The #CharlotteRising tide

If you ask 20 people in Charlotte, Mich., about the origins of the city’s unusual pronunciation — that would be sharr-LOT, not the expected SHAR-lutt — you’re likely to get 20 different answers:
 
“It’s the original French pronunciation.”
 
“It’s the royal British intonation.”
 
“They did it to avoid confusion with the city in North Carolina.”
 
Or an apocryphal favorite, “It’s how the train conductors used to announce it at the railroad station.”
 
But however it’s pronounced, one thing’s clear: that name is about to be on the tongues of a lot more people in Michigan over the next few years. This week, the Michigan Main Street program officially welcomed Charlotte as the state’s newest Select Level community, a status that gives the Lansing exurb access to vital assistance programs to boost its downtown retail district. The effort was spearheaded by a grassroots collection of residents, businesses and city government officials that call themselves #CharlotteRising.
 
“I used that hashtag for two years on social media whenever I was talking about the changes happening in town,” says Jason Vanderstelt, a developer and lifelong Charlotte who’s one of the movement’s main drivers. “I love what’s happening here right now. This is the ‘Rocky’ story. This is a town that’s down and out, and (the #CharlotteRising name) is something that everyone in the community can rally around as we make our way to the top.”
 
And on the way up, that name is starting to dig itself in to the local culture. In January, the city unveiled “Charlotte Rising,” a new sculpture funded in part by the Lansing Economic Area Partnership. The art work, located at the corner of Lovett Street and Cochran Avenue in downtown Charlotte, was designed and created by Frank Balluff, a Charlotte native studying graphic design and marketing.
 
Since Charlotte was incorporated in 1871, it’s mostly remained a rural satellite city of Lansing. Just 20 miles southwest of the Capitol dome, Charlotte is home to many commuters to Lansing, although Vanderstelt admits the distance is off-putting to the retail customers he’s trying to get to come in his direction. Around Metro Lansing, Charlotte has a few disparaging epithets — including “Char-tucky,” a nod to the city’s rural status — and Vanderstelt bristles at the notion.
 
“I’ve heard (the nickname) and I’m not going to be naïve and say I don’t understand the stereotype,” Vanderstelt says. “There are reasons for stereotypes — we’re surrounded by a lot of countryside, and it’s still a mostly Caucasian population. I’ll be the first one to say that we need more diversity, but this group that’s working to effect change right now is open to new ideas. We have the potential to really shake things up.”
 
Joe Pray is the fourth generation owner/director of Pray Funeral Home in downtown Charlotte. He’s also the president of #CharlotteRising, bringing his valuable ties to the community and his organizational skills to the mix.
 
“Over the years, (my family has) been involved in a lot different community improvement programs, but this is the most interest from the most people both inside and outside community I’ve ever seen,” Pray says. “I really believe this will help us revive retail downtown, which is what we really need right now. We’re definitely not the backwoods community that people may have in their mind. We just haven’t had enough time in the spotlight.”
 
It was only last year that Charlotte was inducted into the Main Street program at the introductory Associate Level. Vanderstelt says most communities don’t put application in for the next level, Select, for at least two years, but he says #CharlotteRising, which is made up of a mix of developers, city officials and progressive residents, is newly motivated to both historic renovation and multimillion-dollar new construction projects.
 
“We’re a do-something group of people,” he says. “Now that we’re starting to get momentum, it doesn’t make sense to slow down. The Select level brings in resources like façade grants, state services, and architectural consultation, and if we can make that happen sooner than later, then so be it.”
 
The Michigan Main Street program, under the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, targets historical commercial districts throughout the state with a four-point approach: design, economic restructuring, promotion and organization. Last month, Vanderstelt and a few dozen of #CharlotteRising’s 100 or so volunteers packed MEDC’s downtown headquarters for a live presentation, the culmination of a rigorous application process.
 
“It was crazy,” Vanderstelt says. “We all took a bus down there, a bunch of people got up and talked, we sang an original song called ‘Charlotte Rising.’ They said they’d never seen anything like it before.”
 
As a Michigan Main Street community, Charlotte will receive five years of intensive technical assistance from the Michigan Main Street Program with a focus on strategies to revitalize the downtown area as well as attract new residents, business investments, economic growth and job creation. In January 2016, Charlotte became one of 10 Michigan localities chosen to be part of Project Rising Tide, a program that provides at-risk communities with the tools needed to design and build a successful economic framework.
 
“Essentially, it’s all hands-on training for how to make a great downtown,” says Bryan Myrkle, Community Development Director for the City of Charlotte. “Before, (city leaders) had a tendency to be too timid, making a lot of compromises that served no one. Now it’s a little more freewheeling, with more of a ‘damn the torpedoes’ mindset. We’re going to run with the runners. It’s a real change for us, but it seems to be working.”
 
Already businesses have started moving in, joining longtime community pillars such as Spartan Motors, Alro Steel and Hayes Green Beach Memorial Hospital. A multi-million dollar senior housing development is on the horizon. And last year, Vanderstelt’s company, Dutch Brothers Development Group, announced plans to convert longtime downtown eatery the Gavel into an upscale bistro, to be called the Dolson, after the classic automobile that was manufactured in Charlotte early in the 20th century. 
 
“Lansing is doing a great job right now with its arts and culture scene, and we’re trying to tie into that, “ Myrkle says. “We’re not far, but we’re more likely to go there than get them to come here. Almost universally, the thing that makes or breaks a downtown is tourism, and we don’t have that yet. We have to create destination businesses.”
 
One of those aspiring destinations is Dragonfly Boutique and Salon, a funky upcycling shop owned/operated by Shelly O’Connor. It opened earlier this month in the heart of the fledgling retail district, which is focused on Cochran Street. O’Connor says she had a choice for multiple locations to open Dragonfly when she moved back to Michigan last year after being gone for a few years, and opted for Charlotte over other local hotspots because of its “good feel.”  
 
“I remember going to Frontier Days here when I was a little girl,” O’Connor says. “Now there are so many other events, including the (recent) Michigan Nordic Fire Festival and the live bands they have at the courthouse in the summer, which you’ll be able to see from my storefront. These things are starting to bring a lot of people here. I wanted to be part of something that was growing.”
 
O’Connor’s neighboring small businesses include the Gaming Cantina, which specializes in board, card, and role-playing games and supplies; Sidestreets Deli, a dynamite deli sandwich counter that frequently has lines out the door; Windwalker Underground Studios, a 16,000-square-foot performance venue/art gallery/artist collective, currently featuring the nocturnal photography of Vincent Brady; and Charlotte Shoe Repair, a recently expanded success story that is already starting to draw business from around the state.
 
Then there are places like AL!VE, a multi-use fitness/lifestyle center that’s a spinoff of Hayes Green Beach Memorial Hospital. The multimillion-dollar facility is located just outside town in cornfield territory, looking for all the world as if it sprung out of the ground like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Similarly, the Charlotte Performing Arts Center is a world-class performance venues that draws national touring artists. And to Vanderstelt and his team, this is all only the beginning.
 
“Back in 1997, I was at the party the day after the Estes building was bought by the (group) who started the rebirth of Old Town,” Vanderstelt says. “It was electric, that feeling of excitement, of building a community and giving it a new life. And I can feel that same thing happening right now in Charlotte. It just takes time. One of the good things about being a smaller community is that your voice is louder here. And we’ve got a lot to say right now.”
 
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Allan Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
 
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
 
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