Welcome to Kalamazoo invites newcomers to find out what's going on

There's a lot to do in Kalamazoo. Just ask anyone who has ever tried to schedule an event and found three others already planned on the same day they were hoping to attract an audience. 

For the newcomer, this abundance of culture, sports, outdoor activities, and more can be overwhelming. 

Welcome to Kalamazoo, was created to help newcomers navigate the options that have native Kalamazooans saying, "I love where I live." 

It's a new enterprise for Crawlspace Theatre Productions, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and Discover Kalamazoo, and was founded by Crawlspace impresario Dann Sytsma.

The welcome event, which takes place four times a year and highlights activities from the upcoming season offers attendees a live, multimedia presentation, a talk by a community leader, a musical performance, and an expo by local businesses and organizations in the Epic Center lobby. It's all intended to give attendees an appreciation for the area and a better sense of how to become involved in the community.

The next Welcome To Kalamazoo will take place Friday, May 4, in the Judy K. Jolliffe Theatre and its lobby, in the Epic Center, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall. There will be a musical performance and lobby expo beginning at 5:30 p.m. The presentation will be from 6 to 7 p.m. And the guest speaker for the May 4 show is former Western Michigan University President John Dunn.

There is no charge to attend. Attendees may sign up at www.NewToKalamazoo.com for a chance to win a prize at the event.

For Sytsma, the project was born out of a passion for spreading the word about the city and its offerings, but also in part out of frustration that he occasionally hears people say they've never heard of the Crawlspace Eviction improv shows though they have been part of the local theater scene for 15 years, or the annual improv festival that has been going on for nine.

"And we say, 'Well, we don't try to hide,'" Sytsma says with a smile.

"There are also people moving out of the community saying things like, 'I just never found my thing.' And as an event producer, someone who likes to get people to my events, and who tries to drive people to other interesting events, and get people involved in the community, I realized that some people never found something that grabs them. I want to change that as much as I can with this program."

Sytsma also believes the program will be good for employee retention for local employers. In his business, Improv Effects, which teaches improv skills for the workplace, Sytsma says employers have shared that "retention is a huge thing. Its a huge expense for places if employees leave. I thought they would benefit from getting employees more engaged in the community."

At a recent presentation, he also learned that people are relocating not for the job but for the community. "I want to remove that notion of "I was forced to move here" and change it into 'I got to move here, got to be a part of this,'" Sytsma says.

His thinking is the more people know about the community the more likely they are to feel part of it.

"There's a lot of talk of a lot more jobs being created, a lot more people coming in, and I want to get them engaged and get them involved with Kalamazoo as quickly as possible -- get them to be engaged members of the community quick, so they can find their tribe, so they can find their Kalamazoo, so to speak."

Their Kalamazoo? How many Kalamazoos are there? "It might be infinite," Sytsma says with a laugh. 

There's the Arts Kalamazoo, with its visual arts at the KIA, the Kalamazoo Books Arts Center, and Kalamadoodle. Dozens of musical options from classical Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Bach Fest, and the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, to house concerts in basements of the Vine neighborhood, music in bars and other venues across town. Theater on campus and off, at Farmers Alley, The Civic, Black Arts and Cultural Center and the newest venue, First Baptist Church. 

There's the athletic Kalamazoo, with running and biking groups from competitive to just for fun. There are sports teams -- Growlers baseball, Wings hockey, and Kalamazoo FC soccer. And options for children as well as adults.

There's the outdoor Kalamazoo with county and city parks and trails and places to visit such as the Kalamazoo Nature Center. And the indoor Kalamazoo with museums and lots of dining and drinking options. 

And there's organized Kalamazoo. As Sytsma says there are lots of great causes for activists and volunteers to get into. "We have a lot of fun things to do and a fair amount of need that we need help with. If that fills your bucket we have great organizations and opportunities for you," Sytsma says.

To help newcomers sort through the options Welcome to Kalamazoo invites a special guest to talk about a certain aspect of the community. "We find people who are great cheerleaders for Kalamazoo in general and who can specifically talk about a certain aspect of the community. The program helps to celebrate Kalamazoo in a fun way, celebrate some of the history and celebrate what we are now." 

As part of the evening event, there's what Sytsma calls a pseudo-game show that asks newcomers what they liked to do in their previous home and helps them learn what they might like to do in Kalamazoo. "It's one person, but it gives people an idea there are people available to connect them to good stuff," Sytsma says.

"There are so many facets to the city and surrounding areas that even a longtime resident may be missing out on something. That’s why these events are so exciting: they allow people to discover a Kalamazoo that they might not know about.”

For now, Sytsma and other Crawlspace team members like Bannon Backhus are building the program with each outing. The May event will be the third. Sytsma says there is hope that it could eventually provide a revenue stream for Crawlspace Theater Productions. There's also a long-term vision. "We hope can build a solid program with a good formula and sell our services to other communities to set it up a similar program in other communities, for cities of comparable size."

Newcomers should be advised the program is not just for those relocating for work. Other types of newcomers are moving in, too. People who want to be close to their grandchildren, people taking care of elderly parents, people who lived here during their college years and decided to move back. 

For all of them, there is Welcome To Kalamazoo.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.