It has been a year since we opened Walnut & Park Café. Since then, the response from the community has been fantastic. Sales are picking up and the café has really become a neighborhood and community gathering place. It has not been a great Spring for our patio, but as the weather warms, that will add needed seating space as some days it has been hard to find a table inside.
The training and work experience it has provided our students has been great as well. We’ve seen tremendous growth in these individuals as they learn new skills and take on new responsibilities.
As we head into year two, we have some ideas for new menu offerings and possible expansion in the near future.
Building our vocational training programs
Over the last few months, we have been developing our building trades vocational training program. The program provides some classroom time, but mostly hands-on experiential training for our resident students.
The combination of a good economy, a booming housing market and a labor shortage creates a problem for consumers who need work done in or on their homes. But this also creates an opportunity for KPEP and our residents. There is a huge shortage of workers in the skilled trades right now, so we feel confident that we can prepare people for good paying jobs as they leave KPEP.
Before launching the program, we talked with several builders and contractors, and we joined the Kalamazoo Home Builders Association. Over and over again, we heard about the need to find people with a good work ethic. If someone could pass the drug test, show up to work on time and actually work, there are plenty of good paying jobs available. Particular skills could then be taught on the job.
Kalamazoo Land Bank partnership
During the course of our building trades exploration we connected with the Kalamazoo Land Bank. We knew immediately that this organization was a perfect partner for us. While we are trying to help people rebuild their lives, the Land Bank is trying to renovate abandoned properties and rebuild neighborhoods.
There are several facets to our partnership. The first involves community service. Community service is a big part of KPEP. Most residents are required to do 60 hours of community service before they graduate. This helps them give back to the community. The Land Bank has vacant parcels that need to be mowed and cleaned up regularly. In 2017, we took care of 12 of the parcels. This year we have a list of 21 we will maintain.
A second opportunity involves us purchasing homes for use as transitional living. We purchased our first home under this program in May of 2017 and completed renovations in September of 2017. The home is now being used for transitional housing funded through Offender Success in Kalamazoo. We purchased another home in November of 2017 and hope to have that ready for occupancy by mid-summer. We are thinking of using this home for graduates of our hospitality program who are in need of affordable housing.
The third opportunity involved renovating homes for the Land Bank that they could then sell to people and make them owner occupied. The first two homes were at 1322 and 1330 E. Main. These homes had been vacant for some time. It was evident that there had been some break ins and squatters in the homes, and this wasn’t good for the neighborhood or the single woman who lived in the home between these two houses.
When it came time to renovate, the Land Bank purchased all of the materials, and we provided the labor. We hired subcontractors as well for things like electrical and plumbing. Our subcontractors are terrific in that they will allow our students to watch and learn during the process. This is truly a public, private and non-profit partnership.
On March 22, the Kalamazoo Land Bank held an open house to showcase the two renovated homes and highlight the KPEP collaboration. Each of these homes sold for full price within two days of going on the market.
During this time, we have had discussions with representatives from Local Initiatives Support Coalition (LISC) and Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services (KNHS) about a partnership with all four entities. LISC has agreed to provide some funding to help KPEP with the training program as we renovate homes for both KNHS and the Land Bank. We hope to be able to complete 6-8 homes in the first year of this project.
Win-win can be an overused phrase, but I can’t think of a better way to describe this partnership. Homes that had been sitting vacant are now occupied and back on the tax rolls – that’s good for the community. Residents of KPEP get job skills, an income and transitional housing if needed. The construction industry gets workers who come to them with some experience and, we hope, a stronger work ethic learned through this program. They also come with sobriety and changed thinking learned through other KPEP programs.
We are off to a great start and look forward to the projects in the year ahead.