New nonprofit aims to infuse region with community-focused developers and investors

Passing by vacant downtown buildings can set entrepreneurial minds spinning with ideas about how those empty spaces could be put to use, but for many, the thought of managing a complicated development project full of codes, costs, regulations, and contracted labor can send them running the other way.

But a new nonprofit called Infuse Great Lakes Bay hopes to equip budding developers and real estate investors with the skills, resources, and mentorship necessary to turn empty spaces into places that create value for communities around the region.

Officially launched in October of this year, Infuse Great Lakes Bay is comprised of planners, engineers, real estate developers and investors, economic developers, business consultants, accountants, architects, and CEOs.

With 24 team members ready to assist emerging developers and real estate investors, Jenifer Acosta, the vice-president of Infuse, says that a large team of experts with diverse qualifications is necessary to meet the diverse needs of those looking for investment and development assistance.

"Development isn't prescriptive - every situation is going to be different, so we a need a powerhouse brain trust of advisors with various backgrounds and experiences," she says. "Our goal is to have this collaborative organization where we can fill different knowledge gaps people have and connect them to those who have been through it all before. We want to build up the next generation's skill set."

Jenifer Acosta, vice president of Infuse

When a property lies vacant or a valuable development project isn't being pursued, communities suffer through a loss of income going to residents, decreased tax base to the city, less available housing or valuable services, and increased crime around the abandoned property. Wayne Hofmann, the president of Infuse, says that one of their goals is to help equip entrepreneurs, developers, and investors in the Great Lakes Bay Region with the skills, resources, and connections necessary to dream up and complete community-focused projects themselves.

"I think the problem we're trying to solve are gaps in the experience of investors and developers in the region," says Hofmann. "We have developers in the region, but we don't have a critical mass of folks who are experienced in small development that want to or know how to take on the risk of developing property and attack it properly. And we have to take a regional approach because that's what it will take to get enough people interested and able to do this work. We want to bring a lot of folks together to trade ideas, trade resources, and bring everything together for the benefit of our communities."

Wayne Hofmann, vice president of InfuseAcosta also says that providing a large of amount of resources and expertise is important to empower local residents to invest in their own communities.

"We want to offer help and give a human touch through what can be a complicated process, and so we'd like to give people all the talent, resources, and support we can to really detangle it as much as possible," she says. "It's about simplifying and showing people how they can invest in our region. The people that think 'there really ought to be...' or 'someone should do...', if they had some kind of assistance, they would be able to go and tackle those things themselves."

Minimizing risks and avoiding mistakes

The word "development" might conjure up thoughts of large-scale apartment complexes, office buildings, or subdivisions. But Infuse encourages new developers to think big about small-scale development: taking an existing building and creating a mixed-use space with a storefront and an apartment above, a duplex or a triplex.

"For example, there might be people whose bread and butter is operating a small business, but they own the building they're in. We want to provide resources that allow them to say, 'Okay, maybe I can think bigger or differently about my building', " says Chelsea Rowley, a member of the Board of Directors. "That takes a large knowledge base and a lot of time that emerging developers don't have, and I think Infuse acts to bring resources together to make the process go more smoothly for people."

Chelsea Rowley, member of the Board of Directors

Even with small projects, big mistakes can be made. Acosta says that along with simplifying the development process, Infuse also wants to help people approach their development projects in ways that minimize potential risks and the possibility of big mistakes.

"We want people to take small steps towards creating a better place to live or investing more in their community because smalls steps minimize risk," she says.

"We definitely don't want people going down a path of putting their life savings at risk," adds Hofmann. "Developers are essentially entrepreneurs, and when entrepreneurs start out, there are a lot of missteps one can take. Folks start out with great ideas for a property, but there's the potential to make a lot of mistakes, and we're here to help people navigate around those."

Creating value within communities

Hofmann says that one of the goals of the nonprofit is resist something called "capital flight", or when financial assets leave an area. He says a key strategy in that battle is helping people within an area build wealth in a way that benefits everyone.

"We have two ways we want to create value in this community. First, we want everyone to participate in wealth building. When my neighbor builds wealth, my property value goes up. Whether you're a middle-income wage earner, or you're a big developer, your property going up in value is good, because that's the place where most people have a significant portion of their wealth."

Hofmann says the second way Infuse wants help the community is by creating value through their buildings and businesses, and keeping it. "There's a lot of potential value in those empty buildings," he says. "But once they're torn down, that value disappears. We want to give people from our community an opportunity to save that value while investing in their communities."

Three examples of Infuse in action

Hofmann gives a few examples of very different projects Infuse is currently providing support for.

The Bearinger Fireproof Building in Saginaw was built in 1893, and has been sitting vacant for more than a decade. Currently owned by a city development corporation, a group of investors is looking at the property.
The Bearinger Fireproof Building in Saginaw
"Infuse is participating in that work along the Saginaw Community Foundation, so that if the investors aren't able to move forward, the community foundation and Infuse can stay engaged to catalyze that development if it doesn't happen. We're very confident it will happen, but this way we're able to take properties that are in public ownership and be part of the discussions that help activate them."

The other example Hofmann gives is of a nonprofit which recently came into ownership of an old church. "But the nonprofit's mission is not the redevelopment of properties, so we're working with them to find the highest and best use for that building," he says.

Infuse also helps facilitate projects that don't currently have a building. "A couple reached out to us with a business plan that included buying and redeveloping a property." Acosta says. "They didn't come to us already with the physical asset of a building, but we connected them with members of our advisory board, walked through properties with them, and talked them through their vision."

She also says that an additional step they take for some developers is to connect them with local business development organizations to ensure they're moving forward with a sound business plan. "We can connect them to the SBDC and other entities to encourage them to hone their business plans, take the smallest steps, and really advocate for them and support their vision in that way."

The Long Term Goal of Infuse

Infuse wants to reach beyond spaces and places they help create. "One of the things we want to accomplish is encouraging people to stay, live, and work in the area,” says Acosta. “We want to let people know that if they choose to invest themselves here, there are people working hard collaboratively and as a community to create jobs for them, housing to live in, and the kind of community they will want to stay in as they continue to age. We want them to see that the community is worth their time, talent, money, and expertise."

Hofmann says he hopes to help reverse a trend. “I’ve seen a generation of people in boardrooms lamenting ‘I wish my kids would have stayed in the area’, but those kids weren’t necessarily encouraged to stay,” he says. “We want to make that happen.”
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