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From left, First Congregational Church Pastor Nathan Dannison, KNAC Board President Dann Sytsma and First Baptist Church Pastor David Nichols talk in the First Baptist Church sanctuary, which doubles as a performing arts venue. © 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Historic Kalamazoo church finds new life as a community asset

Across the country, many church congregations and their buildings are becoming casualties of a society that is increasingly sidelining organized religion. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that the number of American adults who describe themselves as Christian was down 12 percent over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population was at 26 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009.

As a result, scores of churches close each year due to dwindling numbers and finances, leaving buildings abandoned, demolished or languishing on the real estate market. Sometimes former churches are repurposed into restaurants, breweries, wineries or unique housing.

When Kalamazoo’s First Baptist Church began seeing the writing on the wall, it took a bold and unusual step: turning its building into a cooperative space for community organizations.

The church, at 314 W. Michigan Ave., now has just over 100 members, down from a high of 500 in the 1960s. The building, completed in 1855, is the city’s oldest church and remains one of the few buildings that Abraham Lincoln would have seen when he spoke in Bronson Park in 1856. With 22,000 square feet, the imposing white structure includes offices, event and meeting rooms, studios and workshop areas, much of which was not being used to its full capacity.

The church sought to change that, as well as head off the potential dissolution of one of the oldest congregations in the city, by making use of the building in a way that was in line with the congregation’s values and would also benefit the community. In March 2017 a group of artists, musicians, church staff, community members and community activists met, and the result was the creation of the Kalamazoo Nonprofit Advocacy Coalition (KNAC) and a plan to make the church into an affordable cooperative-use space for nonprofit organizations dedicated to the arts or to alleviating poverty and discrimination in the community.

Now, three years after its creation, KNAC is its own nonprofit organization and the future owner of the church building, which has more than 20 tenants, ranging from bakers and artisans to arts and community service organizations.

“I want to see it (the building) used completely all day every day,” says KNAC board President Dann Sytsma as he shows a visitor the building’s spaces, including the health-department-approved kitchen and the tiny fourth floor chapel, where leaded glass windows let in tinted sunlight.

‘A good solution’

For lifelong First Baptist congregant Joyce Standish, the new venture at the church “seems like a good solution to the challenges” of the building. “It needs a lot of things that we just were no longer able to do,” she says.

Standish was baptized and married at First Baptist, which became a church home to her grandparents and their eight children after they emigrated from the Netherlands in 1916. She knows nearly every tenant of the building and lots of church history, including organizations that got their start in the church, such as the Ladies Library Association, Kalamazoo Head Start and the Can-Do Kitchen. During the Depression, First Baptist women sewed clothes for students in the public schools, giving away 3,000 garments to needy children.

“It has always been important to the church to share the space with community groups,” Standish says.

One of those groups, Crawlspace Theatre Productions, found a home for its improvisational comedy troupe at First Baptist in 2017. “We were always looking for a good place to plant our roots,” says Sytsma, who is Crawlspace’s artistic director.

Now, as a KNAC board member, he is making clear he has a passion to help others plant roots as well. “Having the building be a nonprofit and arts hub makes a lot of sense,” he says. “It offers an organic attraction to performing arts groups because of the sanctuary.”

The sanctuary — a soaring gathering space edged on three sides by a balcony — has been home to radio theater performances by All Ears Theatre for 20 years, and more recently for shows by Crawlspace Eviction, Tye Chua Dance and many choral groups. Elsewhere inside the church’s walls are tenants that are many and varied (see sidebar for a list of those who utilize or have utilized the space).

Artist Jennifyr Slater, who owns a business called The Artzy Mama, enjoys a spacious studio with windows that open — yes, open — out to a south-facing view that includes Bronson Park. A KNAC tenant for the last year, Slater pays $372 per month for her “happy place,” which includes an upright piano, a sink, a painting table, a seating area, a café table and lots of natural light. While her son and a friend were busy creating original canvas paintings for their bedrooms in the studio, she showed off a pair of her own mixed-media portraits and the space’s sewing corner for her fabric creations.

“I’ve thought about sharing my space with another tenant, but at this rent I really don’t have to,” she says.

New building owners

More tenants will be welcomed by KNAC once its purchase of the building is complete.

“As the church sought to focus less on property management, an idea germinated to have us (KNAC) buy the building,” says Sytsma. Today, KNAC has a signed purchase agreement, a robust board of directors and a blueprint for funding long- and short-term upgrades. It expects to take over running the building sometime this year. Closing the sale is expected to happen when funding is secured for urgent upgrades.

Among the volunteers who have signed onto KNAC’s board is developer Matt Hollander. His Portage-based Hollander Development works throughout the state constructing affordable housing and mixed-use buildings, like The Creamery, going up on Portage Street, which will include a YWCA-run 24-hour child-care center.

“Financial modeling means taking advantage of every opportunity for funding, finding local, state and federal incentives like historic preservation tax credits, grant opportunities and local philanthropy,” says Hollander, who estimates the church building has an immediate need for $300,000 in urgent updates to bring it up to code, like safe entrances and exits, improved lighting and essential utilities.

“Just getting high-speed internet for a building full of users is estimated near $8,000,” he says.

Included in this immediate work will be a feasibility study for a phase-two capital campaign to implement a multi-million-dollar “top-to-bottom rehab,” he says. And though his heart is in housing, Hollander is also a big fan of downtowns.

“We need to balance the new, shiny, class-A office and residential space (in downtown Kalamazoo) with affordable spaces for artists and people with social missions they’re trying to fulfill,” he says. “It creates a better downtown when that downtown has space for everyone.”

KNAC’s inception

Sytsma took over as KNAC’s board president in 2019, following the leadership of Nathan Dannison, pastor of First Congregational Church next door and the source of the original idea for KNAC. When he came to First Congregational Church in 2013, one of Dannison’s first endeavors was to share his building’s meeting spaces at no cost.

“We have been honored to host nearly 140 community groups without charging rent, deposit or cleaning fees,” Dannison says, “but many organizations became ready for a more permanent arrangement. I wondered if those groups could graduate into the building next door. I was thinking of a nonprofit cooperative charging below-market rent, a kind of incubator with both of our buildings.”

In 2015, when Pastor David Nichols arrived to help First Baptist Church transition to its next chapter, the congregation was coping with a building bigger than it could handle.

“They had rejected a proposal to close by three votes and were faced with what to do next,” Nichols says. “Some held the position to stay open as long as we can, spending our reserves, and when the money’s gone, we’ll be done. Others said, ‘Let’s take the reserves and do something creative, start something new and different.’

“Overall, the church was operating under the assumption that we only had three more years of survival. It’s been five years now, and no such gloomy vision remains.”

Nichols says the congregation engaged in a careful and deliberate process over several years to turn over the building to the KNAC.

“Many funders do not invest in churches, so having a nonprofit that shares our values is a win-win,” he says. “These are all things our church had been committed to for decades. It felt comfortable to have a secular nonprofit doing the good things the church would be very much behind.”

In the fall of 2018, the congregation took another close vote — this time to sell the building to KNAC. Nichols headed the next year’s ongoing discernment process to figure out how that would work and strengthen the group’s consensus that, indeed, it was the right move.

“We knew it would be a challenge, but we took our time, and our church membership has realized this is our best future,” he says. “There is, of course, so much emotional investment in the building on the part of the members.” Sytsma says he and the KNAC embrace the church’s concern for sustainability and historic preservation. “We will continue to respect its history and be good stewards,” he says.

An asset for artists

D. Terry Williams, another KNAC board member, is an elder statesman in Kalamazoo’s arts world. He chaired the Western Michigan University theater department for 23 years and has directed shows in nearly every venue in town. Now he’s leveraging his contacts and experience to help propel KNAC’s progress by developing an advisory committee that will provide advice and feedback on how KNAC connects with the community. The 16-member committee includes numerous representatives of the arts and leading nonprofits in Kalamazoo.

“I have to admit, the list took about 15 minutes because I’ve been around so long,” Williams says. “These are individuals committed to the arts in Kalamazoo, not only as donors but as patrons and board members.”

He describes the First Baptist building as “a prime piece of property with great bones and well worth saving.” And he notes other “excellent examples of repurposing historical buildings” in the city, including the former Globe Casket Co. building, the Shakespeare Co. factory complex and the labyrinthine arts hub that is the Park Trades Center.

Williams echoes Sytsma’s hope to see the First Baptist building used to its potential and is especially interested in the sanctuary’s possibilities as a rehearsal space for performing arts groups.

“Somebody could rehearse (there) in the morning, afternoon and evening; there are various scenarios,” Williams suggests.

One performing arts group making great use of nearly 2,000 square feet of space on the fourth floor is Tye Chua Dance, which moved into the building in 2017. It has a costume room, two dressing rooms, a lounge, an office and a brightly lit room with vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows where it holds classes and rehearsals. “Everyone who sees it says this is what a ballet studio should be like,” says Tye Chua Artistic Director Angi Polderman.

“We live and practice the KNAC core values around diversity, equity and celebrating the arts,” says Gene Chua, who founded the company with his wife, Aimee Tye.

“You couldn’t ask for a better situation in a community setting,” adds Polderman. “We love being part of the collaborative, supportive group — all the renters seem to look out for each other.”

From owner to tenant

As the day approaches when First Baptist Church becomes a tenant rather than a landlord, Pastor Nichols has a good feeling about the church’s future.

“It’s not that we’re in great condition, but there is a good spirit, good attitude, and new people are coming, perhaps not in droves,” he says. “No one is beating the doors down, but in a church like ours every new person is a success story, and we are delighted. As always, our church is in God’s hands, and as long as we’re open to where God is leading us, we see hope for the future and good things happening.”

His colleague, First Congregational’s Pastor Dannison, admits the process has been challenging but says he is gratified by the progress and momentum of the KNAC.

“Few things in my professional life have been as challenging as working to save the First Baptist building,” he says. “It was a monumental task, but when they are at their best, churches can be engines for producing culture and justice in the heart of the city, and the future of our city depends on accessible public spaces for all.

“First Baptist members were the original founders of Kalamazoo College,” Dannison adds, “so I feel like taking bold risks was in their DNA. Not every church could do what they’ve done, and the members have shown profound courage in exploring and endorsing this new concept.”

Encore Magazine

Encore Magazine is Southwest Michigan’s Magazine, bringing readers intriguing images and stories of the good things, good works and great people of our corner of the mitten. Published 12 times a year, Encore in its fifth decade of serving Southwest Michigan, carrying on a historic tradition of being the premier lifestyle publication of the greater Kalamazoo area.

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