Aug. 24 2011 12:00 AM

The venerable organization has found a new home in Old Town, and it’s celebrating with an art exhibit


It makes sense that Katherine Draper is into steel drapes.
The executive director of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition
cultivates a steel drape image: inviting, creative, transparent, tough.

Draper pulled aside clicky curtains of stainless steel
loops to reveal a small conference room in the stylishly renovated
library of the old Lansing School for the Blind, on the west side of Old

“This was my one extravagance,” she said. 

After more than 20 years in an old house on Lapeer Street,
the coalition has found a permanent home in a new nexus of
housing-oriented nonprofits dubbed the Neighborhood Empowerment Center
in December.

As far as Draper is concerned, the move didn’t come a minute too soon.

“We needed to get out of that environment and into a
professional office situation,” Draper said. “If we didn’t seize this
opportunity to provide a permanent home for us, then we were in danger
of going out of business.”

To celebrate, Draper and a committee of local art mavens
from the 1970s heyday of abstract art at Michigan State University
filled the 17,000-square-foot building with bold, eye-popping art in a
variety of styles. They’ll show off the artists, the art and the
building at an open house Thursday.

Inside the steel curtain room is a mighty canvas of red
and orange ripples by Irving Zane Taran, an MSU art professor who went
on to international renown with his huge fields of color and texture. An
epic 15-foot-long abstract canvas by Jim Adley hangs over the atrium.

A training classroom is fronted by a striking row of busts
by Nancy Leiserowitz, creator of the Cassiopeia statue on Grand River
in downtown East Lansing.

The sculpture, paintings and photography are the frosting on a substantial layer cake of interlocking non-profit organizations.

The coalition owns the building and shares it with other
related nonprofits: Head Start, Ingham County Land Bank, Lansing’s
Neighborhood Stabilization Program and The Garden Project. (A
700-square-foot suite is still available.)

The new facility is expected to put the coalition on a
more professional, collaborative footing, give it a steady rental income
and help it expand its mission to fix run-down houses, turn troubled
neighborhoods around and help people keep and maintain their homes.

“This building will help us remain a viable, productive community agency,” Draper said.  The $2.1 million  project was funded in part by $850,000 in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Grant money.

The high-tech conference rooms and meeting areas are
already attracting a wide range of groups, from Lansing’s planning
department to the Tuesday Toolmen, an army of retirees that fans out
into the city each week to help seniors and handicapped homeowners in
need of maintenance.

The Ingham County Land Bank inhabits a tall, airy space flooded with natural light.

“I’ve never had a building to work in like this,” said Land Bank construction manager Marty Lejuene.

“The art really adds to it.” Kimberly Whitfield, a Land
Bank marketer, said the art is “totally outside the box” and “a
different touch for Lansing.”

The plan to move the Coalition to the library of the old
School for the Blind was already in place when Draper arrived in 2009
after the resignation of Lynne Martinez, who was the director for three
years. In 2009, the City of Lansing loaned the housing coalition
$267,000 to purchase the building. (Martinez is a former state
representative and a candidate for Lansing City Council.)

Draper hated the coalition’s old Lapeer Street
headquarters the minute she walked in. “It wasn’t conducive to
professionalism, and it wasn’t conducive to having a team approach,” she
said. “You can’t have people working in little closets and bedrooms
here and there.”

Dorothy Boone, a development manager for the city of
Lansing, said the city wanted the coalition to move into “an expanded
role for their service to the community,” and saw the move as a chance
to make it happen.

The city looked at the neighborhoods surrounding the
former School for the Blind and found a lot of young children from
low-income families that are served by Head Start, another prospective
tenant of the Empowerment Center.

“It seemed to be a match, from our perspective,” Boone said. 

But Draper said the plan was “languishing on a board” when she arrived in 2009.

A source close to the coalition, who asked not to be
named, said Martinez did not have the “skills” to bring the plan to
fruition, but Boone credited Martinez with making the tie to Head Start.

“Without that, the project couldn’t have gotten off the
ground,” Boone said. “The work done during her tenure was critical to
the success of the project. (Draper) came in at a point where the
project was set up, funded and ready to go.

“But she is the one who brought it from concept to
actuality. She hired the construction management, followed through on
the overall scope of work planned, put the pieces together.”

Draper pushed for contemporary interiors and stylish
touches such as the Star Trek-ky “Town Hall” meeting room, with the goal
of creating an attractive hub for neighborhood resurgence.

Draper has expanded the coalition’s counseling and
education efforts, including classes in homeowner skills, home
maintenance, foreclosure prevention and credit counseling.

To enhance the building’s appeal, Draper assembled an art
committee of experts like Eleanor Holbrook and Dixie Platt, a former
president of the Friends of MSU’s Kresge Art Museum and retired James
Madison College administrator at Michigan State University.

Platt helped Draper round up an A-list of local artists
who either donated their work, as Taran did, or put them up for sale,
with a 25 percent commission to go to the coalition.

“That’s less than a gallery takes,” Draper said

“The art is all Katherine,” Boone said. “We think it’s a
great idea. Struggling cities all over the country are looking to the
arts as a way of looking at things fresh, getting a new start and being a
source of inspiration.”

Draper came to GLHC with the goal of finding a more
sustainable source of revenue, and the new building is only a part of
the plan. 

“Our primary focus in the last 10 years has been single-family rehabs in blighted areas to revitalize neighborhoods,” she said.

The downturn in the housing market made that a shaky
foundation on which to build a nonprofit organization. Six houses the
coalition rehabbed in the Baker Donora neighborhood stayed on the books,
draining capital, for months.

“When you carrying all this debt, you have issues unless you have other sources of income,” Draper said.

At the same time, some of the agency’s private donors
tightened up the purse strings, resulting in “a significant reduction”
in contributions.

Draper cut back on full-time staff and brought in job-specific part-timers.

“We did the things corporations do,” she said. She also took a hard look at traditional GLHC fundraisers.

“We’d have a garden tour, price it so everyone could come, and lose money,” she said.

That will not be a problem with the Oct. 1 “Views from the
Top” fundraiser, a literally high-concept tour of Lansing’s tallest
buildings at $100 a pop.

Neighborhood Empowerment Center: Artists for Empowerment
600 W. Maple Street, Lansing
Artist reception (open to the public) 3 p.m., open house 4-7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25
(517) 372-5980