Art Van is newest philanthropist making a difference here


A rendering of the Art Van Sports Complex in Plainfield Township Courtesy West Michigan Sports Commission

When future generations of baseball lovers step into the West Michigan Sports Commission’s $7.8 million baseball-softball complex, they will read the name of not only the stadium, but of the man looking to leave his philanthropic mark in West Michigan.

With a commitment of $1.8 million to the complex, Art Van Elslander, owner of Art Van Furniture, recently won the naming rights to the future complex site at 10 Mile Road and U.S. 131 in Plainfield Township.

The groundbreaking is set for 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 23, said Kathleen Stewart Ponitz, principal at Progressive AE, and fundraising will continue through Phase I of the building process, with Phase II still to be scheduled. Construction manager Owen-Ames-Kimball and Progressive AE are leading the project together.

Stewart Ponitz said it was so encouraging to see another respected name in philanthropy making a commitment to West Michigan, especially considering that Art Van is a Warren-based furniture company.

“We have a brand new name on a brand new building in Grand Rapids, and they’re not even from around here,” she said. “It seems like everywhere I go, he’s contributing.”

With eight stores in West Michigan, three of which are in Grand Rapids, it makes sense to support the surrounding culture, said Diane Charles, Art Van’s director of communications.

Supporting the complex near their Alpine store attracts families and is the right thing to do for the community, she said.

“We have a 53-year history of giving to the community. He’s been in Grand Rapids since 1987 and he’s always supported different initiatives,” Charles said. “We know that consumers will support you if you support the things they believe in.”

Art Van’s move is aligned with a very positive spirit in the West Michigan community, Stewart Ponitz said, characterizing a change she has noticed in the attitude of many philanthropists since the devastating economic recession rocked Michigan businesses.

Hope is coming back.

“I think the sentiment is people are visioning and being creative and innovative,” she said. “People are a lot more optimistic, certainly guarded and pragmatic, but I feel a lot of growth and potential. Philanthropists are realizing their gifts are coming back.”

Van Elslander has earned a reputation as a serious philanthropist. He not only wrote a check in the 11th hour keeping Detroit’s Thanksgiving Parade afloat, but also did the same for the Grand Rapids Santa Claus Parade.

“We’ve grown the Grand Rapids Santa Parade from 10,000 to 35,000 people in two years,” Charles said. “It was to the point where the TV stations wouldn’t cover it … Well, now we have major floats.”

In 2009, as the company celebrated its 50th anniversary, Van Elslander created the Million Dollar Charity Challenge, donating $1 million to be distributed to 50 Michigan nonprofits as challenge grants, ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. The response generated another $3 million through additional fundraising, and Van Elslander has continued the challenge for the past three years.

“I think you’ll see more and more things as our business model grows and changes,” said Charles. “When it makes sense, absolutely.”

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