Economic development and affordable housing goals emerge from master plan process

At a recent work session in which both programs in progress and potential solutions to address challenges across Kalamazoo flowed like water from a fire hose, city commissioners took in information on economic development and affordable housing that will guide the city’s work over the next 14 months and beyond.

From October 2017 through December 2018 the city plans to finalize an action plan for Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo — a collaborative initiative to promote more access to well-paying jobs, economically secure families, and healthy, educated youngsters — and at the same time develop a portfolio of projects for consideration during the city budget process for 2018 to be funded by the private philanthropy driven Foundation For Excellence. City administrators laid out their work to date in these areas.

And in some of the biggest news of the night, Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) announced that it will fund economic development and housing strategies in Kalamazoo intended to serve as a catalyst to “re-energize” core neighborhoods and create living-wage job opportunities that are accessible to those living in core city neighborhoods.

Kalamazoo will be part of a pilot program funded with a 2- to-1 match of an as yet to be determined amount, Denise Scott, Executive Vice President of LISC, told the commission. LISC will work with the city over the next two to five years on a program that if successful would create living wage jobs at existing companies and through the development of new small businesses. Scott said LISC would, “build out the infrastructure systems and create alignments with the work the city is undertaking. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to work with the city.” 

LISC invests in programs that are rooted in what neighbors want for themselves and Scott said the organization will work with the city as it enhances its economic eco-system with initiatives that target the business sector, promote the development of the skills of the local workforce, and that work with entrepreneurs to create financial opportunities.

Buffalo, Indianapolis, and Chicago are also working with LISC in the economic catalyst program.

“We want to offer our congratulations for imagining a more economically viable city,” Scott said. 

The evening’s presentations opened with Community Planning and Development director Rebekah Kik outlining economic development strategies that she said tied back to Imagine Kalamazoo 2025. 

She presented nine challenges leading to nine action items that could be the Master Plan’s response to those challenges. Action items included creating a marketing and branding strategy to attract visitors and businesses; partnering with organizations to retain existing businesses or recruit new ones for empty businesses spaces; and, identifying public and private investments that support women and minority-owned businesses.

Other plans were an inventory of land as part of creating a vision for property slated for demolition; working across departments to review processes for best practices that will assist novice business owners and developers; and creating a catalyst to support neighborhood businesses closer to where residents live, such as facade improvements. 

When it comes to housing, Kik suggested work to strengthen partnerships with area organizations and businesses to provide tools and resources for large-scale improvements as an alternative to demolition. 

Noting one challenge is to get rehabilitated homes to low-income buyers, Kik suggested creation of strategies to sell existing homes to low- to moderate-income families with deed restrictions that will keep the homes affordable as well as exploration of equity funds, a community land trust, and public-private partnerships to help address the need for affordable housing in every neighborhood.  

Kik also noted that downsizing is difficult in the city, pointing out a further need to promote a mix of housing types across neighborhoods. “We asked what kind of variety of housing are people looking for? How do seniors age in place? We need housing in a variety of sizes and types of homes for every age and lifestyle,” Kik said.

She also pointed out that one of the challenges the city faces is the concern that gentrification will come about if neighborhoods are improved. Neighborhoods can be evaluated with tools like equity mapping to develop baseline data for tracking and understanding gentrification. The city is exploring best practices for managing gentrification, including those being used in Atlanta, Kik said.

Another challenge, Kik pointed out, is that systemic racism that continues to hold back people of color from achieving shared prosperity. The city will be reviewing policies and best practices that reverse racial and economic segregation of housing in lending institutions, government, and the construction industry.

Next up was Andrew Haan of Downtown Kalamazoo, Inc. He discussed an urban growth initiative that will help the downtown grow. Haan presented results of a study conducted in May of 2017 showing that with improvements to the downtown there is a potential of capturing $53 million that currently is being spent elsewhere. That compares with a likely expenditure of $5.3 million in sales if nothing changes downtown. 

The study said college and university students could spend $108 million and workers within a 10-minute drive of downtown could spend $830 million downtown. 

Improvements could include the installation of more on-street parking, two-way streets, more parking meters and two-hour free parking in the parking ramps, a business recruitment program, and more downtown marketing.

Haan explained that parking is not turning over as rapidly as it needs to in order to optimize the amount of shopping that could take place downtown. He also emphasized that changes in parking are very much a “community conversation” and that is ongoing. 

He told the commissioners that the W.E. Upjohn Institute convened and helped identify best practices for an urban growth initiative. Site visits also went into the development of the initiative. Partners included the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, and the LISC board. “We wanted to get a sense of all the economic development work being done,” Haan said. “In the past, opportunities were not leveraged because everyone was not talking to one another.” 

The Urban Growth Initiative has six major focus areas: a large-scale transformative, mixed-use development; leveraging the healthy living district; improving mobility or developing a plan to road connections between commercial and social hubs, housing nodes and anchor institutions; develop housing to meet residential demand; a business recruitment and retention strategy; and coordinated management for downtown activities. 

Assistant City Manager Jerome Kisscorni told the city commission that the economic development department would like to get back into the business of supporting small businesses. The city once had a vital program but it was cut back as funds became scarce. 

Rebuilding the Economic Opportunity Fund would help the city as it assists businesses in the commercial nodes of neighborhoods that have been “torn apart” by large economic shifts such as the development of big-box retailers like Walmart, Kisscorni said.

The visions and goals of rebuilding the fund would be to create a sense of community through vibrant urban corridors, hubs, and nodes; improve infrastructure and accessibility through physical improvements to capital stock; increase the supply of affordable housing; and enhance the entrepreneurial ecosystem, job creation, and business retention.

Under the Economic Opportunity Fund umbrella would be the Core Business Fund, The Entrepreneurial Support Fund, the Capital Improvements and Rehabilitation Fund, and a Key Site Acquisition Fund.

The Core Business Fund, as explained by the Economic Development Department’s Dwayne Powell, Jr., would enhance the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by promoting job creation and business retention. It would create density — opportunities for young and newer businesses to grow and be nurtured here and choose to stay; fluidity — the way the city encourages students and budding entrepreneurs to move from the university to the community; connectivity — the ways the city connects potential entrepreneurs, especially students, to its economic ecosystem through resources such as the Small Business Development Center at WMU, SCORE and LISC and at least 12 other organizations: and diversity — making sure that the city is empowering minority and women businesses.

A workforce development center and a center for entrepreneurs could be part of the developing plans. 

The Entrepreneurial Support Fund would help build an ecosystem that will allow for job creation and business retention. The ecosystem, built on collaboration would employ 21st Century talents — K-12, Workforce Training, Community Colleges, and Universities; quality, connected places with broadband, physical space, and network development; innovation and entrepreneurship supports, such as a technology pipeline, economic gardening, capital and mentoring; and telling new narratives—marketing, advertising, social media, and buzz.

An Economic Vitality Fund would be used to help the city create a place where people want to live, one with vibrant urban corridors, hubs, and nodes. It would fund placemaking initiatives. “We want to create safe, attractive spaces that are inviting and are places to enjoy yourself and to have ways to make them more exciting,” said Ryan Simpson, of the Economic Development Department.  

Dorla Bonner, Community Development Manager, talked about the need for city-supported affordable housing and the goal for the community to offer affordable, attainable, and sustainable housing. 

She indicated that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as that which equals 30 percent or less of monthly gross income. For a Kalamazoo resident earning minimum wage, that would be a home renting for $519 a month. But rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Kalamazoo is $782, or 45 percent of that worker’s income. 

Kalamazoo has 4,300 affordable rentals, but the overall shortage of affordable housing locally means that people rarely move out of them, Bonner said. 

Affordable housing is being suggested at this time because in the draft Master Plan it emerged as a need across the city and all demographics, she continued. It is also necessary for strong, economically secure families, to improve access to well-paying jobs, and to promote the healthy growth and development of the city’s youth.

Commissioners were supportive of the plans presented if a bit overwhelmed by the scope of the projects presented and a number indicated a need to further process the plans put forward. 

In response to a question regarding transparency from Mayor Bobby Hopewell, City Manager Jim Ritsema said staff is working on a dashboard and reporting software for Foundation For Excellence projects. The city’s Open Data initiative is expected to be ready by the end of the year.

“I want to thank the staff,” said Commissioner Shannon Sykes. “A lot of work went into this and we have heard a lot of dynamic ideas. It’s exciting. I also appreciate that steps are being taken so we don’t have horrible gentrification. Tonight I feel like we heard what we needed to hear.”

And Commission Erin Knott said she was “juiced” by the presentations and ready to get to work. 

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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