When Leon Trombley built his log cabin on the banks of the Saginaw River in 1831, becoming the first Bay County settler, he probably wasn’t aware his impact would still be felt 187 years later.
His pioneering spirit is still the spirit of Bay City, where people are looking to grow deep roots into a place they can call home while still being willing to take risks, move forward, and work hard to create a stronger future. Now more than ever, the people of Bay County want to feel connected to their community while looking to invest in and engage with the place where they live.
According to Dana Muscott, Bay City’s City Manager, that place is heading in the right direction by embracing both a love of its history and a willingness to evolve and adapt.
“We have so much history here,” she says, “and we want to keep it. “But when I became a clerk here 20 years ago, change was very hard for Bay City. We had been doing things a certain way for 50 years, and the feeling was ‘why change’? But now we have younger people coming into Bay City and creating this energy in Downtown and Uptown that is just amazing to me. There’s a large group of people investing in Bay County and feeling good about it.”
Bay City. Photos by Phil Eich.
A history of change
One of the temptations in embracing change is to disregard history, but the drive to create and invest is deeply rooted in Bay City’s DNA.
While Saginaw established the first official settlement in this area in 1819, pioneers found the area that would become Bay City more suitable for shipping because of its deeper waters.
By 1860, Bay City was a community of 2,000 people with many thriving sawmills and other small businesses. The economy rapidly grew during this time period while the lumber, milling, and shipbuilding industries capitalized on the ability to easily ship goods on the Saginaw River. Early industrialists amassed large fortunes and built mansions along Center Avenue, many of which are registered historical landmarks. Businesses and homes expanded down Water Street and Washington Avenue, and 1891, Walter Fitzhugh sold a plot of land to be used for the creation of City Hall.
The lumber and shipbuilding industries have long since left Bay City, and Muscott believes there is a current need to reconnect with that part of history by trying to attract more industrial manufacturing to the area.
That “looking back to find the way forward” is something she sees happening in both redevelopments and brand new construction projects.
“You can see people working to preserve that history with their projects and developments, and I love how people are able to embrace that history as well as new development projects that continue to add value to the city.”
Walking around downtown Bay City, you can feel this meeting of history and development in action. 130-year-old buildings stand next to contemporary women’s boutiques, art galleries, and modern restaurants. Businesses operating since the 1800s are surrounded by startups and other new ventures. Historic locations are being developed in a way that preserves their history, while new developments are being constructed with the goal of connecting even more people with the culture of Bay County.
Bay City. Photos by Phil Eich.
A small town feel with an urban core
One of those new development projects is Uptown Bay City.
After Bay Aggregates, a concrete supply plant moved from their riverfront site to Bangor Township, the city bought the site for $2.2 million and entertained a variety of different ideas about what the land should be used for: everything from a casino to a baseball stadium to a maritime museum.
After demolishing the Industrial Brownhoist buildings and receiving over $1.5 million dollars from the EPA to clean up the site, Shaheen Development, a local family-owned company that’s been operating for over 50 years, officially acquired the property in 2014.
Today, this 43-acre waterfront development is home to Fortune 500 companies like Dow, small, locally owned businesses like Infinity Bridal, Omoni Boutique, and Uptown Grill, and residential opportunities in the form of condominiums and apartments. Currently being constructed is an $8.6 million, three-story mixed-use building featuring 19,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor, and apartments on floors two and three.
Vice President Peter Shaheen says that it wasn’t difficult for his company to decide to invest in Bay City.
“Bay City is just a great town,” says Peter Shaheen. “It’s very walkable, with great natural resources. It has fantastic, independently owned restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and other businesses, and it's just a city full of great people. It’s got a small town feel with a strong urban core, making it a fun place to be.”
Muscott says that Uptown also adds significant value Bay City with its residential housing, causing people to take notice of what the area can offer.
“We have wonderful condos which are all sold,” Shaheen says. “We have brownstones which are rental units that are almost all occupied, and we’re under construction now for 30 new fully-furnished apartments, at affordable rates for a brand new construction.”
Building connections across town
One of the challenges for Uptown being a brand new district is creating the feeling of oneness with the rest of the city.
There are more than 10 distinct business districts in and around the city limits, most of which feel disconnected; Shaheen says the second phase of the Uptown development will integrate Uptown with the areas surrounding it. Through additional infrastructure, development lots, and mixed-use buildings functioning in both residential and commercial capacities, Shaheen’s goal is to connect Uptown and the Saginaw Riverfront to things happening in the city in a pedestrian-friendly way.
Bay City. Photos by Phil Eich.
“There’s so much happening in the city. There’s great redevelopment happening in downtown, and what’s so encouraging is how friendly it is to walk in, whether it’s going shopping or just going for a stroll. There are different neighborhoods, and they all have something to offer the city as a whole. We want Uptown to feel like ‘one city’ along with downtown and the other districts, and this second phase of development in Uptown should accomplish that.”
So what does Bay City need to do to move forward in a way that honors its past while improving its future?
“Just keep doing what it’s doing,” Shaheen says. “There’s a lot of people and a lot of businesses who are investing in Bay City. There are people who are committed to living here, either having lived here all their lives or recently moved here. People fall in love with Bay City.”
Launching on Thursday, November 8th, the mission of Route Bay City is to tell those stories. Like Uptown connecting with Downtown while still creating its own identity, Route Bay City will seek connect the rich history of “old” Bay City with the investment, innovation, and efforts being done to attract talent in the “new” Bay City. A weekly publication supported by a Bay County Coalition Partnership, the community-based publication will feature the work of local and regional writers, journalists, and photographers, engaging both local and out-of-town readers in the evolving culture of the Bay County.
Muscott says that the power of positive stories comes from the knowledge people gain about what is happening in the place where they live. “With these stories, people know what’s happening in a business, or what’s happening in their downtowns, and those ‘positive rumors’ spread and create a ripple effect and increase the pride people feel about Bay County.”
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