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Meet civic investor Derek Coppess: Investing in community creation

The founder of 616 Development and 616 Lofts didn't start his adult life creating community in downtown Grand Rapids. But family upbringing and a need for a shovel reminded him that people make a life.

/Eric Tank

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Derek Coppess wasn’t always interested in developing market rate apartments in downtown Grand Rapids. Before starting 616 Development and 616 Lofts, he had purchased over 200 duplexes as rental income and was living in Byron Center.

“I was living in a five bedroom house with no kids, just living the dream. I needed a shovel one day to dig the one hole I was going to dig that year. And I drove by probably 80 neighbors that probably half had shovels that I could have borrowed,” says Coppess. “I went to Ace and bought a shovel, dug a hole, put it in my garage, shut my garage door... and just realized that people make your life- and I was totally isolated. I didn’t know my neighbors; I didn’t care about my neighbors.” 

This was the epiphany moment, says Coppess, that his life was not what he wanted it to be. Nor was it, he says, the life he was raised to live.

“My dad was that kind of dad that would go chop wood and take me to haul it to a widow’s house because she needed firewood,” he says. “And I found myself away from that. So I sold that house and took the plunge and came downtown. And there were no market rate apartments. I started immersing myself in this downtown community and found that nobody was really living here and I just realized my life mission. And that is: community creation. I love creating. I love people.”

Coppess realized that he could benefit his community- and be a part of a community- without doing what is traditionally considered philanthropy.

“It’s not even giving or philanthropy, just the social kindness,” says Coppess. “My parents were teachers. They gave me so much infrastructure. They just didn’t give me money. They gave me so much more than that. So a lot of the community stuff just comes naturally to me just because I was immersed in it as a kid.”

His father, a teacher, was also a licensed builder, so he spent his summers growing up working with his father, brothers and other family members to build houses.

“At age 7, I started as trash boy and I never really graduated from that,” he smiles. “So I’ve been a part of 12 houses that we’ve built as a family and I actually ended up designing and helping my dad build the house that they live in now. I mean, my dad let me draw their house when I was in 11th grade. What kid gets to do that?”

That kind of experience in the building world and encouragement from his father for, as Coppess calls it, “limitless thinking,” drew him to think big. Earlier in life, he considered studying architecture, but wanted a career that was more immersed with people. He ended up in business.

Coppess says he realizes he’s not running under a typical business model. He uses words like tribe, stewardship, vulnerable and community- and runs his business with these concepts playing out in more than just words. It was this sense of doing business differently that lead to Coppess inviting The Rapidian to bring their “story fort” to the open house for the Kendall Building at the corner of Fulton and Division last year.

“We’re so story based, and I think people already think we’re strange- so if you get people in here I want to make sure they know we’re strange. And that story fort is meaningful. It’s saying ‘don’t just come in and introduce yourself and what you do,’ it’s 'tell us your story,'” he says. “Everything starts with a story. Everybody thinks in stories. Telling our story is such a fundamental important piece of furthering our development and our impact. So just the very nature of having a grassroots way of getting information out is so helpful.”

Coppess says that after building a business that believes in the importance of community and stories, he finds high value in The Rapidian’s way of doing media- through community.

“It’s just very real. It’s authentic,” he says. “So I respectfully put part of your world in the Wikipedia world. Real people are chiming in... you mash it all together and it’s echoing now and you’re hearing a collective voice. That to me is truthful. That’s real to me.”

From suburbia to building a more real community in the center of the city, Coppess has had to learn to be comfortable outside his comfort zone.

“We use “stretch to expand,’ often around here: putting yourself in healthy situations that push you and get you beyond your comfort level,” he explains. “When you build community, it’s all about getting out of your comfort zone- because community can get messy. If you care, you need to be vulnerable - so we say stretch to expand, get out of your comfort zone.”

And that mess, says Coppess, is worth it. 

"The pros are so heavy, they outweigh the risks," he says, adding once again, "People make your life."

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