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Steelcase plans to donate huge, pyramid-shaped building for new STEM education hub

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Grand Rapids-based furniture maker Steelcase plans to donate its iconic pyramid-shaped building to a nonprofit group.

Steelcase spent more than $100 million to build the more than 600,000 square-foot building in 1989. It’s been for sale for a lot less, around $20 million, for a couple of years. But it hasn't sold.

Steelcase spokeswoman Laura VanSlyke says the company talked to a few potential buyers, but the size and unique shape “does make it difficult for certain companies to take it over.”

VanSlyke says the pyramid-shaped Corporate Development Center was a “pretty private space” hardly ever viewed by the public. It’s where the company had its test lab, models shops, sound studios, and much of its design and development staff. The building has been vacant for about a year, once the company consolidated in another campus further north.

But now there’s a non-profit organization that wants to transform the pyramid into a hub for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education. It’s not clear exactly when the transfer will take place.

Jerry Zandstra is with the new non-profit group, Pyramid P20 STEM Education Hub, which hopes to inherit the pyramid.

“We hear all the time from Michigan manufacturers that the need for STEM educated workers is enormous. And we hope to work with public schools, charter schools, a variety of universities in accomplishing the goal of creating that kind of environment,” Zandstra said.

Zandstra has been showing the pyramid off to education administrators from across the state.

“Time after time, they see it there’s that ‘Wow, is this an incredible facility!’ and then they start to catch the vision for it,” he said.

Zandstra’s vision is to educate students ranging from pre-k to post-graduate in the same place. He wants the program to be comprehensive, not like a “strip mall” where each school would offer its own program independent of one another.

He says there’s a couple of ways the group hopes it’ll serve the entire state: better preparing STEM-related teachers, and designing new products. He hopes to open the hub in the fall of 2015.

Zandstra says the group has been working privately on the project since last May. He won’t say which schools he’s invited to tour the site. He's also keeping the non-profit’s board members and budget under wraps.

He says he’s only started to make the plan public because the group is now seeking more than $5 million in state funding from a mid-year appropriations bill. Last week, the Michigan Senate passed a bill that included the funding, but today the state House passed a version without it.

Zandstra says the money would be used to hire experts and develop the program’s broad initiatives. He says the effort isn’t totally dependent on the state money, but “it would certainly be helpful.”

Zandstra says the group didn’t seek the state funding. He says state Senator Mark Jansen, R-Gaines Twp., suggested it because the hub would benefit all of Michigan. The pyramid is in Jansen’s district. Jansen did not return calls to comment on this story.

Barbara Bolin, who directs the Michigan STEM partnership, says there is a huge demand for workers who have STEM-related skills. She says by 2018, there will be 274,000 more STEM related job openings in Michigan than available workers here.

Bolin says she was not aware of the efforts to create the new hub. Her organization was thankful to get less than $500,000 last fiscal year for its efforts.

State Representative Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids, says the pyramid hub idea may be a good one, but is not ready to throw that much money behind it.

“There’s nothing wrong with (Rep. Jansen’s) motives and he probably has a good level of trust with (Zandstra). But for the rest of us who don’t have that kind of personal relationship and have to make decisions about taxpayer money based on plans and details and data, we need a lot more,” Dillon said.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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