When the curtains open on Opera Grand Rapids’ May 1 and May 2 performances of Turandot – the company’s largest production in more than a decade – nearly 20 percent of the audience will be seeing the art form for the first time – and for free.
Opera Grand Rapids has committed $40,000 to its Community Tickets Program, which will distribute 900 tickets, 450 for each of the two shows at DeVos Performance Hall, to community organizations for distribution to people who are interested in the opera but have been priced out of access.
“This is an investment that creates an avenue for people and eliminates the barriers to seeing Opera in Grand Rapids,” said Emilee Syrewicze, the opera’s executive director. “These are prime seats that we are keeping open for people to experience this classic artform.”
“We want to approach diversity, equity and inclusion with intention. We hope the result is easier access to the performing arts. We’re excited, and we think this is an important step for our community.”
The new outreach partners Opera Grand Rapids with local arts and service organizations including:
Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities
Grand Rapids Public Library
Salvation Army of Kent County
Woodlands/Suburban Library Cooperative
Grand Rapids Urban League
Community Food Club
Patrons of the community partners can request tickets through the groups and must not be prior ticket purchasers. Syrewicze said more community associations can partner with Opera Grand Rapids by calling 451-2741.
“We are providing an opportunity to see Turandot, and at the same time, we’re helping elevate the profile of other community cultural groups,” Syrewicze said.
Turandot, from composer Giacomo Puccini, will be a stunning experience, and it is described as a visual, dramatic and musical feast for the senses. The production will feature the full Grand Rapids Symphony and a large chorus in addition to the talents of top opera performers. It features opera’s most iconic aria “Nessun dorma,” which was most famously performed by Luciano Pavarotti.
The opera’s investment is made possible by its supporters, who have generously donated because they understand the importance of being inclusive.
Opera Grand Rapids is in its 52nd year and is the longest continuously operating opera company in Michigan. It is also recognized as one of the premier mid-size operas in North America.
“The arts can change lives,” said Syrewicze, “and we want to be a part of that.”
Anyone driving by The Grand Castle gets a sense of the building’s momentous size. Construction materials for the 522-unit apartment community off I-196 west of Grand Rapids included 200 million pounds of concrete, 900 tons of steel and 320,000 kilograms of granite.
The Grand Castle is indeed grand. In fact, at 1.2 million square-feet, it’s the second largest castle in the world!
The Grand Castle is a pet-friendly apartment community featuring an outdoor dog park with two separate fenced-in areas and several play elements. Taryn Willett visits the dog park with her shepherd mix ‘every day, multiple times. There’s always a dog to play with,’ she said.
How each apartment has brand-new stainless-steel appliances, granite countertops, full washer and dryer and its own water heater, plus high nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings.
How there’s a variety of floor plans that fit a variety of living situations and budgets, and more than 90 percent them get at least one covered parking space.
How the extraordinary architecture is complemented by unparalleled amenities:
Outdoor swimming pool and clubhouse
Castle-themed playground for kids
Two-story library with a “Beauty and the Beast”-style twin staircase
On-site gym with cardio and weight training equipment
Game room with ping pong, shuffleboard and arcade games
Spacious outdoor terraces and sun decks
23-acre lake for fishing and kayaking, with a waterside walking trail
Covered loading docks for easy move in
Expansive courtyard with outdoor seating and water fountain
Fenced-in dog park
Fitness classes, watch parties and other organized social events
Conference rooms for personal parties
A two-story library at The Grand Castle features a twin staircase, a la ‘Beauty and the Beast.’
“It has everything you could want in an apartment,” said Taryn Willett, 27, who lives on the sixth floor with her fiancée, dog and cat. “We like it for a lot of reasons.
“It’s newer, cleaner. It has a fresh feel. And it’s actually a really good price for the area considering it’s very close to downtown. We’re actually paying less money (than we were at our previous apartment) for a new building, and it’s closer to the highway. That’s a really huge plus because you can get anywhere in 10 minutes.”
Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany is the inspiration for both Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland and The Grand Castle outside Grand Rapids. The 19th-century palace includes a copper lion standing guard atop its turreted roof, just like The Grand Castle.
There are a lot of apartments in West Michigan, but there’s only one castle. The Grand Castle was inspired by a similar marvel in southern Germany.
The Neuschwanstein Castle itself was a monumental feat of construction for its time, requiring more than 500 tons of marble, over 1,700 tons of sandstone and some 400,000 bricks. It also featured then-innovative amenities including central heating, running water and toilets with automatic flushing.
The Neuschwanstein Castle attracts upwards of 1 million visitors per year. Yet, only 522 tenants get to call The Grand Castle home.
“I teach dance at night and once my little dancers found out I lived at The Grand Castle they were like ‘Are you a princess?’” said Brooke Hanges, who lives in a 2-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor with her puppy.
“My nephew is 3 and he thought that was the coolest thing to have Aunt Brooke live in The Grand Castle. He even put together a Lego structure of the Castle for me.”
‘It’s all updated and new,’ said Brooke Hanges, who moved into The Grand Castle last year. ‘Everything is open, and the high ceiling is huge. I don’t feel like I’m in an apartment. I feel like I’m in a home.’
A year after opening, The Grand Castle is more than 70-percent occupied. Studio apartments rent for as little as $730 per month, while three-story penthouse suites have more than 4,000 square-feet. One-, two- and three-bedroom floor plans also are available ranging in size from 712 square-feet to 1,500 square-feet, with rents from $930 to $1,770 per month. The apartment community also includes several accessible units with barrier-free features.
Preferred employer discounts of 5 percent or more are available to employees of many of the Grand Rapids-area’s largest employers.
The Grand Castle is proving to be a great fit for people of all ages. In addition to 20-somethings just starting out and mid-career professionals, many residents age 55 and up are finding a home at The Grand Castle, too.
“It’s no maintenance,” said John Green, 72, who moved into a two-bedroom apartment with his wife after downsizing from a 4,900-square-foot home on 18 acres. “We love it here. It has so many things that make it worthwhile as far as things to do.”
As for The Grand Castle’s distinctive architecture, Green loves it.
“Whenever we have somebody come to visit, we never get the excuse that they couldn’t find it.”
Located off I-196 just west of Grand Rapids, The Grand Castle is close to the Grand River, Kent Trails and Millennium Park. It also features a 23-acre lake for fishing and kayaking along with a waterside walking trail. ‘It’s super nice having the water right there,’ said Brooke Hanges, 27, who keeps kayaks in a storage unit by her covered parking spot.
The game room at The Grand Castle features shuffleboard, ping pong, pinball and hundreds of classic arcade games including Ms. Pac-Man and Golden Tee Golf.
The Grand Castle has two adjacent fitness rooms with cardio and weight training equipment. ‘I like how the gym is right there and the pool is right there,’ resident Brooke Hanges said. ‘I’ve had gym memberships before. I was going every day, driving there and driving back. That can add up. I like that I can walk around the corner and head to the gym. It’s just easy. It saves about 20 minutes.’
Large bathrooms with granite countertops and walk-in closets are a hallmark of the apartments at The Grand Castle. ‘The overarching feedback from the people who live here is that they really love their apartment,’ said Aaron Dood, property manager.
Kitchens at The Grand Castle come with brand-new stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops. ‘I really liked the fact that I would be the first one living in my apartment,’ said Brooke Hanges, who moved into the apartment community a year ago.
A pet-friendly apartment community was a must for Brooke Hanges. The Grand Castle goes above and beyond with an outdoor dog park that has two separate fenced-in areas and several play elements
Second-floor residents at The Grand Castle have doors leading to an expansive courtyard where they set out tables and chairs for summertime relaxation.
The expansive courtyard in the interior of The Grand Castle features a regal water fountain befitting a fairytale castle.
The eighth floor at The Grand Castle features spacious outdoor terraces and sun decks for casual gatherings and organized events. ‘We love the rooftops on the 8th floor,’ said Taryn Willett, who lives in a 1-bedroom apartment with her fiancée, dog and cat. ‘We use those probably once a week in the summer. We meet a lot of people.”
Social events such as a Game of Thrones watch party with catered food are common at The Grand Castle. ‘This place is like a whole town or village in one,’ said Aaron Dood, property manager.
Located off I-196 just west of Grand Rapids, The Grand Castle is a short drive or an $8 to $12 Uber ride to downtown. It’s also close to the Grand River, Millennium Park and Kent Trails. On-site bike storage is available for residents.
The Grand Castle has 522 apartments including studios that rent for as little as $730 per month and three-story penthouse suites of over 4,000-square-feet. ‘It’s actually a really good price for the area considering it’s very close to downtown,’ resident Taryn Willett said. ‘We’re actually paying less money (than we were at our previous apartment) for a new building, and it’s closer to the highway. That’s a really huge plus because you can get anywhere in 10 minutes.’
Cathy Blatnik felt isolated, like a prisoner in her home, after her youngest son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and epilepsy before he turned three.
A bright or flashing light, a loud noise, any unexpected turn of events of the day could trigger an outburst, and then a life-threatening seizure.
Going to the movies as a family? That was not an option.
Heading to a ballpark for a game? Couldn’t do that, too many external stimuli existed.
How about a visit to a museum? Again, the unknown lurked around every corner.
“It was very lonely. We did absolutely nothing,” said Blatnik, of Okemos. “We couldn’t even take him to the grocery store because it was so exhausting.”
The Wharton Center for Performing Arts helped lead the Lansing-area’s dedication to sensory-friendly events when it brought a production of “The Lion King” to the stage in 2018. In April, “Junie B. Jones” will also have a performance that caters to those on the autism spectrum.
Today, the options for the Blatnik family and others living with sensory issues have opened up. The Lansing region has embraced and become a statewide leader as a sensory-friendly center for people with autism and other disabilities.
In less than two years, Lansing has transformed into what Blatnik calls the “most sensory-friendly city in Michigan.” Leaders at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, the Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Mid Michigan Autism Association have trained more than 1000 people across regional attractions, restaurants and hotels on how to create supportive and welcoming environments.
April’s designation as Autism Awareness Month serves as a point of pride for those who have taken the lead on meeting the needs of neuro-diverse guests. “The collaboration between private and public entities has created a jammed calendar of sensory-friendly events for the month and the rest of the year,” said Julie Pingston, executive vice president of the visitors bureau.
Here is a sampling of experiences from 2019, available to families with a member on the autism spectrum, or with developmental disabilities, sensory processing disorder, and other conditions:
Sensory Friendly Show of Dumbo at both NCG Cinema or Celebration Cinema
Autism Friendly event at Jumpin’ Jax hosted by Comprehensive Early Autism Services
Potter Park Zoo recently became certified as the only AZA certified sensory-inclusive zoo in Michigan, and the center holds monthly events that are focused on serving neuro-diverse guests.
Sensory-Friendly evening hours at Impression 5 Science Center
Sensory-Friendly show at Abrams Planetarium
FALCONERS program at Potter Park Zoo
Junie B. Jones at Wharton Center for Performing Arts
“No one put this on a to-do list, but it has become a cornerstone of our community to make all of our attractions sensory-friendly,” said Pingston. “We want to elevate our community so that there’s more awareness, more understanding and more ability to serve and welcome families.
The Impression 5 Science Center is a fun hands-on experience for family members of all ages.
“Our message is that Lansing is open to you and we will continue to work to make this the best experience visitors to our community can have.”
Blatnik said her advocacy began with her family – Dominic is now 14 – and continues because she doesn’t want others to go through what she did when her son was young. Studies show 1 in every 59 children are diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
“The satisfaction comes from seeing a family smile, from seeing the relief on their faces that they can live and that people care about them,” she said. “Recently, a family was looking for help after their 2-year-old was diagnosed with autism. They were looking for resources, and I was able to hand them a whole book of things to do and where to go.
“That didn’t exist when we were starting out. We didn’t want to keep Dominic in a bubble, but at the same time, we had to know what we’re walking into and what the risk was. It was and still is really a matter of his health and his life.”
Laura Zeller, the director of communications for Impression 5 Science Center, said the facility has worked with experts from Michigan State University and the autism association to conduct two audits to understand how to be a more welcoming venue.
The Impression 5 Science Center is a fun hands-on experience for family members of all ages.
Changes have included developing a special sensory-friendly night once per month and implementing tools to help prepare families for a visit during regular hours. There are social stories, which vividly describe and guide guests around the museum before their visit, as well as new signage indicating potential sensitivities at exhibits. The center has also created sensory backpacks equipped with fidget spinners, headphones and other methods of assisting neuro-diverse families through the hands-on experience.
“We want people to feel that we are open and accessible,” Zeller said. “What we’ve seen from families is just a huge sense of gratitude and appreciation. They just want to be able to participate and have an entertainment and learning option that is welcoming.“Families can be themselves and be comfortable here and across Lansing now, and we think that’s a great feeling to provide as a community.”
Pingston agrees: “There’s nothing better than doing something that helps others,” she said.
David Gaines probably assesses his life’s work differently than many people would assume after learning that he’s spent 34 years working at Gaines Jewelry, the Flint-based store founded by his father in 1963.
“My dad’s philosophy wasn’t to just wow anyone with inventory or to simply sell them a product,” said Gaines. “He taught me early on that we are here to form relationships, to get to know people and build the trust that creates a customer for life.”
“I’m in the jewelry industry, but it’s really about the people that I meet and then get to be a part of their lives. That’s what hooked me. We get to touch people at a time in their lives that they’re happy and a moment that they will remember forever, whether that’s engagements, birthdays or other special occasions. I fell in love with being a part of that feeling.”
As the Gaines family celebrates 57 years in business in 2020, David, along with his daughter, Selina, and son, Wesley, look back with pride at how the Flint community has embraced them. The family business mirrors the community, with the third generation of Gaines involved in finding precious gems and accessories for its third generation of clients.
David recalls his father selling pieces to customers whose children and grandchildren now allow David to meet their jewelry needs
“It’s these long-standing relationships that are so important because it shows we have created a tradition and that we continue living up to the expectations,” David said. “At the same time, we love meeting new people and starting out with them from square one. That’s an exciting process for us.”
As the region’s oldest independent jewelry store, Gaines Jewelry found a balance in having the latest designs and popular brands like Pandora and Kabana alongside original, unique pieces. The family also finds satisfaction in carrying such a wide inventory that they can meet price points of customers at any stage in life.
The full-service nature of the business also allows Gaines to collaborate with clients on repairs, jewelry redesigns and custom designs. Many processes once done by hand are now done using a computer-aided design process to create timeless and poignant pieces. Customizing jewelry has become more efficient and customer-friendly in recent years because of technology, which Gaines Jewelry has invested in to be at the cutting-edge of the industry.
“If you can dream it, we can build it,” David says, noting designs can be conceptualized and completed in as little as three to four weeks.
While the jeweler’s primary operations are based at the Beecher Road location, the Gaines’ are also eagerly anticipating what the future brings with the addition of The Gallery by Gaines pop-up shop in the Shops on Saginaw in downtown Flint. Daughter Selina manages the new location that opened in December. The shop has a curated selection of affordable and fashionable jewelry, and the opening was a sign of how the family feels about Flint.
“Flint is my town, it’s where I went to school, went to college and raised my family,” David said. “The community has invested in us, and we have invested in the community that we love. There’s a lot of momentum downtown and we want to support and be a part of that activity.
“The Gallery is a sampling of what we have done and what people can expect when they visit (the Beecher Road store). We hope it introduces us to new people or makes it more convenient for them to visit our store and learn about us.”