Kalamazoo Nonprofit Advocacy Coalition goes big to grow home

KNAC has a big ask of the community.

To renovate their old home, the First Baptist Church, the Kalamazoo Nonprofit Advocacy Coalition has raised $2.6 million, surpassing their original goal of $2 million, in their Inspire fundraising campaign.

"But, due to current economics, the cost of renovation has increased significantly, and our current goal from the private sector is $3 million," Jeff Ross, campaign co-chair, says. 

A KNAC press release sent after the Thursday, May 4 announcement states that they need a total of $11 million in both private and public funding. It will go into renovating its many performance spaces, workspaces, studios, and offices, into making the facility safe, efficient, and accessible.

Dann Systma, KNAC Board President, detailed plans for the church's restoration and remodeling."The total cost is much higher (than what is being asked for in private donations), so we're securing public funding through some different tax credits," KNAC Board President Dann Sytsma tells Second Wave after the announcement. 

When funding will be enough to start work on the building is "the big unknown right now," he says. "We're likely to begin the project and construction in 2024, so the rest of 2023 will in large part be securing those public dollars, and continuing private donations as well."

Fund-drive co-chair Ann Fergemann is quoted in the KNAC release, "When our work is done, we'll have an improved home for up to 60 fledgling nonprofits and for-profits that enrich our community."

From Lincoln to the future

In their presentation, KNAC representatives put the church in the context of Kalamazoo's past, present, and future.

"This beautiful, iconic structure is the only structure that was standing... when Abraham Lincoln rode into town to give a speech to the people of Kalamazoo in 1856," Ross says.

Dann Systma, KNAC Board President, detailed plans for the church's restoration and remodeling.Lincoln spoke just behind the church in Bronson Park. Long before that, the land was home to the Potawatomi people. The church saw troops march off to battle and return home in victory parades during the Civil War and the World Wars. It saw horse-drawn streetcars and the dominance of motor vehicles on Michigan Avenue.

"The oldest public building in Kalamazoo, it has been a mute witness to the events of almost two centuries," Sharon Ferraro, KNAC board member, and historic preservationist, says. 

Ross, Ferraro, and Sytsma recognized the impact of the congregation of the First Baptist Church. It was founded in 1836, with members who then founded Kalamazoo College, the Ladies Library, and Head Start of Kalamazoo.

Sharon Ferraro, former Historic Preservation Coordinator of the City of Kalamazoo, and Qianna Decker, Kalamazoo City Commissioner, spoke about the unique history of the First Baptist Church.Due to declining membership, the congregation let KNAC into the building in 2017 and gifted it to KNAC in 2021. It remains the home of the First Baptist congregation.

KNAC's mission is, Ross says "to serve the broader community of Kalamazoo, to provide space and support in three areas.... as a premier center for the performing arts; to serve the non-profits who are focused on social justice, equity and inclusion; and innovation through entrepreneurs who seek to create a better world."

"And to put the icing on the cake... to do all of this while preserving the history of one of the oldest, beautiful, iconic structures in Kalamazoo."

The KNAC crowd was packed with local notables, including Judy Sarkozy of Sarkozy's Bakery.Statements from Mayor David Anderson, State Representative Julie Rogers, and State Senator Sean McCann pointed toward the future goal of KNAC helping to make Kalamazoo a destination city for the arts. 

Rogers points to the Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 plan of remaking West Michigan Avenue into "downtown's primary retail and entertainment corridor." McCann says that KNAC will be a "revenue generator," and that "studies show that for every $1 dedicated to arts programming, another $3 are spent by community members at local restaurants and area businesses." 

Comedy to cupcakes, all-inclusive

The building has become a downtown home to creatives, from performance groups like Crawlspace Comedy to baker DeMargeo White's Huey D's Goodies.
Entertainment at KNAC's announcement included local musicians.Sytsma emphasized KNAC's inclusivity. Their tenants are around "50% BIPOC-owned or led businesses or organizations, 50% are women-owned or led, and 20% are led by members of the LGBTQ community," he says.

He brought up the Kalamazoo Lyceum discussion in March that took place in the Crawlspace Theatre. 

The question was raised, he says, "Do we have a shared story in Kalamazoo? Two of the panelists, who were people of color, said quietly but confidently, 'No.' The stories of success that come out of Kalamazoo often don't include everyone."

A full house showed up to hear KNAC's fundraising announcement and listen to featured local musicians.KNAC wants to change that, Sytsma says. "We'll make mistakes, We'll get things wrong. But I believe a shared story of Kalamazoo is evolving, and a shared space like KNAC can be an agent for that positive change."

Kalamazoo City Commissioner and KNAC board member Qianna Decker asked the audience to "think and reflect for a moment" on the community's support of the arts, the many concerts and festivals, as well as its institutions of higher learning and support for education with the Kalamazoo Promise.

Dr. Barry Ross, concertmaster emeritus of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, performed at KNAC's fund drive announcement."We may not be a particularly large community by size and population, but it is clear that we are giants among communities of similar size, and those that are larger," Decker says.  

KNAC tenants "broadly represent our great community, and we in turn ensure this community's long-standing legacy in performing arts and innovative entrepreneurship." 

Dann Sytsma, KNAC Board President, believes that the nonprofit can be a part of a shared story in Kalamazoo.KNAC and First Baptist Church background

Completed in 1855, the First Baptist Church is the city’s oldest public building and remains the only surviving structure that Abraham Lincoln would have seen when he spoke in Bronson Park in 1856. The downtown building includes offices, event and meeting rooms, two theatres, studios, and a 450-seat performance hall. As membership at First Baptist began to decline, the church sought to turn the
building over to an organization that honored the congregation’s legacy of community engagement, in particular the performing arts.

In 2017, a group of artists, musicians, church staff, community members, and community activists formed KNAC. They worked with First Baptist Church, 315 W. Michigan Ave., to turn the facility into an affordable, cooperative-use space for nonprofit organizations dedicated to the arts, alleviating poverty, and reducing discrimination in the community.

Since then, KNAC has also opened the building to for-profit entrepreneurs who are working to establish themselves in Kalamazoo, with a particular emphasis on BIPOC and women-led businesses in creative fields. Entrepreneurship is a powerful tool for wealth creation in underserved communities and will help break the cycle of
poverty for many families in Kalamazoo.

In 2021, the church gifted the building to KNAC, knowing that the organization was dedicated to providing shared workspace for community organizations and businesses. Some of KNAC’s current tenants include Crawlspace Comedy Theatre, Tye Chua Dance, Queer Theatre Kalamazoo, Uplift Kalamazoo, All Ears Theatre, NowKalamazoo, Room 35, Huey D’s Goodies, and First Baptist Church.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.