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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….

Profile: Armory Arts Village Artists

Judy Gail Krasnow left the sunshine of 26 years in Miami, Florida, when she heard on National Public Radio about the old first Michigan State Prison in Jackson being renovated into an artists' community. She visited—never having been to Michigan—and said, "YES!" The incredibly fascinating history of the place brought her here, a definite lure for a professional storyteller for all ages, historical portrayal artist, musician, and published author with a propensity for historical tales. Judy, an Armory Arts Village resident, gives tours entitled "From Historic Prison to Artistic Vision." The tours clearly show why in 1839, during the height of the Industrial Revolution, Jackson made the wise decision to build a prison. Visitors see the old solitary cells, hear engaging stories about colorful inmates with names like Hannibal the Bear, and move into the era when the old prison became an Armory as a new house of incarceration was built on the outskirts of town. The tours then bring visitors into the present, showing how the historic site has become an artists' community. The Village aids in boosting Jackson's economy through the enticement of tourism inspired by Jackson's fascinating old prison and its present focus on the arts. The tour ends with a visit to an apartment that once housed 36 prison cells. Jacksonites, as well as tourists from surrounding communities, out of state, and other countries, come to see this goldmine of history and the arts. They all express that Jackson has a lot to be proud of—even its history as the city that housed the largest walled prison anywhere in its day!

My name is Kay Howard; I live at the Armory Arts Village. I am a biologist by training (MS, U of M), and for the last 15 years, a potter by choice. I also own a small art gallery and gift shop in Jackson's art neighborhood. I moved from Grass Lake to the Armory in order to be part of something bigger than myself—a synergistic community of artists. Widely considered a "luxury," purchases of art are especially hard hit in the current economy. I can only stress that each white tent at an art show, each small art gallery, each artist resident at the Armory, is a small businessperson who represents a part of every town's economic base. It seems to me that supporting a strong arts community is one of today's best investments for future economic health, especially as Michigan begins to diversify.
Photo of Kay Howard by Jennifer Whaley.

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.”
—Scott Fleming, president of The Enterprise Group

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.
The following list of groups cooperated with the city and The Enterprise Group to make the Armory Arts Village happen: Michigan State Housing Development Authority, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, State Historic Preservation Office, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, our city and county Brownfield Redevelopment Authorities, all the different levels of government—federal, state and local—as well as public and private groups.

This project is a catalyst for community and economic development, downtown revitalization, and repositioning our community’s identity as a center for the arts.
What is really exciting about this project, is that it is now home to artists that have moved here from all over the country. They’ve come from as far away as California and Florida, as well as all over Michigan, and are excited to be here.

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



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