Iron Mountain balances revitalization and preserving its sense of place

Iron Mountain could easily be the backdrop for those Pure Michigan ads that have been so successful--Tim Allen's soothing voice and all. It's truly a place to unwind while finding that sense of place the town has worked so hard to maintain and build upon. When not out on the links, lakes, rivers, powdered slopes, or bike paths, visitors and locals alike can enjoy a host of downtown events, trendy eateries, historical landmarks, and a relaxing small town atmosphere.

The folks in Iron Mountain have been real busy over the last few years, especially since they formed Iron Mountain Main Street, a group of organizations, businesses and individuals who have worked together to improve Iron Mountain as a place to visit and a great place to call home.

The efforts to revitalize the downtown area started in 2006 when Iron Mountain was selected as a Main Street Michigan city, one of only two such designations in the Upper Peninsula. (The other is Calumet.) Main Street Michigan is administered by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority's Michigan Main Street Center, in Lansing.
Like a lot of towns in the western portion of the U.P., Iron Mountain, about 60 miles from Green Bay, was built around the frenzied mining in the 1800s. Then came timber, and in the early 1900s, Iron Mountain flirted with automobile manufacturing when Henry Ford opened a plant in adjacent Kingsford.

This period of prosperity was responsible for some noteworthy historical buildings around town. Today, the same buildings that some towns would have reduced to rubble are now diamonds in the rough, including Commercial Bank Building, Wood Sandstone Building, and the Dickinson County Courthouse, to name just a few. The historical architecture about town has been preserved so well that  Iron Mountain was recently placed on the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places, which is no small feat.

"They've done a really good job, they've got a really good foundation," says Kelly Larson, who works as a design specialist with the State Historic Preservation Office. Larson provides architectural consultations and design work for Michigan Main Street recipients. Larson says there is more to come for IMMS.

 "It's really exciting to see what they've got planned for the future; they're a fun group," she says.

Perhaps having the most fun, or at least showing the most excitement, is their cheerleader-in-chief, Jonathan Ringel, officially the Iron Mountain Main Street Manager. If the enthusiasm in his voice is any indication, Ringel is excited about what they've done already in Iron Mountain and what's on the horizon.

"They've come a long way in a short time," says Bruce Orttenburger, president and CEO of the Dickinson Area Partnership. Orttenburger attributes this to Ringel's leadership, and also to the Downtown Development Authority and the boatload of volunteers that show up by the dozens for events like the Italian Festival, held in August, for which the proceeds go to the IMMS program..

Like a lot of towns across the country, Iron Mountain saw the demise of their downtown in the early '70s as businesses moved away from the downtown area. Fortunately, they fought back to maintain what makes Iron Mountain unique.

"Their downtown has a lot of competition with the strip malls and there was a desire from the community to bring it back and the community leaders agreed," says Larson. She says their designation on the National Register of Historic Places will help property owners garner tax credits to make improvements to their properties.

"During the 1970s, cities were tearing down buildings to put in parking lots," observes Ringel, who came here from Ann Arbor. He says that approach to economic development, at least in Iron Mountain, has fortunately changed. Today city leaders and volunteers alike are guided by Michigan Main Street's Four Point Approach.

Developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation back in 1977, the Main Street Four Point Approach was initiated "in response to continued threats to historic commercial architecture and economic activity in small-city downtowns." The center works in cooperation with the National Main Street Center to provide resources and technical assistance.

Michigan Main Street is in the business of improving the look and feel of downtown areas while maintaining the integrity of the town's historical landmarks and promoting a sense of place, which is kind of an emotional appeal for people to get out and about in a community and enjoy what makes it unique. Iron Mountain has responded to the call as indicated by the many good things that are happening in this U.P. town.

So the next time you're traveling west on U.S.-2, put the cell phone in a deep pocket and the nagging deadlines in the trunk of your car and stop for awhile in Iron Mountain and see why this place is so special, made all the more so by the efforts of the folks of Iron Mountain.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer/copywriter and owner of Haylake Business Communications.

All photos by Shawn Malone.

Iron Mountain's Crowning Achievements in Less Than a Decade
  • -Nomination of downtown Iron Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places
  •  Seven successful Italian Festivals, Main Street's largest fundraiser, which celebrate the local Italian ethnic heritage
  •  Near completion of the Magee Johnson & Joan Flood Park and performance stage which has helped to serve as a community gathering space for a farmers market and other downtown events
  • Rental rehabilitation funds for second story downtown apartments

  • Successful tree inventory and grant which has supported new landscaping in the downtown region
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