Inside Track: World traveler is firmly planted in city’s neighborhoods
Mark C. Lewis brings varied experiences to his role as executive director of Neighborhood Ventures.
The journey he took to become executive director of Neighborhood Ventures wasn’t a direct path. In fact, there were a few twists and turns along the way — which he thoroughly enjoyed.
Mark C. Lewis replaced Kimberly Van Dyke at the organization’s top spot in 2009. Before he arrived at Neighborhood Ventures’ Wealthy Street office, he worked in the information technology field from 1990 to 1995, directing the daily operations of what was then a fledgling startup called Comprenew.
“Then I went into the sales field of information technology, and that was kind of fun because it was during the network revolution. Everybody was connecting network cards, and the Internet was in its early days, so that was fun,” he said.
The IT fun continued throughout the 1990s with stops at Precision Data Products, where he succeeded in sales, and at Interactive Business Systems, where he continued selling and became a certified project manager. But after the century came to an end, and after the all-but-forgotten Y2K panic had died down, Lewis decided to change his career direction.
MARK C. LEWIS
“I worked for a consulting firm after Y2K and that field slowed down a bit. I always had been interested in the finance field, as a financial advisor and so on, so I gave it a go,” he said.
Lewis left Troy Tech Services in 2004 and joined the White Pine Business Finance Group for a year.
“It was actually pretty fun because it’s almost like you’re a small business owner going out there meeting with individuals and businesses. So I traveled the state doing that work,” he said.
Lewis said he liked the travel and meetings and was appreciative of the flexible schedule in the financial services field. He joined the John Hancock Financial Network, where he served as an independent advisor to small-business owners, organizations and families. The firm named him West Michigan Rookie-of-the-Year in 2006.
However, shortly after he became established in the industry, the nation’s financial market went into a downward spiral because of actions taken by Wall Street investment banks, finally coming to a resounding thud that needed a government bailout.
It was at that time that the executive director position at Neighborhood Ventures opened up, and Lewis thought he would be a good fit for the post. After all, he had a solid IT management background and had spent the past five years talking with a variety of small-business owners and learning about their needs, financial and otherwise.
The Neighborhood Business Alliance, which represents the 20 neighborhood business districts in Grand Rapids, hired Lewis as Neighborhood Ventures’ new director.
“That was really a stroke of luck,” he said about the timing of his career change. In fact, he said the biggest break he has had along the way was getting his current job.
In addition to his career accomplishments, he was actively involved for about 15 years in volunteering for neighborhood residential initiatives before he landed at Neighborhood Ventures.
“The chance to gather all of that volunteer experience and match it up with my work history in the business world into a job that focuses on building great neighborhoods was a great opportunity,” he said.
Lewis is a Grand Rapids native and still lives in the city. He said he decided to become involved with the neighborhoods when he bought his first house in 1994 on Lake Drive SE in East Hills, near what has come to be known as the Center of the Universe. He admitted that buying that house had a huge impact on who he is today.
“The way I figured it was, I’ve got a 30-year mortgage. I made the commitment — I’m in it for the long haul. Why not get involved and work with others to make my neighborhood the best that it could be?” he said.
Volunteering not only helped Lewis get the Ventures’ position, it was also how he met his wife. “We met while I was volunteering at a street jazz festival on Cherry in the East Hills business district in the summer of 2005. She got involved, as well, in volunteering with the East Hills Council of Neighbors shortly after,” he said.
“She has also been a coach and a mentor for GROW. She is active, too, at church at LaGrave CRC,” he said. “She has a lot of the same interests as I do.”
Lewis and Christine Wassenaar were married in 2009, the same year he became the executive director of Neighborhood Ventures. Wassenaar also is a city native and works as a project manager for Herman Miller.
“She is the one who has introduced me to the world of travel,” he said. “That was something I hadn’t had a lot of experience with, and she had quite a lot of experience with.”
Mark and Christine travel as often as they can. They’ve been to France, Italy, Turkey, Greece and China, with many of those trips being self-guided tours. They’ve also gone to Boston, San Francisco, Denver, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Asheville, N.C., together.
They get around town together, too.
“We are also big believers in taking advantage of all the great cultural activities found in Grand Rapids. We have memberships at UICA, Meijer Gardens, the Public Museum, John Ball Zoo, and are season subscribers to the Grand Rapids Symphony and Opera Grand Rapids,” said Lewis.
“I personally enjoy fishing around the Yankee Springs Recreation Area and actually even do yard work,” he added.
Lewis graduated from Davenport College, now Davenport University, with a degree in business management. He earned a sales and marketing degree from Davenport two years later.
He’s served as chairman of the Grand Rapids Board of Zoning Appeals since 2010 after holding the vice-chair spot the previous year. He is on the board for SiTE:LAB and Friends of the Opera. Before he became Ventures’ executive director, he was the organization’s board secretary from 2005 to 2007, and board president from 2007 to 2009.
“I was part of the group that came together to organize the entity in 2005 as the ‘neighborhood representative’ on the board. It was an interesting experience in rethinking how the support of neighborhood economic development would move forward when the funds for that activity were harder to come by,” he said.
These days, the organization is on the move. Lewis has assisted some of the business districts to become enterprise-type zones and to brand the neighborhoods’ consumer offerings, which has raised traffic to the districts and investments in the districts. Lewis said he sees even more potential in those vital city blocks.
For the immediate future, Lewis sees himself continuing on the path he is on. “We’re going to continue our support of individual businesses and neighborhood commercial corridor organizing.
“It could come from my travels, but I sort of have an affinity with connecting our many ethnic businesses to the business resources they might need. Those are special experiences to be had and serve a real community need,” he said.
“We hope to encourage all of our business districts citywide to share information and advocate for common concerns through the Neighborhood Business Alliance. Neighborhood-based businesses make a huge impact. There is a lot of opportunity to use that influence by working together and then learn from each other.”