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West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce investing $9.5 million in new headquarters

West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce HQ rendering
West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce rendering

Guillermo Cisneros, President and CEO of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, discusses new infrastructure supports economic advancement of Latino owned businesses and talent development.

Guillermo Cisneros: Moved at the beginning of the 1900s to Grand Rapids to work in agriculture, manufacturing. There was a boom in manufacturing at the beginning of the 1900s. So that's data we have, you know, from the first Latinos that moved. So, we have been here for a century in Grand Rapids in the West Michigan area, and the levels of poverty within the Latino community continue to increase. The graduation rate for Latino college students is 10 points below the average. You know, so as Latinos, we are not doing well. you know, in this area of the state. So, investment hasn't been part of the conversation, investing in the Latino community, hasn't been part of the conversation, you know, at different tables. So, during COVID, you know, we felt the disadvantage, and not just as an organization, but the Latino community, you know, we were able to try to bring some SBA resources, you know, for our members, you know, Latino businesses. And it was very sad to see that billions of dollars went somewhere else, but didn't get to the Latino businesses. So COVID taught us a lesson. What happens, Patrick, is that we don't have strong infrastructures of color in West Michigan, led by people of color for people of color. So many organizations capture resources and grants and try to do programming for Latinos or black, and these programs don't work. And the proof of that is that the current situation of the Latino community in Grand Rapids. So. in order to bring more resources, bring more investment, particularly in the Latino community, identify the need to build a strong infrastructure, an infrastructure led by Latinos for Latinos. And we need to start with the physical infrastructure. We have a couple areas that we focus on. The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. We focus on business development and talent development. Our mission is to increase economic advancement of Latino owned businesses. Business development. and support the professional growth of Latinos talent development. So, we have several partners, large number of a multi-billion-dollar corporations are members of the Hispanic Chamber, partners of ours. And we are currently, you know, working with some of them to provide a Latino talent through one of our programs. But I want to accelerate, I want to accelerate that. I want to scale up these programs. And the only way to do that, if we have a dignified space with top-notch technology, we have. a place where the Latino community can go and if they need assistance in Spanish, that can be provided in Spanish. So, there's a need for physical infrastructure, not just for the Latino community, but for the black community as well.

Patrick Center: I take this to be a bottom-up approach. Where do you begin to link those resources? Where is the first place you look to begin to shift the narrative and the support systems to grow the Latino businesses here in West Michigan?

Guillermo Cisneros: Before we started our Transformando West Michigan initiative, six years ago at the Hispanic Chamber, there weren't any other programs in Spanish for Latino businesses, nothing. And a high percentage of Latino businesses, the business owners don't speak English or feel more comfortable in Spanish. So, when you're trying to explain processes about human resources, accounting, if it can be complex in your own language, imagine trying to understand this process in a different language. What we're doing is bringing all of this programming in the language, you know, where that it's understood. So, the goal is for us to deliver all of our programs in Spanish when there is a need for them to be in Spanish. So, for business development piece, we bring business education, tools, connections. And we want to surround our Latino businesses with all of the resources that they need in their own language to be able for them to thrive, to grow. To implement processes that allow them to increase their teams, to increase their sales, but that needs to happen. The other piece, talent development. I have heard, you know, in West Michigan from companies, individuals that Latino talent doesn't exist. It's not that it doesn't exist, it's that companies don't know us. You know, we are here. We have in 2018, we had over 6,000 Latino college students in the local area colleges that graduate from college and they don't find employment. There's a disconnect between the employers and these Latino graduates. So, we want to solve these problems through putting relevant programming in place. We created in 2019, a program called “Building Bridges through Education” that has a goal to create a pipeline that connects Latino college students with area employers, supplying that talent to our corporate partners and business members. You know, it's important, but also the Latinos need to be able to find places where to work. Otherwise, they're going to leave the state and we need to be able to keep that talent in West Michigan. And since we are the fastest growing population in the state, it is an imperative to be able to connect this talent, these individuals to the workforce. So those are the two programs we do. But in order to do that, Patrick, we need a space. We need a space where we can bring corporate partners and a hundred Latino college students for trainings for certifications for whatever they need, and also to bring our Latino business owners and give them exposure to, for example, everything that Consumers Energy is doing around energy savings, for example. Those are some of the pieces we want to have a hub that it operates around economic and talent development in the heart of the Latino community and with all the relevancy that is necessary for my community.

Patrick Center: You've secured $5 million from the state to help fund the new headquarters. Tell me a little bit about the headquarters location, the expense, square footage, give me all the bells and whistles on what's to come.

Guillermo Cisneros: So, we have identified this location in Godfrey. It's a Godfrey Avenue, 1111 Godfrey is the address. Godfrey has a collection of buildings from the 1900s that was old manufacturing that is currently dilapidated. They have been sitting vacant for the last 70, 80 years. As I am part of different tables and seeing the development that is going to happen in downtown Grand Rapids, you know, with an amphitheater, you know, soccer stadium, you know, many other projects, I keep thinking, you know, how can I connect the economic explosion that is going to occur in downtown Grand Rapids to the Latino community that is two miles from where the river restoration hopefully is going to happen. So, this area, Patrick, Godfrey, Cesar Chavez, has the largest concentration of Latinos in Grand Rapids. 77% of the residents in that area are Latinos and also borders Wyoming. So that is the best area for the Hispanic Chamber to relocate because we want to be in the community that we're serving. We want to make sure that even if people want to walk through space, they can do that. Also, one of the appealing pieces is the parking lot. There is a parking lot behind our building, for approximately 200 vehicles. So, I want to be able to provide free parking. to my Latino members, to any member that want to come to the Hispanic Chamber meetings, you know, or events, because I feel this could be a barrier if we don't do so. In downtown and Rapids, it continues to be limited and harder to find parking. I want to make sure that we have that, you know, opportunity to provide free parking for anyone. Also, that space, it's 17,000 square feet. My vision is to have collaborative space like other organizations have, to have a cafeteria, to have conference rooms where we can bring 200 people. And if one of our corporate partners want to meet with 200 Latino college students, you know, we have the space, you know, or if they want to meet with 200 Latino businesses, they can do that. But we also want to have the space where my corporate partners can come to have board meetings there. You want to have board rooms, top-notch technology, equipment, as beautiful as any other local organization. We're going to have space for our staff as well. And we're projecting more growth for this organization. We have had a significant growth in our organization since 2017. You know, we have grown six times in revenue and also in staff. In 2017, when I started as CEO, we had two people. Now we have a staff of 12 and we're hiring two more in the next few months. So, we are growing very fast, you know, as an organization. So, I want to make sure that we put the processes and the structure in place that continue to help us with this growth. My Latino community is growing, you know, that's parallel growth that we're experiencing at this organization. So outside in the parking lot, my vision is to have career fairs for partners, business expos, festivals during the summer, you know, if there are opportunities to bring partners, members, and community together. We also are envisioning commercial kitchen inside the building that will allow us to incubate one restaurant at a time, but also to provide support to the space. If we want to rent the space for sustainability of the building, we will be able to do that. We're trying to put things in place to fully utilize the 17,000 square feet that we're about to acquire.

Patrick Center: When will you have your ribbon cutting?

Guillermo Cisneros: If everything goes as planned, my goal is by the end of 2024.

Patrick Center: The Godfrey corridor. There's been a lot of redevelopment there. Do you feel that the timing is right for the new headquarters with what we're seeing along the Godfrey corridor?

Guillermo Cisneros: It's absolutely right. Yes, so there is this project called Factory Yards that was just announced. It's around the $150 million projects, that is gonna happen a mile from the new space of the Hispanic Chamber. Our goal is to be close to the economic activity. Our headquarters going to be two miles from downtown Grand Rapids. As I said, from where the river restoration, the amphitheater is going to be. I am almost positive that development is going to continue through that area in the next five to 10 years.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.