The Community Foundation's economics of placemaking

If you stroll through downtown Port Huron or St. Clair on a warm summer night, you will likely find courtyards nestled in the heart of these riverfront communities buzzing with people. Depending on the evening you might hear the sounds of live music drifting through the air or find people sitting in lawn chairs next to a fireplace enjoying the kind of peacefulness only found in Michigan’s small towns.   

The downtowns of both Port Huron and St. Clair are enjoying the economic impact of recent placemaking projects which lure young people, couples, and families to just hang out and linger. These placemaking projects; McMorran Plaza in Port Huron and the Riverview Plaza Courtyard in St. Clair – are prime examples of the economic theories behind placemaking.

“The new McMorran Plaza has become a magnet for our downtown,” says James Freed, Port Huron City Manager. “It’s a space people just want to hang out in and enjoy music, food, entertainment, and the small-town atmosphere we have just an hour north of Metro Detroit.”

The two projects also share another critical success trait – they are impactful examples of what can happen when philanthropy and the private sector engage in economic development using the lens of community and a sense of place.
“I think people underestimate the impact that philanthropy can have to make a difference and change the trajectory of a space or an environment like our downtown,” added Freed.  “Our Community Foundation has shown people where they can invest their money to make a marked difference in people’s lives and in businesses and entrepreneurs’ lives as well.”

Riverview Plaza Courtyard Leads St. Clair’s Revitalization

In 2015, St. Clair Riverview Plaza’s new courtyard was unveiled when a large crane slowly lowered a metal sculpture into place at the center of the grassy lawn. Groups of onlookers gathered outside the storefronts that flanked the mall courtyard to watch the final touches of the project be completed.
The courtyard at Riverview Plaza in downtown St. Clair.
The event marked the courtyard’s transformation, and a new era in downtown St. Clair, a small waterfront community south of Port Huron. The Community Foundation of St. Clair County directly managed all aspects of the $800,000 project, which transformed a concrete parking lot into a picturesque courtyard with a fountain, space for a stage, fireplaces, and outdoor seating. 

The project was funded through several endowment funds owned and managed by the Community Foundation. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation also provided a matching grant for a crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $70,000. 

The project transformed the space into a year-round event and gathering place for residents and visitors, providing a much-needed boost for the downtown and local businesses. One of those business owners is Kris Paul, a St. Clair native who opened War Water Brewery in the courtyard just a few months after it was completed.  

Paul said the courtyard was a large factor in his decision to open the restaurant at that location. 

“Being in downtown St. Clair, and connected to what I would refer to as the city center area and the courtyard, that was a huge part of why we decided to be here,” he says. “Economically it made sense, but being able to have that outdoor service area and the surrounding environment helped create something unique and special.”

Since the courtyard opened nearly a decade ago, Paul said the mall and St. Clair’s economic growth has exploded. Many new businesses and recreational opportunities – such as the Boardwalk Theatre and Hamlin Pub – have opened in the past couple of years, and existing ones have stayed. 

Another St. Clair native and County Board Chair, Jeff Bohm, took advantage of the new courtyard to help orchestrate live seasonal concerts in the courtyard which draw crowds that linger on a regular basis.  

“Ten to 20 years ago, the downtown struggled to find an identity,” Bohm says. “But literally as soon as our Community Foundation finished the courtyard it became the central gathering space. And over the last five years, the live entertainment and our local businesses have flourished.”

In 2023, 130 acts were scheduled between three and seven days a week from roughly Memorial Day to the end of September. Bohm estimates the concerts draw between 300 and 500 people of all ages to the mall on a weekend night, with both locals and visitors from Metro Detroit and beyond. 

“I know for a fact that having the Courtyard was a key draw for the new Hamlin Pub coming to St. Clair,” added Bohm. “I think many locals would agree that the Foundation’s Courtyard project provided a significant boost to our economic stability.”

McMorran Plaza Enhances Port Huron as Tourist Destination

McMorran Plaza – the outdoor extension of the event, entertainment, and sports area – enhances Port Huron’s goals of becoming a place to live, play, and visit, said several local officials and businesses.

“It creates a sense of destination and place,” Freed says. “A place to go, a place to be seen, a place to see your friends, that’s what it’s for.”

Unlike the Courtyard in St. Clair, the McMorran Plaza vision came to life at the direction of the City and McMorran Authority, with philanthropy playing a strong supporting role. Since it opened in 2022 it has become the prime summer gathering spot in downtown Port Huron.  
McMorran Plaza in downtown Port Huron.
The $1.2 million project transformed the existing plaza space, originally built in the 1950s. It is now a multi-purpose event space complete with a lawn, splash pad, stage, pavilion, and seating. Funding for the project came from a range of sources including; the City of Port Huron, Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, Community Foundation of St. Clair County, McLaren Port Huron, and the Blue Water Area Chamber.

Nancy Winzer, Director of Port Huron Parks and Recreation spearheaded the project from start-to-finish.

“Like the courtyard in St. Clair, the new McMorran Plaza exceeded our expectations,” she said.  

In warmer months, the plaza hosts weekly live music, festivals, fitness classes, and other summer and winter events. Winzer estimates that the plaza has hosted 233 acts since it opened and draws 500 to 800 visitors on an average summer weekend.  

Businesses in Port Huron’s downtown benefit from all those patrons looking for places to eat and shop before and after events.

“The new McMorran Plaza is centrally located and within walking distance to almost everything in the downtown,” says Thelma Castillo, President & CEO of the Blue Water Area Chamber. “Like the courtyard in St. Clair, the McMorran Plaza has become our new anchor where people just want to stay, linger and enjoy small-town life.”

Castillo says McMorran Plaza provides a unique focal point for Port Huron, which benefits from its proximity to Metro Detroit, Lake Huron, and the St. Clair River.

“Michigan tourists looking for a closer beach getaway than lake towns in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula can find these unique attractions closer to home,” Castillo says. 

“We’ve seen a noticeable increase in business since the McMorran Plaza opened,” says Casey Harris, owner of the highly popular Casey’s restaurant. “The restaurant is especially packed on Friday and Saturday nights in the summer when concerts are going. The plaza project is one of the most impactful things to happen in our downtown.”

Randy Maiers is the President & CEO of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County and a strong advocate for placemaking projects.

“I think it’s a sweet spot for philanthropy and especially place-based funders like community foundations who sometimes struggle to impact their local economy," Maiers says. "These projects give our donors something they can see, touch, and enjoy during their lifetimes.”
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