If you’re going to schedule an interview with Jenifer Acosta, owner and operator of Jenifer Acosta Development, you better be willing to hold on for the ride.
With the recent opening of the Legacy building in Bay City - already almost at capacity, breaking ground on a 12-unit apartment building on Center Avenue, and the redevelopment of the Bearinger building in Saginaw in its beginning stages, Jenifer brings to a couple cups of coffee and conversation all the energy, intelligence, and attention needed to navigate her crazy world of multiple multi-million dollar projects, co-founding nonprofits, speaking engagements, two kids, and a husband.
“I was out of Bay City at 18,” she says. “I graduated from high school and said, ‘See ya.’ I did not want to live here or ever move back to Michigan, so I left and started college as a chemistry major because I liked the idea of going into medicine and helping people.”
But her desire to help people found its place not in medicine, but in a mandatory general education course.
“I had a required sociology class and very much fell in love with the idea of helping communities and groups of people. I liked the idea of dealing with systems and large groups, versus an individual or just caring for symptoms. I wanted to get to the causes, and figure out what can we do at a societal level to make things better for people.”
After completing her undergraduate degree, she moved to Miami, Florida. There, Jenifer met her husband, Anthony, while attending the University of Miami for a graduate degree in International Administration specializing in sustainable development, which, she says, “is just a mouthful to say that I’m a trained bureaucrat who is also an environmentalist.”
She began interning for a company that focused on sustainable developments across an entire neighborhood, and that’s when she connected her desire to help people with real estate development.
Doing the Work
“I couldn’t see myself not doing this career. Development is about helping people and there are constantly different, difficult things to think about with so many facets to every building. Part of the beauty of being a real estate developer for me is being almost on overload, in the sense of it’s a lot to take on. I’m always gonna be challenged with it.”
When you think of a developer managing multiple multi-million dollar development projects, you might picture someone sitting in a fancy office, running a firm with lots of employees, making phone calls and then playing some golf.
That’s not Jen.
“I think one of the things that stands out to me is that almost every picture I see from you, you’re exploring an old, vacant building wearing a pair of Converse or on-site at a project wearing a hard hat,” I say.
“That’s what I want,” she say. “I decided that I don’t ever want to grow a firm and put risk in others and worrying about having employees taking on these risks for me.
I want to be doing the work.
I want to figure out how I can make this my craft, curate these amazing products, continue to learn and grow along the way while still being in jeans and boots, walking through buildings.”
Building Better Cities with car seats
One of the things I’m most curious about during interviews like this is finding out what experts in their fields think about everyday things. The brewmaster drinks beer differently, the boutique owner looks at clothes differently. When we walk around a city’s downtown, it’s a sidewalk and some stores.
“But what makes a good downtown to you?” I ask.
“One of the things I talk about is the “Car Seat Metric”.
I’m going out on a Saturday, with my kids. I want put them in the car once, walk around, and then put them in the car again and take them home.
I live in Midland right now. If I want to take the kids to the farmers’ market on a Saturday, and then to Dow Gardens or something like that, I’m in and out of the car seat at least three times.
There are tantrums involved.
But with the Car Seat Metric, I can come into downtown Bay City and go to Painterly Pottery, to Wenonah Park, and take them around shopping. I could go to City Market.
In and outta the car once.
It’s walkable. You don’t walk down big roads and strips malls - we need better walkability of places.”
“I think a strong part of that walkability is supporting local businesses so we have places to walk to,” I say. “People want to see their hometown succeed. They want to give their money to their neighbor down the street. It’s just a matter of taking that first step in supporting them, and then that business also has to run a great business in order to encourage thosee people that want to support them.”
“You can open the door all day, but it takes two sides. Someone’s gotta walk through it.”
“Right,” I say. “It’s gotta be a very strong partnership.”
“And lip service doesn’t get you anywhere. People say, ‘Oh, yeah, I want all of these great local businesses.’ Cool, but where did you go buy your groceries? Did you go to the farmers’ market, or did you go to a big chain grocery store? Tell me with your money.”
Jen is getting fired up.
“On a larger scale, we need to find ways to create more development and developers who see that and can do what it takes to make stronger cities. So I’ve also been co-founding a community development organization for the entire region, called Infuse Great Lakes Bay with this local band of awesome people. Our goal will be to find ways to frame projects, frame opportunities, put them out there, teach people how to do it, offer technical assistance for development, and teach corporations how they could use things like historic tax credits.”
Whenever she talks about development, community development, and anything that deals with moving things forward, Jen locks eyes with you and doesn’t let go in a way that feels like a challenge to hop onboard - this train is leaving the station with or without you.
Like father and mother, like daughter
That fiery entrepreneurial spirit is something she inherited from her parents.
“My dad grew healthcare companies - he would hold them and then sell them. It was usually on some metric, like when he hit a certain amount of census with patients, and things like that. It’s been interesting for me, growing up with two entrepreneurs as parents. My mom, with her small businesses. She shows up for a job, and it’s what she wants to do. My dad looks at it very, very analytically, with all of the numbers.
My mom is like—she runs a quilt shop. She used to own that building, right across the street, Tim’s Fine Tobaccos. She had an interior design store there. My mom is creative. She’s an interior designer. She’s brilliant in crafting, and I can’t draw a stick figure.
“As a business owner, who are you more like? Your mom being creative and working in the business, and your dad owning, growing, and then selling companies?”
“I’m a lot like my father,” she says. “I always look at how can I grow, how can I—I want to accomplish a lot. I get very bored, very easily. For me, it would be very difficult to do what my mom does. I give her all of the credit in the world, because that’s what makes her happy. I feel like, in order to make myself happy, I have to take a lot of risk, which is difficult.”
“But what it sounds like, to me,” I say, “is that you have taken the creativity of your mom and her business, and the analytical side of your dad and his business, and you’re and you’ve combined them into what you do.
Yeah, you are analytical, and you’re planning an exit strategy and move on to the same project, but at the same time, you still wanna be in it, creating. You wanna be the person doing the work. You wanna be the person crafting. So, even though it’s a large scale and changing, from project to project, you’re still being creative and being analytical and you’re You’re still doing the same kind of work.”
“Yeah, that’s definitely true!” she says.
Our interview has moved from the coffee shop to the Legacy, a 128 year old building featuring 26 apartments.
“How do you view your place as a woman in a male-dominated field?”
“I don’t really think about it. I think it’s a basic rule. Would they say whatever they’re saying to me if I was a dude? If the answer’s ‘yes’, no big deal. And I try to hold myself to the same standard - I don’t want to give men or women special treatment.
I did have someone say to me, ‘Oh I’ve read so much about you, can I have a hug???’ and I asked if he would ask a dude for a hug.”
We’re standing in one of soon-to-be-finished apartments Legacy building, and Ben, a foreman on site, is fixing something in a far corner of the room.
“Jenifer, can I have a hug?” he shouts.
We all laugh. “No, Ben!” she says. “Maybe tomorrow if we deliver on this we can high-five or do a pat on the back.”
“I want the most awkward hug possible, the kind you get from the aunt you don’t really like,” he says.
We laugh, and Ben goes back to work. Most of the interactions we have with the guys working on the building as we walk around are like this - personal and friendly, but always working, moving forward, and getting things done.
Part of the Fabric
“What advice would you give a woman who loves this work but might be afraid to make it a career?”
“Dive in. We need more women in this industry. I think women have a different lens - we interact with buildings differently. Like the Car Seat Metric we talked about earlier, that’s something that guys tend to think about less. Not to say that women have different, more special qualities, but we all have different experiences. Especially when you’re building something that is part of the community fabric, the field needs to be balanced, both men and women in this field.”
Jenifer is a proponent of historic preservation, and here in the Legacy, it shows. Stairwells and hallways feature remnants of the building’s history. Original tenant mailboxes are still here, along with the original elevator and a large safe.
The building has been developed into what is known as “mixed use”, containing spaces for residential, retail, and commercial purposes.
And there’s a reason behind that.
“People will say, ‘Why? Why don’t you just make it a commercial building again?’ Well, look at the commercial vacancy. There’s no market to support it. So, what am I gonna do? Spend all this money, and then not have any tenants. Who’s gonna live in it?” she says.
“And you find up with a big, expensive, completely empty building,” I say.
“There’s a demand for living in downtown, in walkable spaces. If we don’t have those options, we lose them. We lose them to other cities that do, or they decide to go and live up north purely. The capital flight is a major problem for small towns.
“I think people don’t think about that,” I say. “I think sometimes people look at a development project and think ‘That’s not what I want so it shouldn’t happen,’ but we also have to encourage many different kinds of people people to stay here, because that’s so critical to creating a beautiful city for the future. We have to have people that are invested and investing in what’s happening here. So, projects like yours, it shows people—even if some disagree with what’s happening—that there is momentum and growth and great things going on. There’s a reason why you should be in Bay City.
Jen nods. “Right. It’s not for everyone. That one, it’s a complex project, and we’re definitely gonna push the market a bit, which is exactly what the market here needs because we don’t have enough comps to get projects to appraise.
$12 million is what it’s costing to do this entire project. And because we don’t have any comps and we haven’t had investment here, it’s only going to appraise for $6 million. You can only get the bank loans and the equity to go up to $6 million.
That means I had to find $6 million of gap funding. It took me 90 days, 23 chicken salads, nerding business plans, finding the right mix of what it’s going to be and how we’re gonna charge it.
It was that, or it was gonna be a drive-thru bank. We had to save it from the wrecking ball. We had to come up with a business plan that we could make work because the bank is not going to give you money if there’s no market to support it. So, what can we actually get, and what’s proven that we can get in rents? And then I had to come up with $6 million in gap funding, within a 90-day purchase option, before they demolished it.
“That’s crazy”, I say.
She smiles, “That’s my world.”