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New Threads For The City

Jackson, 16 others, awarded “cool” grant

June 15, 2004 | By Charlene Crowell
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

The ambitious 35-acre, $10.6 million Jackson Armory Arts Project is converting  an abandoned industrial site into a center for arts and culture that also will include housing and retail businesses.

Jackson, which is home to 36,000 people and lies engagingly close to Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Detroit, has been around long enough to go through cycles of growth and contraction common to any city that is 170 years old. 

Lately Jackson has been doing a lot of things right. It spent $24.9 million to reconstruct the city’s handsome 66-year-old high school instead of building a new school in a farm field outside of town. Consumers Energy, one of the largest utilities in the Midwest, which was founded in Jackson in 1886, just restored the city’s Beaux Arts post office and converted it into the gateway for the company’s new 12-story, 370,000-square-foot headquarters.  The $103.9 million project boosted the company’s downtown annual payroll to $52 million, and doubled its downtown workforce to 1,350 people.

Earlier this month Jackson, which was where the Republican Party got started in 1854 and where the discovery of a stolen Ford in 1932 led to the capture of Bonnie and Clyde two years later, received more good news. Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm announced that it was among the 17 Michigan cities awarded up to $100,000 in state grants to foster downtown development.

Cool To Be For Cities
The grants are the first significant public investment under Governor Granholm’s “Cool Cities” initiative, which she designed to help rebuild the state’s struggling cities, attract talented young workers, and improve Michigan’s economic competitiveness. The Cool Cities grant winners are now eligible for millions more in state economic development investments specifically targeted to turn Michigan’s cities into places that businesses and people want to be.

Jackson’s downtown economic development authorities say the $100,000 grant will help close a $1.5 million funding gap and produce an ambitious 35-acre, $10.6 million project to convert an abandoned industrial site into a center for arts and culture that also will include housing and retail businesses. The project had already raised more than $8 million from foundations, donors, tax credits, a federal home loan, and community development block grants.

The Jackson Armory Arts Project, one of more than 100 statewide that competed for Cool Cities grants, attracted the administration’s attention because it combined the elements that the governor and her staff are convinced produce civic energy. It encouraged people to walk, embraced historic preservation, recruited residents with varying incomes, produced a mix of culture and business opportunities, included performance and exhibit areas, and made it possible for people to live and work within the development. The city will extend its walk along the Grand River to link the project to downtown.

Steve Czarnecki, president and chief executive officer of the Enterprise Group of Jackson, one of the project’s partners, explained how a unique coalition of business and civic groups collaborated to make the armory project work. “One of the hallmarks and keystones to the whole development was the cooperation between the community’s different entities – both public and private,” he said. “We’ve hired a general contractor. And we’re scheduled to begin renovation at the end of summer – possibly some time in the fall.” 

 “I want people to recognize”, Mr. Czarnecki added, “that Jackson is a cool community that has evolved from a classic blue collar town to a community with a lot of dimensions – art, culture, recreation, and entertainment. We’re really a great place.”

Amy Torres, the city’s economic development project manager, said she and her colleagues were thrilled. “Jackson has evolved from one of the best-kept secrets in Michigan to a city recognized for its exciting achievements and accomplishments! The residents of this 'cool city' are honored.”

Arguably, none of the Granholm administration’s economic development programs has attracted more public attention than her “Cool Cities” initiative. Ms. Granholm introduced the idea in February 2003 during her first State of the State address when she called on the Legislature and local elected leaders to help her “create cool cities, hip places to live and work,” and to think hard about embracing new approaches to help Michigan’s downtowns work better.

Months later, during a speech to political leaders on Mackinac Island, she brandished dark glasses to promote the program. Last year the administration sent letters to 274 Michigan mayors urging them to establish Cool City advisory groups, and 130 cities did so. In December, the governor hosted a conference in Lansing, attended by more than 1,300 people, that was designed to hammer home the idea that the state’s economic competitiveness depended in large measure on making cities better, especially for young people. Michigan lost more than 200,000 talented 25- to 34-year old adults during the 1990s, more than all but three states.

“Cool Cities is about creating hot jobs in cool neighborhoods throughout Michigan,” says the administration. “It's about attracting and encouraging people —  especially young people — to live, work and shop in the cool cities we are working hard to create together.”

Not surprisingly, as the influence of Ms. Granholm’s “Cool Cities” initiative has grown her opponents in the Republican Party are firing back. The state G.O.P. views the Cool Cities program as favoring cities over suburbs and rural areas, and a potential threat to the party’s largely  suburban and small town constituency. Bill Nowling, press secretary for Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, sent an email to reporters last week that included a copy of an article in the June issue of Governing Magazine that criticized the economic usefulness of rebuilding cities to make them attractive for young people. Tom Bray, a conservative columnist for The Detroit News, called “Cool Cities” and several other big ideas the governor has about halting sprawl “state sponsorship of regional government, funded by the suburbs.”

Urban leaders disagree and from every corner of the state have rallied to support the governor. Earlier this year, after the administration announced the Cool Cities grant program, it received 151 applications from 112 cities. The applications were reviewed by a 14-agency team that even included the State Police. Members said they often worked 12-hour days in a collaborative process that brought together agencies that typically have limited interaction. Twenty projects in 17 cities made the cut.

The process, said Brian Conway, state historic preservation officer with the Department of History, Arts and Libraries, and a member of the team, was unlike any he had ever been involved with. “It was a wonderful experience, a great experience with so many state departments focusing on one issue of revitalizing Michigan communities,” said Mr. Conway. “The fact that so many state departments were focusing together on revitalization was unprecedented.”

Among the other Cool Cities grant winners:

  • Traverse City, which is starting an Entrepreneurial Institute to encourage more homegrown economic development.
  • Detroit, which earned three grants to renovate part of Eastern Market, develop three dilapidated buildings into entertainment and technology incubators in the Jefferson East neighborhood, and renovate Odd Fellows Hall in Southwest Detroit. 
  • Ferndale won a grant to continue its downtown development project that was launched in the late 1990s.
  • Flint will restore the exterior of the Republic Bank Building and convert it to First Street Lofts, a 16-unit downtown development.
  • Grand Rapids won two awards, one of which will speed development along the Avenue for the Arts, including renovating seven buildings, improving sidewalks, creating public art and murals, and developing 35 loft apartments. The second grant will speed the Uptown Revitalization Project to develop new retail outlets utilizing green technology, increase the number of façade improvement for historic structures; and make the area more attractive for pedestrians.
  • Marquette is developing The Marquette Commons Project, consisting of a groomed, refrigerated ice plaza with a skating rink, a warming house, a non-motorized trail and a fountain, located in the heart of the city on the site of an old parking lot and railroad line.

Earlier this month Governor Granholm appeared again at the annual political conference on Mackinac Island to insist that her Cool Cities program is stimulating a new kind of thinking at the grassroots about how to grow Michigan’s economy. 

"There's not a cookie cutter answer to what cool is, and I certainly don't know what it is, and the second a government person starts saying what cool is, it's not cool," Ms. Granholm said. Ms. Granholm said that she urged local communities to set up their Cool Cities Initiative committees without appointing government officials.

"A cool city could be high-density, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use places, but that's too much of a mouthful to say, so we say 'cool,'" Ms Granholm said. "It's all about work force, about keeping young people here."

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Charlene Crowell is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s policy specialist in Lansing. Reach them at keith@mlui.org, or charlene@mlui.org,  

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