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Grand Rapids Chamber pushing creative fields

Organization’s goal is for region to be known as a hub for creative talent.

March 8, 2019
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Fashion Design
Local fashion designer RC Caylan has had his work displayed at high-end shows, most recently New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2019. Courtesy RC Caylan

The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce is making a push to enhance creative fields locally.

The chamber’s goal is to build on the creative culture, retain talent by promoting partnerships and, ultimately, attract more talent to the area.

“We understand that our competitiveness as a region is directly impacted by the creative talent,” said Dante Villarreal, the chamber’s vice president of business and talent development. “Our goal is for this region to be known as a hub for creative talent.”

The chamber is implementing its plan after it and four other organizations received funding in 2017 from the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office to support the creative economy, targeting fields such as advertising, visual and performing arts, crafts, architecture, music, public relations, graphic design, film and fashion.

The chamber has been planning the initiative over the past year, using input from several focus groups, including one with organizations that support creative talent and one with businesses that consume the talent, Villarreal said.

Creative fields in particular house a lot of freelancers and small businesses, and the goal is to connect them to larger businesses in the area that could utilize those services.

Input from the focus groups seemed to have a common theme, he said. The primary issue is companies too often look outside the region — often toward the East and West coasts — for creative services when much of what they need can be found in West Michigan.

“Let’s shop local first,” Villarreal said.

A lot of the area’s film industry traction stopped when state incentives for filmmakers were halted in 2015, Villarreal said, but many of those people are still here, for example.

RC Caylan is a locally based fashion designer who has dressed celebrities for red carpet events and whose work has been displayed in high-end fashion shows, most recently New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2019.

“I’m based in Grand Rapids. I’m out there in the different states but not here in our city,” Caylan said. “I think that’s the bigger problem. We’re not making our talent blossom here in our city.”

A Filipino transplant who graduated from the GRCC fashion program in 2015, Caylan has a studio in downtown Grand Rapids, at 80 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 308, where he is available by appointment for wedding dress design and other services. Though he said his prices are more reasonable, local women often shop from designers based elsewhere, perhaps because they don’t know he exists or because his name is not as widely known.

Villarreal said he believes the first barrier is making companies and the public aware of the talent here. To start, the chamber is spreading the word among its 2,400 members. The chamber soon will launch a page on its website where companies can post RFPs for creative services. The chamber also is adding a creative business category to its annual EPIC awards.

Part of the initiative includes helping these small businesses learn better marketing and other business practices, such as how to submit bids and establish contracts.

He said there is low participation from creative professionals in chamber events in general. Because they have such low involvement, he said it’s difficult to quantify how many actually are here.

“Creative businesses sometimes don't realize they’re businesses,” Villarreal said.

The goal is to raise their participation in chamber events by 20 percent in the next year, he said. The chamber kicked off the initiative with a networking event Feb. 27 and plans to continue hosting connections and other events.

The chamber is receiving input on the initiative from its Creative Chamber council, consisting of multiple local creative professionals: Jacob Pollak, Ferris State; Jori Bennett, ArtPrize; Shayna Harris, SLSA Creative; Caylan, RC Caylan Atelier; Chris Randall, Fulvew Productions; Kris Mathis, SpringGR; Steve Zaagman, Spectrum, GR Swing Society; Laura Armenta, Armentality Studio; Dana Friis-Hansen, Grand Rapids Art Museum; AJ Hills, city of Grand Rapids; and Joe Voss, Creative Many Michigan.

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