By SHERRI WELCH
Martin Manna, president, Chaldean Community Foundation and Chaldean American Chamber
The Chaldean Community Foundation is making plans to begin construction on a $30 million mixed-use development in Sterling Heights next year and, in a related move, to nearly triple the size of a community center it built in the city just two years ago.
The foundation is under contract to purchase a vacant property in the city’s North VanDyke Riverland District, a redevelopment district which extends from north of 18½ Mile Road to the city limits at M-59.
It expects to close on the purchase early next year and break ground by summer, said Martin Manna, president of the foundation and the Chaldean American Chamber.
The mixed-use development slated for the undisclosed property will include street-level retail and 200 family apartments on its upper floors, enabling the foundation to make a dent in a list of 1,100 Chaldean families seeking long-term housing in the region, Manna said.
“We don’t anticipate any difficulty in identifying retail and housing tenants.”
The project will likely be the first phase of a larger plan for housing development in the area, Manna said.
“If all is successful with this deal, we would like to add additional units within the district.”
At the same time, the foundation plans to launch a $3.5 million expansion of its Sterling Heights community center in the spring.
Demand for immigration and social services in the Chaldean community has spiked. Two years ago, 16,000 people came to the Chaldean Community Foundation for assistance. Last year, that rose to more than 26,000, and it’s on pace to hit 30,000 or more this year, Manna said.
The need is emerging in spite of the fact that the flow of Chaldean refugees to the U.S. slowed about a year ago, even before the suspension of all activity this year amid President Donald Trump’s orders to block people from certain countries including Iraq from coming to the U.S.
Still, a new analysis commissioned by the Chaldean Community Foundation and due out this week points to significant growth in the local Chaldean population in recent years, estimating the local population at between 155,000 and 160,000 people, living in Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and to a lesser degree, Washtenaw counties.
And acculturation is a long process, Manna said.
“It’s not going to take you (just) a year to learn the language, get a job, put your kids to school. … These are long processes that they have to go through,” he said, and the need is bubbling up.
Many Chaldean families are also still living in the transitional housing they first secured when coming to the U.S..
“A lot of our community are living in one-bedroom apartments that don’t suit the family … (with) typically six or seven to a household,” Manna said. “There’s a need for long-term housing for these new Americans.”
Development in Macomb
The housing and retail project will be the Chaldean Community Foundation’s first foray into development, something it’s had in the works for at least four years.
Challenges in finding the right location had prevented the foundation from moving forward on a project until now, he said. An earlier plan to build the housing in the Detroit neighborhood along Seven Mile Road, between Woodward Avenue and John R Road, did not work out given the closure of the Chaldean Catholic church there, the fact that much of the community had already moved to Macomb County and the blighted nature of the neighborhood. And plans for a Madison Heights project also fell through.
“It’s a much easier development in Macomb County, specifically in Sterling Heights because the population is already living in and around this area,” Manna said, noting the foundation has consulted with Detroit-based Southwest Solutions and hired consultants to assist as it moves into a development role.
The Detroit office of Berardi+partners Inc. is serving as the architect on the project.
The project could be catalytic to other development taking place along the north Van Dyke corridor, Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool said.
The city’s redevelopment plan for the district includes more unique uses with flexible zoning, a facade improvement program, new, aesthetic standards and a pedestrian-friendly focus. Following the demolition of a couple of buildings in the area, high-tech, light industrial office space and a large banquet center are under construction, a former grocery store is being repurposed, and the city has created new open and green spaces.
The Chaldean Community Foundation’s planned development would compliment what’s already there and would help to increase density in the district, Vanderpool said.
As with any redevelopment district, there are potential incentives that could be in play depending on the scope of the project, he said.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but this is a project that definitely fits very nicely in our redevelopment district.”
To finance the mixed-use development, the foundation expects to take out loans for about $25 million and to cover the balance of the project’s cost with cash and incentives, Manna said.
It’s operating on a $7 million budget for fiscal 2018, up from $6 million last year when it ended the year with an operating excess of about $250,000.
“We’re not worried about the debt,” because of the large number of families on its waiting list for long-term housing, he said.
“We think this is just scratching the surface — there’s plenty of need out there.”
The long waiting list for housing and the spike in the number of people coming to the community center for assistance has banks “tripping over each other trying to get this deal financed,” Manna said.
“I’ve had four different offers from financial institutions saying they want to fund our housing or expansion.”
Some of the institutions need to make Community Reinvestment Act loans in Macomb County, he said. “Others see this as an opportunity to get additional visibility in the Chaldean community, as they already provide loans to several of our entrepreneurs and developers.”
Fifty-eight percent of Chaldean households own a business and nearly a third of them own more than one, said local demographer and Pleasant Ridge Mayor Kurt Metzger, who worked with researchers at the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s iLabs on the Chaldean population study commissioned by the foundation.
On any given day, the foundation’s community center has a lobby filled with people waiting, some as long as two hours for assistance.
They come for help with immigration and acculturation programs, preparing resumes, finding jobs, getting a loan for a car and obtaining health care. The center began providing social services in 2012, after launching immigration a year earlier and starting with acculturation services in 2008. Chaldean families are also bringing their developmentally disabled relatives who were shunned in their former country for services, which also allows them respite.
Most of the people coming to the center are Chaldeans — Aramaic-speaking, Eastern Rite Catholics from Iraq and Syria. The remaining 15 percent or so are Muslims of Middle Eastern descent and other people in need, Manna said.
Built just two years ago, the center is too small for the number of people coming each year, leaving some to wait 180 days to get into citizenship preparation classes.
The $3.5 million expansion set for this spring will take the 11,500-square-foot center to 29,500 square feet. The center will expand to the west to two residential properties the foundation acquired for a total of $400,000 in July 2016 and cleared. It will provide space for increased office and meeting space, a gymnasium to provide activities for the developmentally disabled and a health center.
The foundation has talked with several health systems including St. John Providence Health, Beaumont Health and Henry Ford Health System about operating the health center, Manna said. “Most of the systems are very supportive of our community and organization. … We would request they help provide volunteer physicians to support the uninsured.”
The foundation will add 10-15 people to its staff of 45 when the community center expansion is completed late next year, he said.
It’s increased a $5 million campaign to fund the initial construction of the center to $8 million to cover the initial and expansion costs of the building and raise an additional $2 million to split between its mixed-use development costs and the Chaldean Loan Fund which provides low-interest used-car loans to the community.