Cultural business district hopes to help Northside residents benefit from new development

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.

When major investments and economic development come to a minority or low-income community the area is usually not the same, a community leader says. The people who lived there are often left out of the transformation.
“Normally, in predominantly Black communities, when that (economic growth and new investment) happens, everyone but the people who were actually there first benefits,” says Mattie Jordan-Woods, executive director of the Northside Association for Community Development. “The neighborhood looks great, but it never looks the same again.”
She says the culture is not the same and often the people who live there are no longer the same. The original residents are very often priced out of the housing, left out of the decision-making about changes, or both.
As more development finds its way to projects in central Kalamazoo and the Northside census tract, the NACD is trying to make sure their residents fare better. But it will be a struggle, Jordan-Woods says.
“You have two bookends of development happening,” Antonio Mitchell, community investment manager for the City of Kalamazoo, says of development in the Northside Neighborhood.
On the west, growth has been steady but slow. Park Street Market, The Victorian Bakery and other businesses continue to thrive in the 500 block of Park Street. And efforts are underway for new development on Westnedge Avenue near North Street, including the development of “tiny” houses (less than 500 square feet) to help people with limited means.
On the eastern fringe, the Rivers Edge area has seen booming development over the last 15 years. Just north of downtown Kalamazoo but officially part of the Northside, it has seen the conversion of unused light industrial space into a cluster of projects including the Life Story Building, a commercial/residential development at 315 E. North St., and a soon to be completed 100-unit residential and commercial project at Harrison and Ransom streets.
Mitchell says the question that surfaced as neighborhood leaders were working with residents to craft the Northside Neighborhood Plan in 2018 was: “How do we get those two bookends to connect in between those two points.”
“We were the first neighborhood that presented to the city commission our neighborhood plan, and it was approved,” Jordan-Woods says. “In it, we requested a district that basically said that we wanted to improve the housing – we want to bring back the housing. But we also wanted to create businesses particularly for African-Americans that were resident-owned businesses.”
NACD is promoting strategies for economic development that surfaced in their neighborhood plan in 2018, including the Northside Cultural Business District. The district was established to help create affordable housing, spur investment in resident-owned businesses, and attract more commercial investment. Its priorities:
• Financial incentives to increase the number of resident-owned businesses, especially those by African-Americans and low-income residents.
• Increase the amount of affordable housing available based on income levels in the city of Kalamazoo.
• Build the cultural identity of the neighborhood including such things as a new logo, murals, and art installations; and to preserve culturally significant places.
• Improve facades, infrastructure, sidewalks, and streetscaping in the district.
• And use a Neighborhood Enterprise Zone to support the building and rehabilitation of affordable homeownership.
The Northside Cultural Business Development Authority, which was also approved by the city about two years ago, is working to establish a Michigan Tax Increment Financing district that, if approved by the state, will allow the community to capture a portion of the property taxes levied on new commercial development in the district, then use that money to benefit projects in the district.
Westnedge Avenue is the western border of the district. An area near the Kalamazoo River, along with part of Harrison Street, is the eastern border of the district. Willard Street and the railroad tracks are the primary southern border. And Frank Street is the primary northern boundary, although two commercial lanes (Westnedge Avenue and Burdick Street, both up to Prouty Street) are included in the district.
The goal is to complete the filing this year, Mitchell says, so that the TIF district can be up and going late this year or early in 2022. But tax increment financing will not provide a lot of money until new projects are developed, he and Jordan-Woods say. And until the plan has been approved by the state, “There will be no funds generated,” Jordan-Woods says. 
“So what we’re doing right now is we’re in the process of hiring a consultant to put together another written document that is physically the plan,” she says. “And in that document, you talk about things you want to do – landscaping, lighting, facade grants.”
Realizing that several large projects, such as the development of a Hard Rock-brand restaurant and hotel in the former Gibson Guitar factory at 225 Parsons St. are already underway or outside the district, Mitchell says the TIF will not generate a lot of money at the outset. But he says the district has other ongoing benefits.
“The point is you can create certain incentives to work with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and other organizations … to create community economic development incentive programs that you can use to get dollars to create more investment into that area,” Mitchell says.
He mentioned programs that provide incentives to help renovate specific buildings or to create better business facades, a revolving loan fund to help small businesses, a Main Street lighting program, and “white-box” programs. A white box program provides grants or loans as incentives for developers to build commercial spaces that can be used by small businesses, “which is very beneficial to restaurants,” Mitchell says.
Jordan-Woods says different types of restaurants are high on the list of things community residents envisioned as they crafted the neighborhood plan. Others included boutiques, a roller rink, more owner-occupied housing, converting old homes into art centers or a museum, and the establishment of a Black History Museum.
Mitchell says, “When we had our community meeting and were talking about that, the residents said we need more than just the grocery store and the (North Point) plaza. We need more stores. We need a laundromat, a clothing repair place, a place to shop to get clothes. We need all those other commercial things here on the Northside that are within walking distance or in a short driving distance. The issue is where are you going to put that stuff?”
He says NACD is trying to create a specific business development corridor that connects the west and east.
One of the missions of the cultural district and the TIF has been “to increase the number of resident-owned businesses,” Jordan-Woods says. “That's what we wanted to do so that they can benefit financially from developments that are sure to come. The other one is to maintain the cultural integrity of the neighborhood.”
She says NACD is going to have to work double-time to get what it needs to make that happen.
“Obviously the priorities are there,” she says of what the business district is intended to accomplish. “But when we came up with the Northside Cultural Business District, it was to try and bring the two sections (the west and east) together so that everyone can benefit, not just big developers, but people who live in the neighborhood could be a part of it.”
Mentioning the commercial development going on in downtown Kalamazoo and the five-story Hard Rock-brand hotel planned for the Northside, she says. “There is a renaissance that’s going on. There is a transformation.”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.