Next Step supervisor Jonathan Peerboom said. “It’s been amazing. I think because of our model of putting people to work and creating jobs, these resources are coming from people who made money in business and are familiar with creating jobs, so this is something that connects with them. It’s a really creative way to get at community development.”
Next Step was born in 2007 when Jonkhoff and his wife bought the Division Avenue property and hired out the work to men who were unable to find work elsewhere. In 2008, Next Step had just two employees. Now, it’s up to 18 employees, including five new hires in the past few months. What started as mostly a construction business now has expanded to include landscaping, production and manufacturing services all under one roof.
It’s the quick increase in manufacturing that led to the need for a larger space, Jonkhoff said. Last November, a company approached Next Step inquiring for a quote on making birdhouses. Though Next Step wasn’t there yet capacity-wise — they had nowhere to store the 15 bunks of West Coast cedar to make the birdhouses — Jonkhoff agreed, and the nonprofit hit the ground running as soon as it could move into the new space.
“We went from 0 to 100 miles per hour in a couple of weeks, bringing the cedar in here, the machinery, equipment, hiring people from the neighborhood or people who wouldn’t have a chance otherwise in a really short period of time to get moving,” he said.
On the side, Next Step also has begun selling the cedar products, which include bird, bat and squirrel houses, bird feeders, planter boxes and cornhole sets. Sales of those products go directly back to the employees themselves.
Jonkhoff admits it’s a unique model for a nonprofit, estimating between 70 and 80 percent of its revenues coming from invoiced services. But the way he and Peerboom see it, the homes and products they build are secondary to their biggest service.
“Because we’re an employer, it’s easy to talk about the business side and we have all these divisions of labor — but our real product is the people,” Peerboom said. “It’s about developing people. So besides just the jobs, we’re getting into the lives of all these people.
“It’s job creation and it’s family. It’s getting into the lives of the people around these tables and the people who are usually passed by in all the growth (you see around the city).”
In looking at locations to expand its capability, Peerboom said it was important to stay in the heart of those neighborhoods that have historically had difficulty finding a way to participate in the story of Grand Rapids’ success.
“There’s a disconnect happening here, and a lot of it is along economic and racial lines,” he said. “There isn’t access in an equal way. So, I think it’s just about being creative, it’s about, how do you get into neighborhoods that have been disenfranchised for a long time? Where you can’t buy fresh produce and where there is no laundromat nearby, there’s no daycare nearby, services are low and how do you work together to make this neighborhood be what you want to be?
“I think there are a lot of changes coming to these neighborhoods, and we want to be a part of that by creating jobs here.”
Hung on the wall outside of Next Step’s business offices is a multipanel windowpane, with various photos taped to the glass inside each small frame. In one panel is a 4 by 6 of the building Next Step now occupies, billowing dark acrid smoke. Jonkhoff took that one himself when he happened to drive by and see the fire that would hollow out the building.
Surrounding that dark image is various photos of people who have had their lives touched by Next Step. There’s a grinning employee being presented a new bike, and another former addict proudly stomping on a crack pipe he found lying on the sidewalk. The message is clear — rebuilding is possible.
“What we do here is more like a family-type situation than it is strictly an employer-employee relationship,” Jonkhoff said. “We get in their lives by meeting around the table here, we gather and encourage each other, we talk about life situations, circumstances, we talk scripture and we’ll help with rent or groceries if that’s what’s needed.
“They aren’t just cogs in a wheel — we’re building a family and a community here.”