Investing in the Southside: Community-led group initiates change in Port Huron

A group of Port Huron community leaders are continuing their effort to give the city’s Southside neighborhood new life through opportunities for community engagement.

Efforts to elevate the Southside date back to 1999, but after a recent slew of community engagement projects, the Southside Neighborhood Improvement Authority (NIA) was established on Oct. 9, 2023.

Joe Bixler, Co-Chair of the Southside Neighborhood Improvement Authority (NIA).Before the Southside NIA, there were a collection of neighborhood groups looking to make change, including The Southside initiative, led by Joe Bixler, who now serves as co-chair of the NIA.

Bixler says the NIA is built on four pillars of need: Housing, infrastructure, small business development, and food access. With four months of NIA meetings under their belt, Bixler says it’s time for their organization to put those pillars into action.

“We're going to literally ask people to go through a process of what their ideas are, and what their hopes and dreams are,” he says.

Those ideas and dreams will be fleshed out during two upcoming community engagement sessions scheduled for the evenings of March 14 and 28.

Bixler says including the residents of Southside has always been a crucial part of their organization. But with a June deadline to submit a master financial plan to the City of Port Huron and the Department of Treasury approaching, he says it’s more important than ever.

Consulting firm Double Haul Solutions has also played a key role in both the formation of the NIA and coordinating the community engagement sessions. Bixler says he and Double Hall Solutions Founder Nate Geinzer plan to kick off the first of the two sessions by talking with high school civics classes and gathering the input of local youth.

“I may help this organization create, but it needs to have their taste,” Bixler says. “I won't be around, probably, very long to see all these improvements, but they will be, and they’ll be taking over.”

Nate Geinzer, Founder of Double Haul Solutions.For Geinzer, the forward momentum of the NIA wouldn’t be possible without the highly-engaged residents who live in the neighborhood, commonly referred to as South Park.

“I think, really, if we did anything, we helped kind of catalyze the engagement of representatives from across different groups that have now helped round out, not only the Neighborhood Improvement Authority Board, but also the folks that have come out to the community engagement sessions,” he says.

He’s hoping for successful community engagement sessions to complete the NIA’s plan for the Department of Treasury, called a Development Tax Increment finance plan. This type of tax capture is one of the main sources of funding for the NIA’s projects, along with state and federal grant opportunities.

“Basically what we're looking at doing is capturing the taxes that are generated from tax growth in that neighborhood,” Geinzer says. “So new developments capturing that growth in taxes above a baseline, and then those taxes get reinvested back into that community.”

Although Bixler anticipates a unique range of ideas from community members who participate in engagement sessions, there are a handful of changes that he believes South Park could benefit from, based solely on observation, and an earlier analysis by Geinzer’s consulting firm.

Southside Neighborhood Improvement Authority (NIA) meeting schedule.

Falling into the categories of the four pillars of need, Bixler says the Southside is in need of both affordable and low-income housing. He says he’d like to see one vacant lot in particular become a housing development, an empty plot of land currently owned by the city, that used to occupy a grocery store.

“That hasn't happened yet. I believe it will,” he says. “It's going to take some time, but that could be, frankly, one of the cornerstones of development in South Park.”

Geinzer has also found housing to be a top priority for residents in South Park and expects it to become a large point of focus in the financial plan.

“We're talking about affordable housing, we're talking about mixed-income housing, we're talking about housing for the most vulnerable there, housing for seniors,” he says. “There's a need for more rooftops in the south side of Port Huron.”

While both Bixler and Geinzer say the level of progress that’s been achieved over the course of the last several months is encouraging, there were obstacles to getting things started.

When Double Haul Solutions first pursued its need analysis in South Park, Geinzer says it was clear there was a lack of trust between Southside residents and the City of Port Huron. Now acting as a connection point between the community and the city government Geinzer says his firm and the NIA have helped to rebuild much of that trust.

“So what we've really tried to do is build genuine relationships with the community, build trust with us, to then be that conduit, that middle person with trust with the broader city,” he says.

Bixler says he was encouraged to see the city’s willingness to support the NIA and help get the word out about their initiatives. 

(From left) Haran Stanley, Nate Geinzer, Solomon Johnson, and Southside Neighborhood Improvement Authority Co-Chair Joe Bixler.

As the NIA prepares to host what they say are their two most important meetings, Bixler has spent time reflecting on what the true heart of the organization is, and that is quality of life.

Decades past have brought waves of change to the city of Port Huron, and at times, Bixler says South Park was neglected when it came to making improvements. He sees a chance for real transformation but says it wouldn’t be possible without the people who live in the neighborhood.

Geinzer agrees and adds that this is only the beginning of what he and Bixler hope will be a lifelong commitment to revitalizing Southside.

“Southside is an absolutely amazing community,” Geinzer says. “It's a diverse community with a lot of great people and a lot of great ideas. It has been an absolute pleasure to get to know everybody and to support an initiative that can be sustained.”

All Southside NIA meetings are held at the Elger G. Harvey Reinvestment Center, located at 3013 24th St. in Port Huron. Both the March 14 and 28 community engagement sessions will begin at 6 p.m. and a food truck will be providing meals free of charge to those attending.
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Read more articles by Riley Connell.

Riley Connell is a graduate of Central Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She's a frequent visitor to the Metro Detroit area where she was raised and in addition to her work with The Keel, Riley is a full-time reporter with the Cadillac News as well as a contributor to The Keel’s sister publication, Epicenter Mt. Pleasant. When she isn't writing, Riley enjoys spending time outdoors, painting, antiquing, and trying new foods.