linking artists to business



On South Madison Ave. in Grand Rapids’ Southtown district, there is a brand new business center that is incubating its first class of eight budding entrepreneurs – including two men that are building their businesses around their artistic talents. Erick Pichardo, a visual artist and graphic designer, is establishing (with Yarixa Jimenez, his fiancé) Epic Emporium, a gallery/print shop/gift shop, that includes much more than the colorful locally-produced works of art on the wall. Dean Wiers-Windemuller, a gifted guitarist, has opened Southtown Guitar, to offer guitar lessons, guitar sales and service.

The idea of LINC‘s Business Incubator is to give the entrepreneurs a financial leg up in launching their business, plus the support to improve their odds for sustainable success. Pichardo and Wiers-Windemuller had to qualify for the program, which included developing detailed plans for their new enterprises. “Their ideas had to be a good fit for the building and the neighborhood and be sustainable for the long run,” said Jorge Gonzales, the director of the program. “Dean had a solid plan and a good concept to connect with schools and other local businesses. Erick has been one of our local ‘starving artists’ with lots of talent and some great ideas. When we reviewed his plans we saw the opportunity to help him build more business capacity to make those ideas a reality and create a lasting business model.”

Dean Wiers-Windemuller first became acquainted with LINC because he and his wife qualified for a LINC-sponsored housing assistance program, which they used to purchase their first home. Their home is also located in the Southtown neighborhood close to the new storefront. Dean is a native of the Grand Rapids area; he left to go to Wheaton College in Chicago, and is pleased to make his return to Grand Rapids to build a life and a business here in Michigan.

Dean and his guitars at Southtown Guitar

As a singer, songwriter, and guitarist he has fought hard to overcome discouragements and to make his artistic passions and pursuits his primary source of income. Now that he has established Southtown Guitar he believes he has the right formula. “My hope for Southtown Guitar is that it can be a place to serve the community and create a lot of traffic,” shared Wiers-Windemuller. “We will be serving people of all ages and skills, including offering some higher level workshops for professionals and peers. Right now I am offering a class on the works of Paul Simon and a class on Jazz Chords for Singer-Songwriters.” Early successes for the brand new Southtown Guitar include a growing list of students, and a steady stream of product sales. In response to the neighborhood needs, Wiers-Windemuller aims to establish a scholarship program and offer classes to young students with musical interest and limited resources.

Erick and Yarixa

Erick Pichardo is originally from the Dominican Republic and has been living in Grand Rapids for 11 years after a short stopover in New York City, where the rest of his family is based. Before this new business enterprise, Pichardo worked on art-related programs in association with local schools and art centers. “We explored artistic expression through art, drumming, and dance using Latino rhythms from the Caribbean, especially from my home Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba,” said Pichardo. He prides himself in being able to reach out to inner-city Latino youth, described as ‘at-risk,’ to offer positive experiences through art.

Erick's art

For one of the opening gallery exhibits for Epic Emporium, Erick tapped three other artists to join him to present a Day of the Dead art show which demonstrated different cultural approaches to the common theme. The participating artists included an African-American, an Ecuadoran, a Puerto Rican and Pichardo – from the Dominican Republic. “There was a good response from the community and the quality of the art work was gorgeous,” exclaimed Pichardo. This opening event set the tone for Pichardo’s hopes and dreams for Epic Emporium. He wants the gallery/print shop/gift shop to be a welcoming place for the community. “This is mostly an African-American and Hispanic community. Through our work we are trying to make the whole community better for all of us. We want to create a place for communication in many different ways, to have an open door for everyone.”

The program, sponsored by LINC, has offered these two artists the leverage they needed to formalize and launch their businesses – providing opportunities to earn a living through creativity – and through their gifts, contribute to an area of Grand Rapids ready for economic improvement. Jorge Gonzales emphasized that the LINC Business Center and the Business Incubator program was being funded through the generosity of local foundations and fundraising efforts targeting area corporations. “Once we start seeing the successes of these small businesses, we can make a case for additional federal or state support to duplicate and expand the system … and to continue to create more jobs and community vitality. It could be a vicious cycle of productivity,” quipped Gonzales.

Jorge Gonzales

Jorge Gonzales is the Director of Economic Development for LINC, a housing and community resource organization, has leveraged his experiences as a community banker into leading the LINC Business Center team committed to the new incubator project. The program draws on the expertise and resources of several community organizations to offer the participants viable and attractive space at below-market rental rates. Additionally, the program offers frequent workshops to enhance the skills of the new business owners. “The workshops are also open to all business owners (including other artists) in the community,” shared Gonzales. “By opening the workshops up to other business owners we improve commerce and promote economic vitality throughout the community, especially in our target area of Southtown Grand Rapids.”

On November 11th, Pichardo, Wiers-Windemuller and six other new business owners celebrated their official Grand Opening. This joint celebration marked the official launch of these new businesses, representing a tremendously focused effort and months of preparation by the new owners. Pichardo’s Epic Emporium, a colorful and inviting space, was described by Gonzales as the ‘apex of the business strip.’ Wiers-Windemuller’ Southtown Guitar, having been opened for business a bit earlier, was already gaining momentum, according to plan. These creative endeavors provide a rich contribution to the Southtown area and proof that these arts-related businesses and their owners play an important role in serving up not only their artistic gifts, but also leadership and community commitment.

LINC Community Revitalization, Inc. started ten years ago as a community resource organization (then known as Lighthouse Communities, Inc.) responding to the looming home foreclosure crisis, it has since evolved and expanded to include economic development activities like the new business incubator. Gonzales proudly states “Now our work is not just housing, not just community leadership – it is also economic development. Once you have economic development, you create jobs. With the establishment of our first incubator class we have created 40 jobs in this community.”

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