Three Rivers builds its downtown with Main Street initiative

Business owners say a new energy in downtown Three Rivers is just one of the benefits of being part of the Michigan Main Street Program.
For many years, a dedicated group of downtown business people and city officials have been working to restore downtown Three Rivers.

The march of big box stores and the fall of local manufacturers has taken its toll on Three Rivers, as it has on many communities. Now the Main Street Program offered through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) is one of the tools helping the city make a comeback. 

Nancy Boyce owns of Golden Finch Frame and Gallery, a business housed in a 3,600-square-foot building in the downtown built around 1875. As a member of the Downtown Development Authority and chair of the Design Committee for the Michigan Mainstreet Program, Boyce is heavily involved with the project. "It's a lot of work and time time donated," Boyce says.

"The whole program is about rejuvenating old, run-down, worn out downtowns," she continues. It offers the kind of assistance that communities like Three Rivers can use.

She is one of the group of very involved merchants that have been identified as a strength in bringing back the downtown. "I want to see the downtown grow and be as successful again as it was many years ago."

Building on the work those local business owners have been doing over the years Three Rivers recently moved from the Associate Level to being designated a Select Level Michigan Main Street community, the second of three possible levels. That means the community receives assistance in implementing the Main Street Four-Point Approach to revitalization.

Through the Main Street Program communities work for five years on design--making the most of a downtown's assets such as historic buildings; economic restructuring--helping existing businesses and recruiting new ones; promotion--marketing a downtown's unique characteristics; and, organization--working toward a common goal of a revitalized downtown through the efforts of a volunteers guided by a paid program director.

For Three Rivers, that paid program director is Brian Persky, hired in June as the executive director of the Main Street Program. He points out that the economic benefits of Three Rivers being a Select Level community are expected to be a significant impact on Three Rivers’ downtown district, as well as in its surrounding communities over the next several years.

Communities like Three Rivers turn to the Main Street program due to its track record. Throughout the most recent recession, Michigan Main Street districts outperformed the national average with more than twice as many businesses opened than closed.

In four of the last 10 years the number of jobs in the state of Michigan has declined. But every year since the beginning of Michigan Main Street there has been net job growth--250 net new businesses have been established and more than 1,300 net new jobs have been created in Main Street districts, according to a recent report researched and written by Donovan Rypkema,principal at Washington D.C.-based PlaceEconomics

In the early stages of the program, communities evaluate their strengths and identify challenges they face.

In Three Rivers, where the Rocky, St. Joseph and Portage rivers meet, abundant natural resources is a definite advantage. The downtown has maintained much of its authentic Victorian streetscape and architectures and it as an identified historic district. The downtown is the right size for walkability and abandoned railways in the area can be developed to expand walking and biking opportunities.

An active merchants group and unique shops, including a variety of independently owned stores that offer personal service and care for customers are further pluses for downtown Three Rivers.

The challenges facing the community are not insignificant, however. There is a high vacancy rate in its storefronts. Just how many vacancies is being determined. The community does not have a strong identity and has some negative perceptions to overcome. More places to eat are needed downtown and signage could be improved.

These strengths and challenges in addition to others are identified in a 30-page document that has been created to guide the work of the Mainstreet Program in Three Rivers.

On a walk through the downtown, Persky points out successes that are changing the downtown, businesses where the owners live upstairs, places where customers from Chicago and next door neighbors all feel welcome. He talks about business owners making renovations and promoting events to draw people downtown.

He points out big projects such as the Mural Mall restoration, which was funded through a mixture of public and private investments, that show the importance of Downtown Development Districts and the way they influence investments from local businesses and corporations that want to better their community.

The project would not be possible without the volunteer efforts of the community. In August alone, Three Rivers reported a total of 138 volunteer hours to the Michigan Main Street Center.  

There are many partnerships and collaborations in Three Rivers that are working together to create an environment within the Mainstreet district that will inspire public and private investment, and attract and provide local residents a vibrant space to explore, Persky says.

Statewide, since 2003, the total public and private dollars is nearly $200 million invested in Michigan Main Street communities, many of which are downtown development authorities (DDA’s) similar to that in Three Rivers. Those investments have helped to run and pay for events such as Community Pride Day, Heritage Walk, Christmas Around Town, Chill Out – Winterfest, beautification efforts, seasonal decorations, and facade improvements In Three Rivers.

Local businesses also stand poised to benefit from various parts of the Michigan Mainstreet program. For example, Persky is now taking applications for design services from downtown property and business owners located within the Michigan Main Street district.

The design assistance is provided in cooperation with the State Historic Preservation Office and includes information and recommendations on exterior facade improvements that will improve the appearance and visibility of a building and business while maintaining the historic integrity of the building and keeping it functional for the owner’s needs.

“These design services are just one of many benefits our community receives by being Select Level community in the Michigan Main Street program,” says Persky.

Danielle Moreland is director of the Riviera Theater, one of downtown Three Rivers' gems. The Monroe family spent three years renovating the theater built in 1925.  Moreland has been on the DDA for eight years, is now its chair, and she is looking forward to what the economic restructuring aspect of the program can accomplish downtown. "We need new businesses that are economically viable."

Moreland is highly enthusiastic about the progress of the Main Street program and is excited about its potential. "We couldn't have a better director," Moreland says. She's been impressed with Persky's ability to jump right in. "We've never had that before."

She says that since Persky has been hired there is a new energy downtown.

Maintaining that energy will put Three Rivers at the Master Level of the Michigan Mainstreet program where communities receive continued assistance and also mentor the newest communities in the program.

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

For more information on obtaining design services in the Michigan Mainstreet district, contact Brian Persky at 269) 535-5145. 
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