Shine a light: Pastor-entrepreneur builds neighborhood business center

Carrie Bertrand is a roof repair away from realizing a dream.

It's a big repair, but then it's a big dream, too.

Seven businesses under one roof, but more importantly a place for the community to come together, for people to make business connections and help other businesses grow -- that's what Bertrand says Believers Business Center in Kalamazoo's Edison neighborhood is all about.

Bertrand is the owner of the janitorial company Artios Services, the leasing company Agapao Properties and pastor of the nondenominational Living the Promises Church. The business center -- which presented its master plan to the public this month and ramped up its marketing efforts -- is the culmination of an intense tale of personal recovery, individual investment and material rehabilitation. 

The plan includes details for each of the seven proposed businesses. Would-be entrepreneurs are invited to check out the center, where they can find business resources and make connections. Authors and artists will have their own space.

Eventually, the 22,000-square-foot building at 1301 Cameron St. will be the home of a business incubator, a 4,700-square-foot expo and event center, an office share space, conference rooms, classrooms, a health and wellness center and more.

Rental rates are intentionally set low to make the space affordable. Paws Advocacy Network, a nonprofit that helps low-income pet owners feed their animals, has already set up business there.

Twenty five people have signed up to be members of the business center. For $99 a year members have access to the site and its networking capabilities promoted through connection meetings each month. Classes begin in September.

Bertrand's already reaching out to folks in the neighborhood. Garage sales that bring in a little revenue are also just as much about meeting the neighbors, who are among the people she's hoping to reach.

Edison, the largest of Kalamazoo's neighborhoods by population also has the highest unemployment, and Bertrand's mission is to offer training and advice that can restore hope in people battered by today's economic conditions.

Three year ago, Bertrand purchased the 1898 depot where trolleys were once repaired and has been at work ever since to restore it. Weeds and trees had to be cleared from the property and stripped off the building. Entries that allowed homeless into the building had to be secured.

She and her workers removed huge quantities of glass left behind by the glass warehouse that previously occupied the site. She filled five dumpsters.

She put in windows. "God sent me on a mission to bring in the light," Bertrand says.

Sometimes she paid her employees from her custodial business to do the work. More often she worked on her own, sometimes through the night, to make repairs and restorations. She points to a spot on the wall where she rubbed her fingers raw carving what now look like bricks into the cement used to fill a hole.

The job has not only been physically demanding. Bertrand has poured almost $400,000 of her own money into the site. She's drained the personal wealth she built up from the janitorial business that provided her family with a comfortable lifestyle for many years.

She says it will cost at least $200,000 to repair the roof and finish the building in the manner in which she envisions it. Her once healthy credit will no longer allow her to take out a loan to complete the job. And she's finding that prospective investors who come to see the building are easily dismayed by the amount remaining work that needs to be done.

Bertrand remains upbeat about it all because she believes everything that has happened in her life has led her to establishing the business center. In her mind's eye she sees people moving through the building. She knows where the glass partitions will be for the cafe operated by a budding restaurant entrepreneur. Where the promotions suite and lounge goes. Where the fireplaces will be.

She says the financial and physical hardships she has overcome have given her the compassion and insight she needs to work with those who want to build a business.

As a teen Bertrand ran away from home. At 18, she started her own janitorial service and quickly built it to a 32-person operation. Long before people were calling themselves entrepreneurs, Bertrand was a successful one.

Twelve years later it all came unraveled when she and her daughter developed a disease caused by parasites now known as Morgellons. What appeared to be fibers emerging from lesions on her skin, the sensation of bugs crawling under the skin, and shooting pains were all part of the disease. She lost her business as the illness escalated and doctors were unable to identify its cause or cure.

Through the help of those she says were sent by God, Bertrand recovered her health and rebuilt her business. She's written and self-published a book on how to apply the bible's teachings to daily life and a second book on her experience in recovering from Morgellons.

Through all the renovations, Bertrand continues to keep up her janitorial service, although business is down as businesses tighten their budgets. She says considering the economy she could put plans for the center on hold for a couple of years as she rebuilds her finances.

That doesn't seem to be a good option to her.

"People need this right now," she says.

Kathy Jennings, editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave, is a freelance editor and writer in Kalamazoo.

Photos by Erik Holladay

Carrie Bertrand has created a space for building businesses and networking at the Believers Business Center in Kalamazoo, MI.

The Believers Business Center has space available to rent for artists and authors.

Carrie Bertrand holds a meeting in the Burgundy Room of the Believers Business Center.

The Believers Business Center hopes to create a strong bond with the Edison Neighborhood where it is located in and with local churches.

The Believers Business Center is located in a old trolley house located in the Edison Neighborhood near the corner of Washington Avenue and Cameron Street.

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