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Michigan Downtowns are Vital to Michigan’s Future
By Sara Folland
The image of downtowns was immortalized in the classic Petula Clark song, “Downtown”: “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, so go downtown. Things will be great when you’re downtown…everything is waiting for you downtown.” Those hum-worthy lyrics conjure pleasant images and memories of downtowns. While the song was a No. 1 hit way back in 1965, the words resonate even stronger today. Across Michigan, downtowns are integral parts of communities both large and small, and their revitalization efforts provide benefits to the greater region.
Why are downtowns so important? “Downtowns represent the historical and authentic ‘self’ of the community,” said Patricia Fitzpatrick, director of Downtown Development in the city of Holland. “They are the heart and soul of the community.” Downtowns are often the centers for not only commerce, but also for parades, festivals, and community events. As Kim Musolff, director of the Sturgis Downtown Development Authority notes, local residents often have fond memories associated with a downtown, its businesses, and events. Many downtowns are also the historic commercial center of the area.
Milford’s Main Street, located in western Oakland County, serves as the “public square of the community,” says DDA Director Ann Barnette. “It’s where neighbors meet, business owners mingle and the town comes together.” Citizens take pride in their downtown, and understand that the central business district often serves as the face of the community.
The projects and plans for development in each community are unique and tailored to meet its individual needs. In downtown Marquette, for example, completed projects include infrastructure, parking lot improvements, streetscape, the development of the Marquette Commons, the creation of pedestrian walkways to connect rear parking lots to the business area, and the extension of bike and pedestrian pathways to connect the downtown to existing citywide paths.
“These projects are part of the overall connectivity plan for Marquette’s downtown that provided an impetus for over $40 million in downtown properties. Interest in rehabilitation and reuse of downtown properties is at an all-time high. The taxable value of downtown Marquette’s properties has tripled over the last 20 years,” said Mona Lang, executive director of the Marquette Downtown Development Authority.
In Sturgis, the DDA purchased and renovated three downtown buildings, two of which had been vacant for years. “We have realized many benefits from these projects,” noted Musolff. “They were in a block that was pretty desolate, but thanks to these efforts, it is now a thriving retail block.” Two of the three buildings were sold and are currently occupied by successful businesses; the third is still owned by the DDA, but occupied by the Open Door Gallery, an artist cooperative.
Downtown Alpena’s revitalization efforts included a façade grant program, a new rental incentive program to support new businesses, participation in the Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s rental rehabilitation program, development of a business support team and a downtown gift card, redevelopment district liquor licenses, brownfield incentives, and a Neighborhood Enterprise Zone in the downtown to encourage investment in older properties.
“Much of our growth can be attributed to the programs the DDA and the city of Alpena provide to make such investment in our downtown area desirable. The DDA Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds have made this possible, as we have clearly demonstrated that public improvements and support lead to private investment,” commented Lynn Kolasa, executive director of the Alpena DDA.
The success of a downtown relies upon the support of downtown businesses, property owners, and the community as a whole. According to Fitzpatrick, components of a successful downtown include “healthy retailers, residential units, and offices and services. Commitment to quality, detail, and collaboration among stakeholders are also essential.” She also noted that, in Holland, “a public-private partnership has helped secure the most innovative projects that are unique to our downtown, such as our Snowmelt system.”
Lynn Kolasa agrees. “None of this works without the support of the city, the property owners, and the business owners who want to participate in its continued improvements. Additionally, our partnerships throughout the county reinforce the value of the downtown to the entire community with the recognition that our revitalized downtown is a critical part of the growth of the community as a whole.”
“The success of a downtown can be measured in both tangible and intangible ways,” commented Lang. Increases in property values, residential population, traffic, retail and restaurant sales, and decreases in vacancy rates measure the tangible effects of investment in downtown districts. Intangible results such as community pride in the downtown and sense of place are more difficult to measure, but are evident in the willingness for the community to invest in their downtown.”
A vibrant downtown is a benefit to the entire community and its surrounding area. “A vital downtown center helps keep property values strong and enhances the quality of life for the whole community. The downtown has a direct impact on retaining and recruiting business and investment not only in the city, but the region,” noted Lang.
MICHIGAN DOWNTOWN ASSOCIATION (MDA)
The MDA was formed to encourage good development, redevelopment, and improvement of communities throughout Michigan, with special emphasis on downtown areas. One of the driving forces in the recent interest in Michigan’s downtowns, the MDA boasts over 200 members and holds quarterly conferences throughout the state.
GOALS OF THE MDA
To educate its members, the general public, state legislators, and other public officials about the best tools for the improvement of communities.
To promote and encourage the implementation of effective, comprehensive legal and financing instruments to further such improvement.
To study current legislation and develop new legislation strategies.
To perform studies on the effectiveness of revitalization efforts.
To assist member communities in interacting and networking with one another.
To work cooperatively with other statewide agencies to further downtown development.
Steve Deisler, Downtown Kalamazoo, Inc.
Robert Donohue, Oakland County Planning and Economic Development Services
Patty Fitzpatrick, City of Holland Downtown Development Authority
Jay Fowler, City of Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority
Becky Goodman, Secretary, Downtown Petoskey
Paula Holtz, City of Tecumseh Downtown Development Authority
Lynn Kolasa, Vice Chair, City of Alpena Downtown Development Authority
Mona Lang, Treasurer, City of Marquette Downtown Development Authority
Geoff Moffat, Village of Middleville
Arthur Mullen, City of Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority
Kim Musolff, City of Sturgis Downtown Development Authority
Cristina Sheppard-Decius, Ferndale Downtown Development Authority
Visit the MDA at www.michigandowntowns.com
Sara Folland is the executive director of the Michigan Downtown Association. You may reach her at 989-660-0409 or