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Transforming a Prison into an Artists’ Village
By Daniel Greer
In 2004, Governor Jennifer Granholm announced the Cool Cities Initiative, intended to highlight urban redevelopment in Michigan’s Core Communities. The city of Jackson was one of 16 original “Cool Cities” designated throughout the state by the governor, for its Armory Arts project. While it took six years for phase one of the project to become a reality, city and community leaders are beginning to see the benefits of arts and cultural economic development….
In the early days of Michigan’s statehood, many communities were vying to be the state capital, and Jackson was among them. Though unsuccessful in becoming home to the state’s governmental offices, Jackson was awarded the state penitentiary. The community has had to deal with the stigma of this for a long time, even though the jobs provided, mainly corrections officers, are good-paying state jobs with good benefits. Really, the state penitentiary was the origin of our manufacturing and transportation history, as prison labor was first used for building wagon wheels and later on for the locomotive industry, and then, of course, the automotive industry. It is a rich heritage.
In the 1930s, a new prison was built outside the city limits and the original state prison became home to the National Guard. However, early in 2002, the city became aware that the National Guard planned to move to a new building in three to four years. So the challenge to the community became, “What do we do with the original state prison once the National Guard leaves?”
Fortunately, the city had a champion in Neeta Delaney who was the director of one of Jackson's local community-based foundations. Neeta was aware of the strength of Jackson's art community, and started researching the concept of arts and cultural economic development. She discovered Artspace, a non-profit organization out of Minnesota that had partnered with several communities across the nation with arts and cultural redevelopment projects, and saw the opportunity for Jackson. Ms. Delaney championed her idea of an arts colony in the original state prison to the city council and The Enterprise Group, our local non-profit economic development organization. Artspace was invited to tour the site and subsequently agreed to partner with Jackson for the project. Shortly thereafter, Neeta Delaney was hired by The Enterprise Group as the Armory Arts project manager.
“The Armory Arts project has established Jackson as a leader in the economic revival of Michigan and is at the forefront of the new economic reality for Michigan.”
Though the project went through several evolutions and things looked dead in the water when Artspace withdrew their partnership a couple of years into it the process, the city pressed on. When Governor Granholm announced the Cool Cities initiative in 2004, it was a much-needed boost to the project, which included a $100,000 grant from the state. The $12 million renovation of the original cell blocks and drill hall was completed in late 2007, and artists moved in early in 2008.
What a huge project this was! It has been six years in the making. There were many challenges, obstacles, and setbacks. There were environmental contamination issues, which set the project back. We had skeptics and naysayers in the community who didn’t believe that it would ever work. In spite of it, Jackson has taken the 16-acre site of the original state penitentiary and is redeveloping it and re-identifying our history and heritage.
This project is a catalyst for community and economic development, downtown revitalization, and repositioning our community’s identity as a center for the arts.
With this project, Jackson has succeeded in brownfield reuse and redevelopment, as well as creating partnerships and collaborations through other organizations all across the state. The results of taking this beautiful building and turning it into something positive for our community has been met with overwhelming support.
The first residents moved in early in 2008. By summer, there was only one out of sixty-two units left available, exceeding the expectations of all involved. Phase two of the project calls for two new buildings and is under active consideration
by the planning commission and city council. Phase two is expected to begin late in 2009 with additional apartments and retail space. While in Jackson for a recent council meeting, developer Peter Jobson said “The Armory Arts project is a unique opportunity for Excel Realty to not only develop a new style of housing, but also to partner with a community that is interested in moving to a new and promising economic base.”
Recognition of the uniqueness and history of this site as well as the creativity of the artists and the proximity to Jackson's gateway to downtown, Cooper Street, has led to other economic development opportunities in the immediate vicinity of the project, including approximately $8 million in new construction. Art 634 is the reuse of a former warehouse building as studios and classrooms for artists. Besides the additional $7 million investment planned by Excel Realty in phase two of the Armory Arts Village, there is interest in other redevelopment on surrounding property. These developments utilized either existing buildings or property that was developed as a result of the stimulus of the Armory Arts project.
“The Armory Arts project has established Jackson as a leader in the economic revival of Michigan, and is at the forefront of the new economic reality for Michigan,” stated Scott Fleming, president of The Enterprise Group. Jackson City Manager William Ross agrees, “The Armory Arts project deserves credit with stimulating other community improvements and development projects such as the Grand River Arts Walk Trail, Art 634, and the renovation of Mechanic Street with a period appearance and a new focus on the arts as an economic development opportunity.”
The artists hold an open house for the community on the fourth Friday of each month, from 5 pm until 9 pm. The Armory Arts Residents Association and the city of Jackson invite all members of the Michigan Municipal League to attend the open house and art sale on July 24, 2009. The artists and the city are planning this as a special event to give League members and friends an opportunity to tour the Armory Arts project, meet the artists, see what the arts can do to stimulate a community, and purchase some of the outstanding art that is being produced every day in Jackson, Michigan!
The city of Jackson’s Armory Arts Village won the 2008 Community Excellence Award Race for the Cup at the League’s Annual Convention.
Daniel Greer is a councilmember for the city of Jackson, where he has served for 12 years. You may contact him at 517-787-4607 or firstname.lastname@example.org.