GRAND RAPIDS — The Diatribe Inc. will still pursue plans for a mixed-use arts and cultural center despite the controversial removal of its $2 million request from Kent County’s list of federal stimulus-funded projects.
The Diatribe’s proposed Emory Arts and Culture Hub initially ranked highly in the areas of eligibility, sustainability, feasibility and impact as county officials reviewed hundreds of funding proposals seeking American Rescue Plan Act funds. As well, the majority of county commissioners gave it a favorable ranking in an exercise during an October meeting, and county staff subsequently recommended the project for ARPA funding.
However, the project was excluded from a list of 30 projects the county commissioners approved last week. Members of the public as well as some commissioners criticized the project’s removal, saying it was motivated by Republican members of the board.
“The commissioners on the Republican side felt that The Diatribe is a Black Lives Matter and ‘defund the police’ movement, and that’s why they chose to not fund us,” Diatribe Executive Director Marcel “Fable” Price told MiBiz.
Price said county officials told him that The Diatribe’s project ranked 12th overall out of the 319 community proposals, based on the commissioners’ ranking exercise as well as feedback from Guidehouse, a national consulting firm the county retained for the ARPA review process.
However, Kent County Board Chairperson Stan Stek claims some commissioners “pulled back” their support for the project after backing it during the prior ranking exercise. Stek maintains that the project lacked support from a majority of the board.
“The misunderstanding was that (The Diatribe) read the original grading exercise to say more than it was,” Stek said. “When we were doing the grading exercise, we were looking for projects that commissioners generally are on board with. The Diatribe was one of a number of projects that produced goal post results. Did it have within the spectrum enough votes to get over the finish line? Frankly, it never did.”
Stek said some commissioners opposed the project out of concern about The Diatribe’s capacity to process that much funding, while others said the organization did not reflect their values.
“There were some observations with respect to comments made on social media about (The Diatribe’s) agenda or perceptions they made about things going on in the community,” Stek said.
Politics “probably” played a part in the ARPA process, but it was not controlling, Stek said of the Republican-majority board.
“The final list (of ARPA projects) to submit to the commissioners was generated after hundreds of conversations between members of the Democratic caucus and the minority vice chair and myself and the majority Republican members, focused on taking their individual perspectives to weave it towards funds that would be generally acceptable,” Stek said.
Construction timelines will now be reexamined after the project lost out on ARPA funding. Price hopes the project breaks ground in 2023 and is completed in 2024. The organization has $1.3 million committed to the $5.6 million project ahead of a planned capital campaign, he added.
The Diatribe uses performing arts such as poetry and spoken word to empower young people to share their stories and raise awareness of social issues. The Diatribe works with about 5,000 students a year across 20 to 30 schools.
“The project touched on truly affordable housing, affordable enterprise, and hit on every single one of the categories (the county) wanted to fund,” Price said.
The nonprofit has an option to purchase an 18,338-square-foot building at 2040 S. Division Ave. to repurpose as the Emory Arts and Culture Hub. Plans include building offices for The Diatribe staff; creating programming space on the main floor for about 30 students at a time; a venue in the basement where students and artists can perform; two retail storefronts for local Black and brown entrepreneurs; and eight apartment units to house creatives.
The new building would allow the organization to expand its programming and host events at its own venue for the first time.
The Diatribe is working with Kennari Consulting for its capital campaign, while PURE Architects serves as the project designer.
Receiving the ARPA funding would have “really fast-tracked everything,” but the plan is to launch the capital campaign for the development in January, Price said.
“I don’t think we look at the world like a lot of these organizations do, which is why we’re on an island when it comes to funding,” Price said. “We’re trying to build something truly by the people and for the people and a lot of these organizations are very safe.”
The Diatribe’s funding request was not included in the county’s ARPA list based on “politics and fear that people would be primaried,” Democratic County Commissioner Phil Skaggs said during the meeting, referring to future elections.
Skaggs was among eight commissioners who stated during the county’s Dec. 1 meeting that they were disappointed The Diatribe was not included in the final ARPA funding resolution. However, the commissioners unanimously approved the $108 million in ARPA funds for 30 projects. Four members of the public also criticized the choice to pull The Diatribe’s project from the funding resolution during public comment at the meeting, and several others discussed the importance of supporting the arts and Black and brown-led projects.
“They kept moving the finish line,” Price said. “Commissioners could have done something, they could have said, ‘No, stop this,’ but they said they have to take our win where we can.”
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