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Downtowns of Promise Program Spotlighted in Michigan Municipal League Magazine

By John Iacoangeli, David Campbell, and Angela Fortino, Beckett and Raeder, Inc. and Joseph Borgstrom, MSHDA

Downtown Benton Harbor

Downtown Benton Harbor

Distressed cities have similar stories. Their once prosperous industrial areas have declined and deteriorated, and they are now faced with a multitude of ailments: disinvestment, crime, poverty, vacancy, “at risk” youth, limited services, and financial crisis. In 2006, the state of Michigan created the Cities of Promise Initiative to help with the redevelopment efforts in eight of Michigan’s most distressed urban cities. The initiative assists in blight elimination and works to increase community and economic development. The Cities of Promise program allows the state to engage in unprecedented partnerships with these cities to address their concerns and prioritize their needs using existing state resources.

Growing from the Cities of Promise Initiative, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), in conjunction with the Michigan Municipal League, created the Downtowns of Promise Program. The program focused on creating action-oriented strategies to push forward revitalization efforts in the traditional downtowns of seven Cities of Promise: Benton Harbor, Flint, Hamtramck, Highland Park, and Muskegon Heights, as well as the Old Town commercial district of Saginaw and the Joy-Southfield commercial corridor on the west side of Detroit.  

Announced in February of 2010, these planning efforts are now complete and many actions suggested for the communities are underway. Through the Downtowns of Promise planning process, it became clear that the communities had zeal, a clear position on their wants and needs, and an understanding of the existing challenges. What was missing, however, was a cohesive vision and strategy to provide guidance in overcoming what seem like impassible barriers to revitalization and stability.

A Familiar Story & Need for a Road Map

Many of the key elements needed for revitalization within the Downtowns of Promise already exist. Demand for local retail market, budding arts and cultural centers, existing private investment, and historic preservation activities provide strong bases for the communities to build upon. We will use the three cities of Benton Harbor, Hamtramck, and Old Town Saginaw, as examples. For all, taking advantage of existing efforts while improving communication and management is integral for the revitalization of their downtowns.

Benton Harbor– Emerging Arts Scene

Recent private investment within the northern portion of downtown Benton Harbor has resulted in an emerging Arts District. This vibrant and budding area has created a lively community featuring art, music, and dance. The character of the downtown was retained through the reuse of historic buildings for art studios, galleries, restaurants, bars, offices, and upper story development. A second and controversial development—Harbor Shores—is located north of downtown. This private development is separated from the traditional downtown by rail lines, creating a barrier that if not addressed may result in disjointed development.

While such developments serve as assets for the city, concerns arose during the community visioning session that, “there needs to be a greater focus on strategies for not only developing the downtown, but for leveraging downtown development to the benefit of Benton Harbor residents.” For many, current redevelopment efforts do not appeal or cater to local community members.

Benton Harbor is working towards creating a unified vision for the city, and a functioning, financially stable DDA. However, the key is not to restructure the DDA but educate both elected officials and their operating authorities on how they can work together to successfully revitalize the city. With the assistance of MSHDA’s Downtown & Community Services Division, the importance of opening lines of communication will be stressed, along with aligning priorities, and how to harness funding opportunities and state/federal incentives. Inclusion of the area’s art organizations, as well as neighborhood groups, with training sessions will help ensure that all voices of the city are heard. Improving functionality while acknowledging and including all citizens will provide a strong foundation for balanced and sustained revitalization.

Old Town Saginaw–Harnessing its Historic Character


Saginaw’s visioning session educated the city, DDA, and community members in strategies to assist in downtown revitalization.

A strong core of independent business owners has sustained a unique, diverse, commercial district within Old Town Saginaw. Physically, Old Town’s buildings have retained much of their historical integrity. If one wants to experience the ambience of a historic warehouse district, Old Town Saginaw fits the bill. This combination of locally owned businesses, involved property owners, and historically intact buildings creates a major asset for Old Town: a strong sense of place. However, no matter how strong this sense of place is, finances have impeded on property owners’ abilities to renovate and properly maintain their buildings. Meanwhile, other property owners are “sitting” on their properties waiting for the right moment, rather than harnessing existing incentives to make development occur.

To aid in redevelopment, key recommended actions for Old Town Saginaw are to establish a Business Improvement District (BID) to secure a funding base and create mechanisms for business district improvements; ensure that future streetscape improvements programmed by the city do not impact the historic character of the district; improve the development environment through programming and property owner assistance; seek expanded representation on the city-wide DDA; and participate in city-wide master planning and TIF process. It should also take advantage of the Michigan Main Street Program so that the city, DDA, and community members can gain knowledge and strategies that will assist in downtown revitalization.

Hamtramck–Niche Businesses


Downtown Hamtramck is full of culturally diverse businesses, but is still a hidden gem. One strategy is to improve branding.

Downtown Hamtramck is full of culturally diverse businesses that would be the envy of many Michigan downtowns; however, the lack of regular maintenance of the area and perceived issues of safety and financial stability impede further development of the downtown business district. The businesses within downtown Hamtramck cannot tackle these issues alone; they need the support of the DDA and other governing bodies and authorities. Two key elements of the revitalization strategies for Hamtramck are 1) to establish a Principal Shopping District (PSD) and 2) prepare for the second level of the Michigan Main Street Program. The PSD is outlined in the municipality’s recently completed master plan. Once the PSD is successfully established, funding through the PSD would be used for infrastructure and maintenance improvements, marketing, promotions, public relations, code enforcement, safety and security, and other uses. Paired with the establishment of the PSD, the DDA would engage community members, volunteers, and groups with the Main Street Program.

For many, Hamtramck is still a hidden gem. Another key strategy for downtown Hamtramck is to improve branding and downtown identity. Branding will help Hamtramck reach residents of surrounding areas that are currently missing the unique setting Hamtramck has to offer. This strategy is dependent on the successful establishment of the PSD and stabilized DDA. These two entities’ ability to work together aiming for the same goal for downtown is integral for the successful implementation of rebranding Hamtramck.

Need for Training and a Unified Voice

Benton Harbor, Old Town Saginaw, and Hamtramck prove that even small steps in revitalizing communities can occur without a common vision and strategy. However, imagine if community members, business owners, organizations, and investors had a clear understanding of what the overarching vision is and the tools to obtain it; those currently isolated and sometimes disjointed efforts could unite since we are all aiming for revitalization and stabilization.

As emphasized by MSHDA, “In order for the state’s overall economy to succeed, its traditional downtowns and neighborhoods must gain population, generate business, and attract private investment.”

Each of the communities featured in this article have incredible assets and opportunities, and wonderful residents and downtown business owners. The Downtowns of Promise program is about getting leaders in each of these communities together to develop a cohesive vision so that our downtowns can achieve their fullest potential.

Beckett & Raeder, Inc.

is a complete landscape architecture, engineering, and planning services firm. Beckett & Raeder can assist communities in developing sustainable planning and design from concepts to project implementation. We are specialists in urban design, civic campus design, corridor design, downtown streetscapes, downtown management, master plans, community involvement, parks and playgrounds, athletic fields, greenways and trails, grant application preparation and implementation, and waterfront development.

John Iacoangeli, AICP, PCP, LEED AP, is a principal planner for Beckett and Raeder, Inc. You may reach him at or 734-663-2622.; David Campbell, AICP, LEED AG, is a professional planner for Beckett and Raeder, Inc.; Angela Fortino, is a project planner for Beckett and Raeder, Inc.; Joseph Borgstrom is director of the downtown and community services division for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. You may reach him at 517-241-1737 or



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