New nonprofit owners of First Baptist Church dream, plan future as venue in downtown Kalamazoo

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

What's the future of an old Kalamazoo church, so old it once overlooked a speech by Abe Lincoln before he was president?
What's the future of a downtown Kalamazoo that was once thought dead, but is now full of life and change? 
The fate of the First Baptist Church building is now in the hands of the Kalamazoo Nonprofit Advocacy Coalition. A recent talk with KNAC's board on their plans turned into a talk about downtown Kalamazoo's continuing evolution. 
Preserving Soul
The First Baptist congregation could no longer afford upkeep, so sooner or later the building would've been sold off to be renovated into apartments, office space, and maybe a Starbucks, or it more likely would've been torn down to become a parking lot or site for a modern structure. 
But KNAC has been working for the past few years to make it into a community center for arts, non-profits, and small start-ups. On April 15, they gained ownership of the building, and now face the work of raising money to refurbish the nearly 170-year-old structure. They've reached $268,450 of their Phase 1 fundraising goal of $282,515, and have gained major donors like Dorthy U. Dalton, Irving S. Gilmore, and Consumers Energy Foundation.
Built in 1853, the First Baptist Church is one of the oldest structures in Kalamazoo County. KNAC is raising funds for repair and to become ADA compliant.For this interview, thanks to COVID-19 vaccinations, the KNAC board was meeting in person for the first time in many months. The conversation jumped about among them, reflecting their excitement about their progress and the chance to speak outside of a Zoom screen.
They brainstormed: The Union is closed -- maybe they could host WMU School Of Music performances, like the restaurant used to do? Maybe do blues and jazz shows -- the acoustics of the old sanctuary space would be perfect. What about the new Hilton Garden Inn, would they need space for meetings, conferences? And the 8th District Court building next door, with a new county court building in the works, what will become of that? Will someone buy the old Art Deco building, renovate it for offices, apartments, or just demolish it for yet another high-rise?
"We haven't met in person in a while," Dann Sytsma, KNAC president, dryly apologized for the interview that turned into a meeting.
The board was focused, however, on saving the old building, and finding a way to keep it a viable part of downtown.
D. Terry Williams, KNAC board member, says, "The thought of tearing down the oldest building in Kalamazoo didn't make any sense to me at all." 
Sytsma acknowledges  it sounds odd when he says it, but "we're taking over a church to preserve the soul of downtown."
The FBC congregation will continue its work and worship in the building, but they are now tenants. The changeover has been happening for the past few years. The congregation has been sharing space with Sytsma's Crawlspace Comedy Theatre, Chua Dance Studio, and Queer Theatre Kalamazoo. The Michigan Festival of Sacred Music and All-Ears Theatre have had performances in the sanctuary. Nonprofits like Kalamazoo Collective Housing, sound technician Bryan Heany, psychological counseling service Berghuis Counseling now have spaces. Love Muffins and Huey-D's Goodies are using the church kitchens.
Williams says, "We want to see a vibrant life in this building, 24/7, for as many nonprofits, arts organizations, startups that can't afford to go elsewhere." 
Rent will be kept at below-market for non-profits, and low or negotiable for businesses and start-ups. 
"We also envision more of a cooperative element to this building, the idea of 'sweat equity' could play into keeping the costs low," Jeremy Koch, board member, says.
"There are a lot of organizations that don't necessarily have the means to afford a downtown space and would benefit a lot from being downtown in a community of supportive like-minded people. That's a major part of what we're creating here," Sytsma says. 
From left, Elise Ripmaster, D. Terry Williams, Nelson Nave, Nicholas Clarkson, Dann Sytsma, and Jeremy Koch.KNAC would like to create a network of community organizations, Nicholas Clarkson, VP of communications and board member, adds, that "can offer all kinds of avenues, solutions, needs or whatnot for different organizations, whether or not they choose to reside here." They recently worked to help Uplift Kalamazoo find connections to get COVID vaccinations to underserved populations in Kalamazoo, he points out.
They'd like to see community, and activity. The "jewel in the crown" of the building, as Williams points out, is an ornate 450 seat sanctuary with perfect acoustics. Sytsma's improv comedy troupe has turned the room below it into a comedy club, making use of special-event liquor licenses (Sytsma hopes to have a permanent license soon). Queer Theatre Kalamazoo has turned their space into one for performances, just waiting for the pandemic to end.
But much of the social/entertainment life of downtown happens to the east/north-east of their location. The church's area is dominated by Michigan Avenue, a wide one-way street that makes pedestrian crossing dangerous. 
The environment should change, eventually. The city plans to, in the next decade, remake the street and others into a two-way avenue with traffic calming and safer access for pedestrians and bikes. "This section right out front is going to be walkable, bikeable, it's not (going to be) cars going 50 MPH like 'Mad Max' through downtown," Sytsma says. There are also plans to make it easier for students from WMU and Kalamazoo College to head into downtown for fun.
He admits that the way the environment is now is "inhospitable" for a spot looking for patrons. It's much easier to stroll along the Kalamazoo Mall, drink in hand thanks to the Kalamazoo Commons. 
The city's social life is hopping, even in pandemic times, on the Mall and around the brewpubs and restaurants on Michigan Avenue, Pitcher Street, and Kalamazoo Avenue. Not so much there by Bronson Park, especially in the evening. 
"We are getting it ready to hop" at Michigan and Church Street, Sytsma says. "This could be the westward expansion of downtown.... I think we're going to see a revolutionary change in downtown when the roads are converted."
'Practical with a soul' 
"But first, most important," board member Nelson Nave interrupts, "is saving this church from demolition." 
Nave, a local architect who specializes in historical restoration, was project architect for the Kalamazoo Ladies Library Association addition and renovations.  He laments the recent losses nearby of old churches and the Bronson Park fountain. "Pretty soon, we'd have nothing."
Sytsma says that Nave educated them "in what it takes to preserve an old building." They also have Matt Hollander on board, a local developer who specializes in rehabilitation and refurbishing old structures to make them sustainable.
Hollander "came at things with the lens of, 'you gotta put some emotions aside, put some sentiment aside, and let's be practical,'" Sytsma says.
KNAC's goal with the church is to be "practical with a soul," he adds. 
Sytsma says, looking at Nave, "he will never say it, but he's brilliant with how to take a historic building, and sometimes make small change, sometimes big changes like with the Ladies' Library, which doubled the square footage...."
Clarkson says to Nave, "you don't have to talk now, you know, right?" They laugh.
"...to make it relevant to current days," Sytsma continues.
Nave is looking at how to transform the building without losing its character, and Hollander "does his magic with spreadsheets" to figure out if it's feasible, Sytsma says.
Dreamers and Realists
Williams and Koch, two big figures in local theater, reminisced on the bad-old-days of downtown.
Williams came to Kalamazoo in 1981. He saw department stores on the Kalamazoo Mall closing as people drove to the malls in Portage. He thought then, "This is the end" of what was a vibrant downtown."
And he thought that end would be permanent. "I was totally wrong about the downtown."
Koch says of Kalamazoo Civic productions in the past where actors "would come, do a show, and leave. They felt downtown wasn't safe."
Williams was doubtful when Koch and partners came to him with the idea of a for-profit stage, Farmers Alley Theatre, back in 2008. "I thought, really? Are you serious?... There's this thing called a recession...."
But it soon became the most successful for-profit theater on this side of Michigan. "I couldn't believe how well the community responded." 
There's a tendency in Kalamazoo when an old building or underutilized property becomes available, "so often they come back to the arts," Williams says. And that seems to have worked to keep downtown lively.
"I thought the downtown was dead," he continues. "Now look what's happened. The Farmers Alley Theatre, the Epic Center, seven or eight live theaters in this town." 
It's likely that Pfizer and Stryker people who've moved here for white-collar work, "talk about the quality of life in Kalamazoo. A two-and-a-half-hour drive to Chicago or Detroit to take their kids to a theater class is not realistic," he says. 
KNAC board members chime in with other examples of downtown life and culture is thriving. There are theater classes for youth from multiple venues and entertainment options for their parents. The Kalamazoo Civic, since 1929, is a lasting institution. The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra is strong enough to pay its members even through the pandemic. The State Theatre is continuing, where a lot of venues of its size and age are dying.
Nobody's going to that mall in Portage, building manager Elise Ripmaster says -- now that's the place that's "scary. It's a ghost town. But you come down here on a Friday night, and this mall (Kalamazoo Mall) is wall-to-wall people, especially with the Central Commons district opening up. People are having a good time on the street, and you feel perfectly safe."
KNAC looks at itself as a group of realists and dreamers -- and they hope the reality is, with Kalamazoo's downtown being as lively as it is, their dreams can come true.
A bit more brainstorming breaks out: A cafe, maybe? Crawlspace Theatre is so close to being a comedy bar, they just need that liquor license.... But there's the reality of needing an elevator and other elements to be accessible and ADA compliant. 
"We dream and the wonderful thing is, we're now in a position to have our communal dreams be realized," Clarkson says.
"We've kept a lot of dreams in cages for several years," Sytsma says. "Having control of the building now, for KNAC, means we're going to start unlocking a lot of those cages." 
KNAC's Building Directory
KNAC's Building Directory for the First Baptist Church as of now:
Michigan Festival of Sacred Music - nonprofit music festival
Farmers Alley Theatre - professional theater 
Crawlspace Comedy Theatre - independent comedy theater 
All Ears Theatre - live radio theatre performance 
Queer Theatre Kalamazoo - nonprofit theater 
Berghuis Counseling - psychological counseling
We The People - social justice nonprofit
SQTOgear - small start-up, light manufacturing
Kalamazoo Collective Housing - small nonprofit
The Artzy Momma - independent artist
Tye Chua Dance Studio - independent dance studio
Ray Brandon - minister
John Gilfillan - minister
Bryan Heany / 37Ent - independent sound technician
Uplift Kalamazoo - charitable advocacy group
Huey-D’s Goodies - baker
Love Muffins - baker
Al-Anon - support group
Center For Transformation - support group

To learn more about the transformation of First Baptist Church to a home for Kalamazoo nonprofits, please read here.
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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.