WSW: Foundation For Excellence Could Be (Another) Innovative Program In Kalamazoo

Nov 17, 2016

The Kalamazoo Mall - file photo
Credit WMUK

Researcher Michelle Miller-Adams says If the city of Kalamazoo’s Foundation for Excellence is done well, it could become a model for other communities. 


Miller-Adams is a research fellow at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo and a political science professor at Grand Valley State University. She has written two books on the Kalamazoo Promise.

The foundation would stabilize Kalamazoo city finances and invest in long-term initiatives. Miller-Adams says there are many similarities to the Kalamazoo Promise. The money comes from a private donation, and the donors don’t want to be involved in a “hands on way.” Miller-Adams says both represent investments in the region’s urban core. She says they are both innovative long-term programs that include efforts at economic development and alleviating poverty. 

"I think we're uniquely fortunate to have people with a lot of money and a connection to this community, and a long time horizon."

But there are some key differences. Miller-Adams says the Kalamazoo Promise is a human capital investment, she says the foundation will also include infrastructure investment and a reduction in property tax rates. The donation for the foundation is not anonymous. The initial $70-million comes from William Johnston and William Parfet. Miller-Adams says donating private money anonymously probably wasn’t workable since it’s being donated to a governmental entity. Miller-Adams says another key difference is that the foundation is investing in things that local governments are responsible for, while the college scholarships paid for by the Kalamazoo Promise can be seen as an “add on.”

Asked whether Kalamazoo is in an unusual position to start such a foundation, Miller-Adams says there are about 100 place-based scholarship programs across the country, based on the Kalamazoo Promise. She says if the foundation is a success, other cities may look for other sources of funding to try similar programs. 

Miller-Adams says Kalamazoo has some unique challenges. The city of Kalamazoo has a high proportion of tax-exempt property, such as Western Michigan University. Miller-Adams says that means homeowners in the city of Kalamazoo pay higher property taxes. She says the reduction in property tax rates is an important part of proposal. Miller-Adams says the state has also been reducing the amount of money it gives to local governments for decades.

A study is scheduled to be released soon comparing philanthropy in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. Miller-Adams is part of the team that has worked on that study. She this donation follows past patterns in Kalamazoo with some differences. But Miller-Adams says most large donations are a blend of self-interest and altruistic motives. She says Kalamazoo is uniquely fortunate to have people with a lot of money, and a long-term connection with this community.