Guiding the way: Multi-talented attorney spearheads Arts & Rec Complex

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

When Gail Grieger arrives for work each morning as executive director of the Plymouth Arts & Recreation Complex, she is faced with the quandary of “which hat to wear” today.

The options are almost as plentiful as the offerings at PARC, an arts, education, and recreation hub in Plymouth that has been billed as “One Destination” with “Endless Possibilities.”

She can play the role of attorney. CEO. Entrepreneur. School “principal.” Or PARC’s chief cheerleader.

The Indiana native is seemingly at ease in any of the roles, which collectively suit the all-around skill set of the 54-year-old dynamo. Her biggest booster may well be Don Soenen, chair of the PARC Board of Directors and a former Ford Motor Co. engineer who has bought, sold, and operated a number of tech companies.

“She brings a special combination of talents to the job, and we are incredibly fortunate to have found someone like her for this role,” said Soenen, a resident of Plymouth for the past 50 years. “She has the smarts and the savvy that are absolutely vital when dealing with more than 30 tenants and upwards of 100 organizations that use this building over the course of the year.

“Gail also is passionate about her work and is extremely well connected in the community,” Soenen added. “In short, she is ideally suited for this job and she has done a tremendous job in assembling a team here. In fact, this is the best team that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with – bar none.”

Soenen, the former owner of Sensors, Inc. and now its chairman of the board, served as the “face” of PARC for several years before Grieger arrived on the scene in 2016 as one of the tenants in the former Plymouth High School building.

An alumna of DePaul University College of Law, Grieger gravitated to the PARC setting when she and her business partner, Marsha Kreza, were seeking a suitable home for their Z Spot Fitness studio, which offers classes in Zumba, Pilates, Kick-boxing, and more. It was then that she crossed paths with Beth Stewart, executive director of the Michigan Philharmonic, the highly acclaimed orchestra headquartered in the PARC facility.

“I first met Gail at PARC as we were all moving our businesses into the building at the same time,” said Stewart, who has guided the professional symphony orchestra since 2008. “I was immediately struck by her enthusiasm and her drive. She and her business partner were actually moving their own fitness equipment and laying their own floor for their new space!”

It didn’t take long before Stewart invited Grieger to join the Michigan Philharmonic Board of Directors, where “her legal background has been helpful in our own contract negotiations with performance venues and the like,” according to Stewart.

Unbeknownst to Grieger, her first six months as a PARC tenant in 2016 were serving a dual purpose.

“I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but in effect I was on a six-month job interview,” Grieger said with a smile. “Don (Soenen) was seeing if I had what it would take to run PARC on a daily basis. When he initially approached me about becoming executive director, I was surprised – and delighted. I had no idea that I was being considered for the role.”

As the co-owner of the fitness business, Grieger said she was intrigued by the potential of PARC, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission of “enriching lives by cultivating the growth of arts, education, and recreation experiences” for all ages in the Plymouth community.

“When we opened our business in 2013, I was keeping an eye on this building, figuring that it had the potential to turn into something big,” Grieger said of the sprawling facility that formerly was Plymouth High School and then Central Middle School.

In literal terms, the building is “big,” a massive 160,000-square-foot structure that sits on a 16.6-acre site adjacent to Plymouth’s downtown. The building was spared from the wrecking ball several years ago when it was purchased from the school district for $3.3 million. Money for the purchase came from Mark and Patty Malcolm, longtime residents of Plymouth who envisioned donating the building and property to the community in the form of the PARC.

Those plans took a setback in November when Plymouth area voters nixed a millage proposal that would have funded the renovation of the former school building and the construction of an 800-seat Performing Arts Center. Together, the two projects were estimated to cost $30 million.

But in early January, PARC got the proverbial “new lease on life” when it became the new owner of the building and property through a donation from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. The news was especially welcomed by the Malcolms, whose generosity has been pivotal to the future of PARC.

“With the loss of the millage making the viability and survival of PARC so uncertain, we are delighted and grateful to have found a way forward that will keep the historic building alive with such great organizations and activities for the benefit of the community,” the couple said in a statement following news of the grant award.

Concurrently, the Wilcox Family Foundation provided a contribution of $200,000 as part of a $1 million multi-year pledge, according to Grieger. A portion of the pledge will be designated for the construction of a 150- to 200-seat theater, a drama site that will be named in honor of Jack Wilcox, a community activist who died in 2000 at age 83.

“The gift from the Wilcox Foundation is indicative of the kind of support that we have in the community for PARC,” said Grieger, whose desk is in the former principal’s office at the school. “In the aftermath of the millage defeat, we have seen the community rally to ensure PARC’s future, which has been very heartening to see.”

The Margaret Dunning Foundation also has made a $200,000 donation to fund pool renovations, while Soenen and his wife have pledged $100,000 this year in a matching gift program.

“We need around $7 million to complete some of the renovations to the building,” Soenen said. “We are encouraged by the response we’ve received in the community so far.”

Some 30 tenants currently lease space in the building, representing the visual arts, music, the performing arts, education, fitness, recreation, and the culinary arts. The Michigan Philharmonic has its office there, as do such notable organizations as the Friends of the Rouge and the College for Creative Studies.

“We have operated the building successfully for three years, thanks in large part to the many groups and organizations that use it on a daily basis,” said Grieger. “We are fortunate to have an outstanding board of directors, who volunteer their time and talents for the betterment of the community. In a relatively short period of time, this place has become a magnet for community activities.”

The youngest of three daughters, Grieger grew up near Valparaiso, Ind., where both sets of grandparents were farmers. Her father, Earl (Buzz), was a high school math teacher and basketball coach, eventually joining a Chrysler-Dodge dealership that his parents owned.

“I was blessed with great parents and terrific sisters,” Grieger said. “My parents stressed the importance of education and of the need to give back to the community.”

Her mom, Shirley, died in 1992 at age 57, and her death came during a time when Grieger was preparing for the bar exam. Her dad passed away in 2008 at age 75.

Grieger, who earned her bachelor’s degree in public administration from Indiana University, had early designs on becoming a labor lawyer. She worked her way through law school at DePaul University, attending night classes while working days as a social worker and job placement specialist.

“The problems associated with generational poverty are so pervasive in cities like Chicago that I was determined to try to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate,” Grieger said. “Serving as a social worker by day and then becoming a law student at night wasn’t an easy road by any means, but I also didn’t want to be saddled with debt when I graduated. It was a long four years, but DePaul has a well-deserved reputation as a ‘working lawyers’ law school. It has produced a lot of prosecutors and judges over the years.”

During law school, Grieger served an internship with the Cook County Legal Assistance Foundation, focusing primarily on family law cases.

“There were some pretty brutal cases, but I gained some very valuable courtroom experience under the guidance of veteran attorneys,” said Grieger, who at the time was the only night student to serve on the DePaul Law Review.

Following graduation in 1992, Grieger and her first husband, Joel Ashton, moved to Plymouth, where her then father-in-law headed an insurance defense firm. The couple was married for 15 years and are the parents of two daughters, Meredith and Rowan, both of whom graduated from Plymouth-Canton High School.

Meredith, a senior majoring in journalism at Kalamazoo College, currently is a producer for the 10 p.m. news at a Kalamazoo television station. Rowan, who inherited her mother’s “love for horses,” is a freshman in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.

Grieger and her second husband, Gus Vlahadamis, an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin Law School, were married in 2010. Shortly thereafter, Grieger returned to the legal job market after a 12-year absence raising her daughters.

“I got back in the game, so to speak, by working for my husband’s firm part-time,” said Grieger. “He started his own firm in Texas nearly 20 years ago, and it specializes in work related to the oil and gas industry, while also handling estate planning, business formation, and trust matters.”

Upon first settling in Plymouth, Grieger volunteered her legal services at the former Scott Correctional Facility, eventually landing a full time job there as a family law attorney for female inmates.

“It was very gratifying work to help inmates get reunited with their kids,” Grieger said of her role at the jail that closed in 2009.

“I was fortunate to get to know attorney Deborah LaBelle, who has done so much to improve the quality of life for prison inmates. I learned a ton from her.”

Now, Grieger continues in a learning mode, relishing the challenge of helping shape the future of PARC.

“This is a job where no two days are alike, which keeps it exciting for me as we work to build something very special here. This is my dream job.”
 

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