Allen relies on community connections and relationships

April 9, 2012
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Dave Allen came to Grand Rapids in the early 1990s to study the ministry. Last fall, he became the first executive director of the Kent County Land Bank Authority. How he went from a plan to preach to attempting to convince a European manufacturer to buy an abandoned foundry is a tale in itself.

The story begins with Allen bagging groceries as a high school student at a fairly large grocery store in Indiana. In a few years, he had worked his way up to assistant store manager when he had a change of heart.

“At the time I was about to become store manager, we just decided to have a life change, and we moved to Grand Rapids. And I thought I was going to become a minister,” he said.

Allen and his wife, Donna, came here thinking they had enough savings stashed away so he could attend Reformed Bible College full time. But that turned out not to be the case. The couple didn’t have any health insurance, and both of their children became ill.

“That wiped out our savings in the first year,” he said.

So Allen began to counsel troubled youth at Wedgwood Christian Services. Little did he know that position would give him a new life plan.

“It really opened my eyes to what I considered was a different level of ministry. And it changed my career path from what I would consider formal ministry, like a pastor, to urban community development. I found that was a perfect fit for me,” he said.

Dave Allen
Kent County Land Bank Authority
Title: Executive Director
Age: 49
Birthplace: Highland, Ind.
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Donna; grown children, Jordan and Don; grandson Malachi.
Biggest Career Break: Working as a counselor for troubled families at Wedgwood Christian Services led him to realize the importance of community development and urban real estate, which became his career track.

He also found that real estate was the perfect conduit to fill his desire to become a community developer. He began by founding Oakdale Neighbors on the city’s southeast side. Oakdale was dedicated to helping residents with their housing situations, a serious issue at the time.

“We would have single moms coming in crying because their landlords were trying to get them to exchange sex for rent, and they didn’t know what to do. It was just people struggling,” he said.

“Early on in my work, I realized that unless you have some level of control over the real estate, you really can’t control what’s going on in a neighborhood. So it’s always been a common thread in everything that I’ve done — to the point that I launched an actual real estate development company, Lighthouse Communities, because we felt there was a need for that.”

Creating Lighthouse Communities in 2000 was the springboard that led Allen a dozen years later to the land bank — that and a bit of a shove from friends and from Donna. “She looked at me and said, ‘You will put your name in the hat.’ With all the things I’ve done over the years, I really don’t think I could have done any without the support of my really loving and supportive wife. Donna has been amazing in all the different things I’ve tried,” he said.

“After I was at the land bank for one week, I felt like a fish back in the water. I’m one of the people in this world who, when I wake up, I literally can’t wait to get to work. I absolutely love what I do.”

Allen said the land bank is close to selling the former Sparta Foundry site to a manufacturer from Europe that will remediate the property and do some much-needed hiring.

“I believe that, if done correctly and effectively and creatively, the type of work that a land bank can do is the wave of the future for community development. The reason for that is, federal resources are drying up and drying up fast. What the land bank does is it allows us to creatively harness local resources and local dollars to do our own brand of community development here in Kent County,” he said.

An import from Highland, Ind., Allen moved here in 1993 to attend college, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business with a minor in religious education at Reformed Bible College. He and Donna, his wife of 29 years, were high school sweethearts. Dave was a senior at Illiana High School when he met Donna, who was a sophomore at the time.

“I saw her at school and fell in love with her the minute I saw her. I went and got my best friend and said, ‘Hey, I want to show you the girl I’m going to marry,’” he said. “And we did.”

They dated for three years and tied the knot in 1983.

Donna is a family support specialist at Grand Rapids Public Schools and works with families whose children have consistent truancy problems. “She loves it,” he said.

The Allens have two grown children, Jordan and Don. Both are married, and Jordan is the mother of the Allen’s first grandchild, Malachi, who just turned a year old. “The day I found out it was a boy, I bought him a set of golf clubs,” said Allen with a hearty laugh. Jordan works as a youth advocate at Union High School, and Don is a military veteran, having served as a combat soldier for 15 months in Iraq.

In his spare time, Allen loves to cook — so much so that he has installed a commercial kitchen in his home and often hosts dinner parties.

He is a partner in Self Inflation Systems, a kiosk-type business that fills helium balloons. The firm, which began in 2008, is taking off this year, having landed two huge contracts with Kroger, the nation’s second-largest food retailer. One contract is to fill balloons and the other is to manage the grocer’s gifting business.

Allen has a fairly lengthy history of community involvement during the nearly 20 years he has lived here. Perhaps most notable were the seven years he served on the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education. For two of those years, he presided over the board.

When asked what that experience was like, he said, “I guess I’d say it ran the gamut. At times, it was hell — and I don’t use that word lightly — and at times, it had some of the greatest experiences.”

It was daughter Jordan, a school representative to the board at the time, who convinced him to run for the post. Just like the time he spent at Wedgwood, being a GRPS board member changed his life.

“To me, good community development is all about connections and relationships. It really broadened the types of connections and relationships that I was able to make,” he said.

“By serving on the school board, you run into a huge cross-section of people in this city, from business leaders to other elected officials to parents, families and community groups, and I think that experience made me a much more effective community-development practitioner.”

As for his immediate future, Allen sees himself doing everything he can to get the fledgling land bank running at a high level and quickly.

“I’ve talked to the people at the Center for Community Progress, which deals with all the land banks nationwide. What they’ve told me is, nobody else is doing what we’re doing in Kent County. We are tilling new ground here,” he said.

“I believe in the next year, with some of the things we have on the horizon, we’re really going to be looked at nationally, and I’m bold enough to say that. There are innovative, creative and collaborative minds here in Kent County that are a really good fit for the land bank.”

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