Street Talk: Agents of change


Leaders along the lakeshore are driving change in Muskegon.

The business community gathered earlier this month to celebrate eight community leaders and initiatives that were recognized as the 2016 Agents of Change. Those recognized range from business reinventions to unique festivals and events, education initiatives and art installations.

“The Muskegon lakeshore is quickly evolving,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. “These passionate individuals are dramatically changing the landscape of our community and deserve recognition for their efforts.”

This is the ninth year of recognition for the Agents of Change program, Larsen said.

The honorees crossed a wide spectrum of businesses and organizations.

Thanks to Hoby Thrasher, the historic Bear Lake Tavern was reinvented for the next generation. Larsen said the building and business turnaround is an example of how an entrepreneur can preserve local history while modernizing and rebranding a locally owned business.

Along similar lines, Larsen said turning a closed drug store into a destination furniture retail center takes vision, creativity and a lot of hard work. Jason and RandiLynn Talsma moved their business from Holland to Norton Shores and created a stylish and tasteful furniture store that caters to local residents.

The Lakeshore Brewer’s Guild turned its one-of-a-kind festival at Pere Marquette Beach into a Midwest craft beer celebration. Larsen said Allen Serio’s brainchild is an event showcasing the community’s greatest asset, the beach, and puts the local craft beer industry in a positive light.

Ellen Berends’ “First Fridays” concept is bringing thousands of people to downtown Muskegon on the first Friday of every month. Larsen said the family-friendly event series has included street performers, a “Touch the Trucks” event, parade, bonfires and more. She said First Fridays energize Western Avenue with vibrancy and fun for new and returning visitors.

The Muskegon Area Promise came to fruition under the direction and determination of John Severson and Megan Byard-Karaba. The Promise offers graduating high school students access to two-year college degrees, tuition free in Muskegon County. Severson and Byard-Karaba worked closely with a volunteer board and state officials to finalize approval for the education program.

Educator Toni Seyferth brought the popular Muskegon STAR! Student Program to the community. Larsen said Seyferth created the first Muskegon STAR! Student Program at North Muskegon High School. The initiative equipped teenage participants with soft skills, facts and information needed to effectively promote the area’s assets. This class now is being modeled in other school districts across Muskegon County.

Muskegon’s first ever “Port Day” was the vision of coordinator Erin Kuhn. Business and community leaders from across the state and beyond came to the shores of Muskegon Lake to learn about and celebrate the Port of Muskegon. Larsen said the event highlighted the capabilities of the deep-water port in an effort to attract and expand business.

A passion for Muskegon Lake along with some creative vision led John and Barb Hermanson to raise more than $144,000 for the art installation “Sails Ablaze.” The sculpture, by artist Steven Anderson, honors the story of the Lyman Davis, the fastest and last commercial sailing ship on the Great Lakes, whose journey tragically ended in an intentional fire.


The Latino Business and Economic Development Center at Ferris State University-Grand Rapids is in the pondering stage of new growth in order to reach students, director Carlos Sanchez said.

The center currently helps Latino individuals in the business community through two initiatives: the Latino Talent Initiative, a monthly program that helps nurture and develop the leadership skills of Latino professionals, and the Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative, a program launching in spring 2017 that will strengthen Latino-owned business owners who are working toward innovation and support those who are developing an idea for a business.

Beyond these initiatives, Sanchez is looking at next year working with students at Ferris who may want to start an entrepreneurship club. Because Sanchez considers himself a proponent of “user-centered design,” where any idea must benefit the user, he doesn’t want to assume there will be interest in launching a club until he finds out that’s what students want.

“My idea is to go to them and ask, ‘What do you need?’” he said, and then move forward from there.

In the meantime, Sanchez is celebrating the accomplishments of several Latino Talent Initiative alumni who were honored with the 2016 Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Grand Rapids Leadership Awards: Jessica Ledesma, 2014 LTI graduate, was honored with the Advocate Award; Javier Jauregui, 2016 LTI graduate, was honored with the Good to Great Award; and Mindy Ysasi, LTI facilitator, was honored with the Exemplary Executive Award.

Flipping out

Than Merrill’s radio ads appear to be working.

Radio listeners out there likely are familiar with the voice of the Flip This House host on A&E who says he needs help in Grand Rapids flipping houses.

A WalletHub study recently placed Grand Rapids on its “Best Cities to Flip Houses” list.

Grand Rapids was No. 20 on the list and ranked as the 35th market with house-flipping potential.

The list does suggest potential house flippers be wary of jumping into projects, such as those seen on HGTV’s Flip or Flop with Tarek and Christina El Moussa. The average gross profit was $55,000, but it doesn’t all come easy, as homeownership is near its lowest rate since the 1960s.

For the best bet, head to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but avoid Texas and California, where despite having several cities among the top 50, most are extremely low on the list. Texas cities show little on profit, and California houses are expensive to buy, even if they’re run down.

Detroit ranked low on the list, surprisingly, at No. 121. And we’ve heard Merrill’s ad on the other side of the state, too, so maybe he’s not so savvy.

Food stuff

With Thanksgiving now behind us, it's time to start thinking about how to start eating healthy, so you don't have to notch one more hole in your belt. The Michigan Good Food Fund is doing what it can to help.

The statewide loan fund recently announced it would award $380,000 in Catalytic Investment Awards to several organizations working toward increasing access to healthy foods in underserved communities. Grand Rapids' own Ken's Fruit Markets was one of four organizations to receive $75,000 from the Michigan Good Food Fund, chosen to aid projects in growing their capacity to secure financing in the next year.

Ken's Fruit Markets currently operates three locations in Grand Rapids, and the funding should help support the continued growth of the grocery retailer.

“This makes our commitment to provide our community with fresh fruits and vegetables at a low cost even stronger,” Gina Courts of Ken’s Fruit Market said. “My family feels very fortunate and proud to have our businesses in such a supportive state and community.”

Retail projects in Jackson and Detroit also received $75,000 for the fund, and two early-stage projects in Flint were awarded $40,000 apiece.

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