Flint, Saginaw working to become "places to be"

There are two trendy terms being bandied about in the community development sector these days--legacy cities and placemaking. When broken down to their simplest meaning the terms actually translate into a familiar concept: Taking a city with an industrial legacy whose main job source has left it, and making it a place of interest for businesses and residents once again.

Michigan, which historically relied on industry as much as any state in the nation, is home to several such communities. Partly because of this, the state's population dropped 0.06 percent last year--the only state in the nation that experienced a decrease in population.

Flint and Saginaw are two examples of legacy cities that depended almost exclusively on auto-industry related jobs, and have experienced extremely difficult times since the plants shut down and the jobs disappeared.

In Flint, for example, at one time it's estimated that 80 percent of the job market was somehow tied to General Motors. When GM left, demolishing buildings and leaving deserted property in its wake, urban blight, decreasing tax revenue, a higher crime rate, skyrocketing unemployment, and other problems took hold. Saginaw was also heavily dependent on auto-related jobs, and when they left, the city was devastated.

But, both cities have strategies to fight back, pointing to the positives that are left in their communities, and the new business opportunities that have arisen.

"There are academic institutions in Flint, a growing health care system and a thriving pharmaceutical researching and development facility, all that have created new jobs,"  saysMichael Freeman, program director for capacity building for the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit organization that assists in placemaking in legacy cities. "Saginaw works more independently, and it also has many positive building blocks as well."

One tangible site of strategic rebuilding is the old Fisher Body building and Great Lakes Technical Center in Flint, where Diplomat Pharmacy's R&D facility has moved in.

That particular building is a rare GM structure that was left standing in Flint. Most were torn down by GM to reduce its tax liability, leaving contaminated brownfields behind. Part of Flint's legacy city placemaking is the 103-acre brownfield Chevy in the Hole site, also known as the Delphi Flint West site, once an old GM facility along the Flint River. This site is a shining example of Flint's revitalization.

Until a developer is found, the city has planted 1,500 genetically engineered trees that consume 40 gallons of contaminated groundwater per day and perspire the same amount of clean water, which is dispersed into the river. The roots create a net along the ground, covered with protective soil and other vegetation, and the city is using the site as a public green space.

As far as the new jobs, many of them are in the medical and education fields, which is a positive development, according to Freeman, but one that needs to be monitored.

"We need to make sure the jobs are diversified," Freeman says. "We don't want them all to be in one or two fields. It's important to grow other businesses."

The importance of including community members in the placemaking process cannot be overstated, according to those involved. Experts say residents' support is crucial in the success of any city's revitalization.

In a recent Virginia Tech University study on how to engage a distressed community and plan strategies for cities in transition, Christina Kelly, lead planner for the Genesee County Land Bank Authority, shared her thoughts.

"Starting from a very honest place becomes crucial with building trust with community residents," Kelly says. "It is important to integrate such stakeholders in key leadership positions, not just as community advisors, but as part of the planning or facilitation team."

According to a study conducted by the National League of Cities, titled "Resilient Cities in a Transforming State," community inclusion and engagement are one of three vital themes to placemaking legacy cities. The other two themes are partnerships, and leadership and local capacity.

"It's a combination of several different factors that lead to success," says Freeman. "It's not a quick fix, but it is doable with the support of residents and the belief that it can get done."

Saginaw no longer can count on the auto industry for its economy, so officials point to "a new Big Three": Dow Corning Corp., Dow Chemical Co., and Hemlock Semiconductor. These companies are employing more and more Saginaw residents and are currently investing in the city.

And there is some good news on the auto industry front in Saginaw. General Motors has invested $215 million in the city within the past two years and Nexteer Automotive invested $150 million in its Buena Vista Township headquarters.

The downtown area of Saginaw is still in need of plenty of attention, but the Old Town area remains a vibrant area for entertainment.

In other words, both Flint and Saginaw have areas that were around before the decline of the cities that remain viable and valuable. And both cities are seeing plans come to fruition--with many more in the works--to increase their placemaking efforts.

These legacy cities, two of many in Michigan, are in the process of making a comeback, according to experts involved in their placemaking.

Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for 46 years. You can reach Jeff at barrj88@gmail.com
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