How Michigan's small towns are balancing rural life with urban benefits

Everyone wants the safety and quiet of a small town, but the amenities and transportation options of a big city. Some of Michigan's small cities are finding ways to offer both, positioning themselves for future growth.

Michiganders, like the rest of the nation, have already heard time and time again about the trend of millennials, empty nesters, and even some families returning to America's urban cores. The story has been reported here and in countless other national and regional outlets. Suffice it to say, most engaged citizens know Americans are driving less, getting their license later (if at all), and moving to walkable environments.

But what does this mean for rural communities? Some folks still prefer the quiet and familiarization of small town America. Yet they want the walkable amenities and bike lanes of an urban lifestyle.

Luckily for modest Michiganders, rural cities like Petoskey on the shores of Little Traverse Bay, Mt. Pleasant and little Gaylord, surrounded by state forests, are working to offer an urban experience in a small community.

Fix The Façade

Becky Goodman, downtown director for Petoskey, says Petoskey's heyday was before the introduction of automobiles. "The first really big economic driver in Petoskey was tourism," says Goodman, noting the days when more than one hotel was on every block. "Hundreds of visitors came by train on a daily basis."

Gaylord presents a similar narrative of how the car impacted the region. "The construction of I-75 on the west end of town had a major impact on the development of the community," explains Justin Burchett, director of the Gaylord Downtown Development Authority. "Essentially--and as with many communities post-World War II--construction was geared towards accommodating cars rather than people."

Today, cities like Petoskey and Gaylord are recognizing the shift in preference for people-oriented places rather than car-oriented. Of course, walking back a generation's worth of urban planning is no easy feat, not to mention most of those returning to walkable urban centers are moving to cities larger than those in rural Michigan.

So how are these cities going to fit in with the trend?

"The Gaylord Downtown Development Authority in conjunction with the Otsego County Economic Alliance and business owners has been working for the past four to five years to complete façade renovations with funding assistance from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation," says Burchett, touching on the demand from the millennial workforce for cities with history. "These renovations have provided a facelift to our downtown area, which has had relatively little work done on it since the initial adoption of the Alpine motif in the mid-1960s."

Main Street Facelift

Main Street is also getting a facelift in Gaylord to make it more pedestrian-friendly. Currently five lanes of traffic with wide parallel parking exist on Gaylord's Main Street, encouraging faster driving speeds that make pedestrians feel unsafe crossing the street. Burchett puts it more bluntly. "Five lanes means five chances to get hit."

But there's reason to hope for a more pedestrian-friendly future in Gaylord.

"The community has been actively working for over two years on a plan to implement a road diet, bringing Main Street down to three lanes of slower moving traffic in our central business district," Burchett says. "Additional features of this plan include safety islands, grace lanes and wider sidewalks, not to mention more green space in the middle of town." At face value, the plan is sure to win the approval of most urban planners.

"If the project is carried out as planned, our research indicates that noise levels could be reduced by 70 percent and the more inviting business atmosphere could result in around 30 percent increase in retail sales in our downtown."

Meanwhile Petoskey and Mid-Michigan's Mt. Pleasant are tackling housing needs in the center of town. Heather Smith, at the City of Mt. Pleasant, says the city is currently expanding the number of living choices "through construction of new luxury apartments and encouraging existing property owners to renovate their apartments with new amenities that young professionals are looking for."

Goodman says Petoskey is now "beginning the big push" for upper-story residential housing as the economy finally improves. "We see the economy improving and the interest is definitely increasing both in the marketplace and in the minds of the property owners," says Goodman, who receives inquiries about downtown living on a regular basis. "This is something we need to do."

Embracing The Challenge

Naturally each city faces different challenges. For Petoskey, it's convenient parking for residents.

Goodman says their current system is often maxed out, forcing the city to look for dedicated parking options for residents without hurting shoppers. Luckily, she has a solution.

"I believe that the best way is to develop underground parking," she says. In a city that has vast differences in parking needs depending on the month of the year, it is not the highest and best use of property to create surface lots that will be empty or unused for many months out of the year."

Shifting parking underground and making the most out of property is good policy on the part of Petoskey. After all, nobody has ever clamored to live next to sizzling or freezing (depending on the time of year) concrete.

For Mt. Pleasant, the challenge is mixing student housing with incoming young professionals who want to live in vibrant neighborhoods. "We regularly hear there aren't enough housing options for young professionals," says Smith.

In Gaylord, it's handling the dynamic of being caught between an urban and rural economy and culture. "Additionally, not all the retail, restaurant, and cultural opportunities that residents desire are here yet, because many investors and developers have yet to recognize the immense potential of the community," says Burchett. "For instance, I can pretty much guarantee that the first person who opens up a brewpub in downtown Gaylord with live, original music on weekends and a sustainable business model is going to make a killing financially."

Ultimately, rural Michigan is poised for success by continuing to embrace new urbanism, encouraging private-public partnerships and learning from others, who, for example, have created successful main streets in their communities. And the region must keep moving forward out of necessity to attract a new workforce that can choose to work anywhere in the world.

"The simple truth of the matter is that there is much more to it than the idea of 'capitalizing on the trend of urban-style living,'" says Burchett. "In order to attract entrepreneurs, new businesses, and the highly-skilled and educated workforce of tomorrow, we must provide for the lifestyle of a new generation."
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