From left, ICIC founder Michael Porter, Atomic Object CEO Carl Erickson and ICIC CEO Steve Grossman. Courtesy Atomic Object
Carl Erickson knew investing in the Wealthy Street Corridor might not be the most convenient or best economic strategy for his company, but he also believed that setting up a home in the economically distressed area was central to his company’s identity.
Grand Rapids-based custom software company Atomic Object was established in 2001 and began investing in the inner city sector when it purchased its first building, at 941 Wealthy St. SE, in 2003.
Erickson said that several decades before Atomic Object moved into the area, there were many historical buildings that had fallen into disuse.
“At the time, the street had a lot of completely obsolete properties,” the company’s CEO said. “Not a lot of commerce; most suburban dwellers would tell you that you shouldn’t walk or drive on Wealthy Street. Today, there’s been an incredible resurgence on the street, the properties, the infrastructure.”
Over its 16-year history, Atomic Object has moved its home twice. Each time, the company opted to purchase and renovate a historic building in the Wealthy Theatre Historic District — first at 941 and later at 1034 Wealthy St. SE.
Erickson’s vision for the Wealthy Street district was that it would provide his company with the certain type of “home base” in which it needed to thrive. His vision for Atomic Object is to make it a 100-year-old company.
“We have always appreciated older buildings because of the visual and physical alignment with things that we care about — quality, timelessness and human scale,” he explained.
Now owning two buildings on Wealthy Street (1030 and 1034), Atomic Object has made the area the kind of home it hoped for. Though it was expensive for the company to buy and renovate two buildings, Erickson is looking toward what the investment will provide for the company and the area in the future.
“It’s certainly a long-term investment for us,” he said. “Our return is taking place over years and years, decades — to have a beautiful and creative space to attract talent.“
Over the past five years, Atomic Object experienced a growth rate of approximately 54 percent. Its projected revenue for 2017 will be around $10 million. The company currently employs 62 people at its offices in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.
Recently, the company’s level of growth was recognized on a national scale. The Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) and FORTUNE magazine placed Atomic Object in the top 100 fastest-growing inner city companies at its annual IC100 event in Boston.
ICIC is a national nonprofit that promotes economic prosperity in economically distressed urban environments. The organization researches inner city economies to inform businesses, governments and investors about urban market opportunities.
“Back in the mid-’90s there wasn’t a broad definition of inner cities,” said Kate Allgrove, ICIC director of urban business initiatives. “Our definition is based on poverty and income levels in areas that have at least 75,000 in population.”
Based on ICIC data, an inner city is an urban area with a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, or a poverty rate that is at least 1 1/2 times that of the metropolitan statistical area (MSA), an unemployment rate of at least 1 1/2 times that of the MSA and a median household income at least 50 percent lower than that of the MSA.
ICIC’s 2015 data finds the Wealthy Street Corridor in which Atomic Object resides has a poverty rate of 33.1 percent, compared to 25 percent in Flint, 28 percent in Detroit and 43 percent in Dearborn. The Wealthy Street Corridor also has an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent.
Recognizing that Atomic Object is a vital part of its area’s economy, Erickson said he’s very satisfied to be placed in the top 100 inner city companies in the nation.
“This puts us in the company of organizations that not only are successful but who care about their communities and engage creatively in a much broader way to ask the question, ‘What’s the purpose of our company?’” he said.
The Wealthy Street Corridor is one of 328 inner cities in the U.S. recognized by ICIC. Each area has a population of 75,000 or higher. The average poverty rate of inner cities is 32 percent, compared to the national average of 13 percent.