Rural Michigan towns benefit from state grants

More than 40 projects throughout Michigan have been awarded grants totaling nearly $100 million to improve communities from Sault Ste. Marie to St. Johns, Escanaba to Elk Rapids and Bad Axe to Bay City. 

The investments “help create vibrant places that attract and retain talent, add new housing options, enable business creation and attraction, and provide resources for Michiganders,” according to an announcement this month by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

The grants cover projects in 10 prosperity regions through the Revitalization and Placemaking Program (RAP 2.0). This funding addresses the impact of COVID-19 and revitalization needs throughout Michigan with state funds. The original RAP 1.0 program awarded $83.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars to Michigan programs in September 2022.

With RAP 2.0, the MEDC partners with local communities to support projects that promote population and tax revenue growth. Their ideal applicant is rehabilitating vacant, underutilized, blighted and historic structures while developing place-based infrastructure associated with traditional downtowns, social zones, outdoor dining and placed-based public spaces.

Here’s a look at three projects awarded grants in rural Michigan:

Community Hub Project, Bad Axe

It might not look like there’s much happening with the two vacant, blighted buildings at the corner of Huron Avenue and Port Crescent Street in Bad Axe, but with the RAP 2.0 $500,000 grant, the Community Hub is ready to go.

“We asked for the bare minimum,” says Mackenzie Price, executive director of the Huron County Community Foundation (HCCF), which will convert the site into its first permanent home. That home will be located near a popular coffee shop, 24-hour gym, bank, and donut shop, something she and HCCF members are excited about. 

The grant amount was all the organization needed to fill the gap in the $2 million, 7,000-square-foot project, which requires the demolition of one building and part of another. The Community Hub will not only house the HCCF but also provide co-working space (the first in the three-county area), a community board room, green space, and four small second-floor “corporate” apartments for short-term lease.

The RAP grant rounds out the funding from federal and local sources already committed for demolition, construction and remediation. The funding sources include $650,000 in local charitable contributions, a $600,000 grant from the Huron County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority to assist with the environmental testing and remediation required at the site, and $783,000 in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Facilities program.

For finishing touches, such as fixtures and furniture, HCCF will raise that from the growing local community in Michigan’s Thumb, now home to about 3,000.

The site of the future home of the Huron County Community Foundation.As a donor-driven organization, HCCF has been raising local dollars since the project began in 2018 as a response to its community-driven Strategic Priority Areas — which calls for creating vibrant and dynamic communities, retaining and attracting talent, and cultivating an environment for business development.

“It’s important to have community buy-in,” she says. “To articulate the value of this to the stakeholders and community at large.” 

The idea behind the corporate apartments is to attract and retain talent in the area, as well as young professionals who are considering moving or returning to the area more permanently.

“There are not many rentals and not everyone wants to jump in and buy a house,” Price says. This will allow businesses to use the units as they see fit without the HCCF involvement. “I don’t have to be the foundation director and landlord. We won’t change the game with four units but can put the idea out there and create a model for other buildings in town.” 

The project should be finished by late 2024. Asbestos removal was completed over the summer on both buildings but HCCF is awaiting USDA approval and contractor availability to do demo work and address any soil contamination (one site was a gas station).

Otherwise, “we’re ready to go,” says Price, who’s working with a Saginaw architect on the exterior design. “I keep emphasizing: modern but modest. As a donor-funded project, we don’t want the Taj Mahal.” 

What is Price most excited about? “Being able to show folks that big dreams can happen. There was some skepticism about the project when it was first announced. There were a lot of “‘That sounds great but I’ll believe it when I see it,’” she says. “Huron County folks are very practical.”

Cooley School Development, Cadillac 

A 100-year-old school building in Cadillac is about to find new life as a multi-family housing development, thanks to $2.7 million in RAP 2.0 funds. The building has been unused for more than a decade. The RAP 2.0 funds cover more than half of the development’s $4.7 million price tag.

The Cooley School Redevelopment will house 23 apartments, 18 in the original building, built in 1923, and five in the one-story annex, built around 1964, says Dean DeKryger, one of three partners in Cadillac-based DKD Development, LLC. The project is a 50-50 partnership with Pinnacle Construction Group in Grand Rapids.

A rendering of the redeveloped Cooley School in Cadillac.It’s an extra sweet victory because it almost didn’t happen. 

DeKryger, an architect and founder of DK Design Group, says DKD Development signed a purchase order in 2022 with Cadillac Area Public Schools, which owned the building. However, when the grants needed for the development were not available, the project stalled. Right after that, DeKryger says, the state announced the second round of RAP grants. 

Between that and a chance meeting with James Lewis, a grant writer and director of Real Estate Development for Pinnacle Construction Group, the deal was back on the table, DeKryger says. If the RAP 2.0 grant could be secured, the companies would do the project together. 

At the moment, historic building tax credits and brownfield grants are being pursued. The historic building tax credit requires them to maintain the authenticity of the original building, which was important to both DKD Development and the city. Not only does it save a historic building but saves costs by redeveloping an existing structure.

Located at 221 Granite St., the development is in an older residential neighborhood in a very walkable area, a few blocks from downtown and close to rail trails, DeKryger says.

The plan includes four studio apartments, five one-bedroom units and nine two-bedroom units in the main building, which has tall ceilings and lots of windows. The largest units will be about 780 square feet, with studios at about 500 square feet.

“We’re seeing a real trend toward smaller apartments,” DeKryger says.

Now, “if the stars align,” construction will take one year, starting July 2024 and by November 2025, full occupancy is expected, he says.

“Housing is very much needed here,” he says. “I think it’ll be a really nice project.”

Rockwell Building Redevelopment Project, Chelsea

Built in 1909, the Rockwell Building began as a stove manufacturing warehouse and was later used for other industrial purposes before sitting vacant for decades.

Now, the historic structure at 301 N. East St. in downtown Chelsea is getting a do-over, thanks to a more than $1.9 million RAP 2.0 grant. It’s not the project’s first.

Chelsea Rockwell LLC, the development company behind the project, was awarded a $1.5 million RAP 1.0 grant in 2022, as well as a $475,000 Brownfield grant for remediation in 2021. 

With this second RAP grant, the project is poised to move forward, says Chelsea City Manager Marty Colburn, who is thankful the building can be saved and repurposed. 

While the original timeline put the completion date as spring 2024, it’s looking more like 2025, he says.

Functionally obsolete, the three-story, nearly 44,000-square-foot brick building will take a lot of work, including clean up of asbestos, lead paint and soil contamination. The projected total investment of the multi-family development, including a complete restoration and rehabilitation of the existing building, is $9.2 million, according to the 2021 Project Summary.

The plan is to retain the three-story building’s historic character while creating 51 residential loft-like units — 20 studios, 22 one-bedroom and nine two-bedroom units — in an area where housing is in high demand. It provides a significant increase in housing in downtown Chelsea, Colburn says.

In accordance with the city’s goals of providing housing that will attract young professionals and young families while retaining empty nesters and the increasing aging population, this fits the trend of housing people increasingly want. That includes walkability, access to green spaces and recreation. 

Colburn says it adds needed housing downtown and will increase retail traffic. That it’s near the historic Chelsea Depot and Clock Tower adds to its attractiveness. “It’s a value to put people in areas that make it economically viable for business and lifestyle. People gravitate toward people.”

While there are some lofts downtown on the second and third stories of some buildings, “this will add a whole new dynamic of foot traffic,” he says.

“It’s exciting. I’ve based my career on smaller cities,” Colburn says, only in his current position for about three months. He was city manager in Traverse City and Mason before that. “I like being part of the smaller community. You get to know the people better.”

Ellen Piligian is a Detroit-based independent journalist. She has bylines in local and national publications with a focus on long-form human interest stories. @ellen313
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