Nonprofit, manufacturer partner on Grand Rapids workforce training facility

Media Mention

By Kate Klemp October 26, 2023

by Kayleigh Van Wyk

October 25, 2023

Originally Published in Crain’s Grand Rapids Business

A recent federal grant awarded to Mel Trotter Ministries will help support a workforce development partnership between the nonprofit and minority-owned metal stamping manufacturer Jireh Metal Products.

The $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will support the creation of 32 full-time jobs as well as new metal fabrication equipment at a new manufacturing training center.

Mel Trotter Ministries and its subsidiary, Next Step of West Michigan, have been working on a 15,000-square-foot manufacturing facility at 130 Garden St. SE in Grand Rapids for construction and workforce development training. Construction on the facility began this summer, and Mel Trotter executives say the building will be completed by the end of November. Wolverine Building Group is leading the build out.

A portion of that facility will be leased to Grandville-based Jireh Metal Products as it expands into the 49507 ZIP code and partners with Mel Trotter to boost manufacturing capabilities and provide job training opportunities.

Michael Davenport, president and CEO of Jireh Metal Products, said the company had been seeking an opportunity to have a presence in the 49507 area on the city’s south side.

According to 2021 U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by Census Reporter, 26.2% of residents in the 49507 ZIP code live below the poverty line, which is more than double the 9.8% rate for the overall Grand Rapids-Kentwood metro area. Median per capita income is $20,965, compared to $34,581 in the metro area.

“I think, arguably, 49507 is one of the most economically challenged neighborhoods we have in the city,” said Michele McIsaac, chief strategy officer at Mel Trotter.

According to Davenport, a chance encounter with a Mel Trotter board member happened just as another location opportunity had fallen through. Jireh Metal will use the new space at the Garden Street facility for its assembly work, he said.

He added that the decision to partner with Mel Trotter made sense as he started to think more about how his company could help the community.

“There are lots of things that go on that cause homelessness, one of those being solid employment. … For us, we can help with employment, we can help with job training, and I think being in 49507 is a great place for us,” Davenport said.

As well, Davenport said this type of partnership between a business and a nonprofit can help solve problems in a better way.

“You think about a lot of the nonprofits out there that are solving problems, and you got business folks — we’re out there, we’re solving problems as well,” Davenport said. “I think sometimes, if we come together, we can solve them in a better way. And we don’t necessarily have to create things from scratch. We can just partner with folks that are already existing and doing great work.”

Mel Trotter President and CEO Dennis Van Kampen said this type of partnership should be a model to help solve challenges around jobs and workforce development.

He said the nonprofit has talked with many employers that are struggling to find workers, while some current employees face situations and obstacles that cause them to struggle in the workplace.

“Jireh and other businesses — they exist to conduct their business. They’re not social workers. … That is what organizations like Mel Trotter are great at,” Van Kampen said. “So, we can partner together and we can work alongside some of their employees to help them move through some of these obstacles in their life, which in turn will help them become better employees and more productive employees.”

With this federal grant, Mel Trotter will loan $600,000 of those funds to Jireh, which is to be paid back over a six- or seven-year period, according to McIsaac. The nonprofit will use the remaining $200,000 to administer support services through this partnership, such as job coaching, helping with employee recruitment or providing homelessness prevention or diversion assistance.

McIsaac said the 32 new livable-wage jobs supported by the grant will be added over a three-year period, and 75% of those jobs will go to low-income individuals — either guests of Mel Trotter or other individuals hired by Jireh from the 49507 area.

“(Davenport’s) team has the capacity to help people coming into the industry develop skills three levels up,” McIsaac said.

Van Kampen said the partnership with Jireh is “a win-win” from an employee investment standpoint as well as a ministry support standpoint.

“This really is a win-win in that a company like Jireh gets to invest in their employees through Mel Trotter services in a unique way, in a productive way,” Van Kampen said. “And it’s a win for Mel Trotter because we partner with a for-profit business, and we can learn things from them about manufacturing, but through a lease arrangement, we can also drive revenue to support the ministry of Mel Trotter.”

The grant announcement comes during a year of growth for Jireh, which announced plans earlier this year to expand into Walker, as well as for Mel Trotter, which celebrated the completion of a major renovation project at its main location on Commerce Avenue earlier this year.

In addition to the new manufacturing facility, Mel Trotter and Next Step are working on a separate mixed-use facility on Garden Street for 10 transitional housing units and space for Next Step’s skilled job training program.