'Longest small town downtown’ gets a faceliftOne of many development projects in Escanaba

The city of Escanaba will receive $330,000 for a five-block streetscape project, beginning at the east end of Ludington Street near the municipal dock. The project is expected to break ground in the spring.

What’s happening: The streetscape project piggybacks onto a separate grant-funded action, the city’s $60-million water and sewer improvement project. “The city is aggressively going after lead pipe replacements,” says Craig Woerpel, director of the Downtown Development Authority, “and is also upgrading the sewer system.”

With streets to be torn up all over town, it’s a good time to start making changes to a more welcoming design, Woerpel says. When the infrastructure work is finished and streets and sidewalks are replaced along the east end of Ludington Street, the whole streetscape will be transformed, from the municipal dock to 5th Street, Woerpel says.

That end of town is a logical place to start the process of upgrading Escanaba’s 22-block-long downtown, Woerpel says.

“That's where a lot of our potential development’s going to happen. We're getting a Marriott hotel; we’re getting a condominium and apartment complex with retail where the Chamber of Commerce Building currently is. We're getting a new distillery in the old bank building and we're getting a brewery in the old state library building — that's all happening here within a year or two,” Woerpel says. “So this is going to hopefully go along with that construction, happening at a time when … they're gonna be digging up Ludington Street anyway.”

At that end of Ludington Street heading into Ludington Park is a rectangle-shaped tract that juts into Lake Michigan, an area called the municipal dock, where the ore boats and commercial shipping vessels used to dock, he explains.  Although there is still some shipping activity,  that area is now used largely for entertainment — the city’s Labor Day parade, the Rock the Dock event and other activities.

“Ludington Park now is a big gem for our community, we're pretty well known for those areas,” he adds. 

An artist’s rendering of the proposed facelift of the area shows the plantings, parking, pedestrian and street lighting improvements, but the project is more than just streetscape, Woerpel says. 

Although design details are not solidified, the goal is to slow traffic while increasing the walkability of downtown. “So, wider sidewalks would certainly be important. 

"To do that, we are currently talking about keeping the parallel parking in the area but still reducing traffic from four to two lanes with a turn lane,” Woerpel says. “Green space and other gathering aspects such as seating and signs are certainly part of the project.”

In addition, a public restroom with six separate cubicles will be built across from the municipal dock to replace the portable toilets that are now used for summer concerts and activities there.

What’s the back story: With a downtown that’s 22 blocks— 1.6 miles— long, “one of the big issues that we have is (that) it's a very long, straight street for a downtown,” Woerpel says. “But you know, we're using the phrase now that ‘Escanaba has the longest small town downtown in Michigan.’”

What can people expect: Much of the city will be a construction zone while the improvements are underway, but businesses will remain open and accessible, Woerpel says. A series of public meetings will be held over the winter to keep residents up to date on exactly what’s being planned and the impact of the work.

How’s it being paid for: The $330,000 grant that’s paying for the work is one of $99.2 million in grant-funded projects across Michigan’s 10 prosperity regions, part of the  Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Revitalization and Placemaking Program (RAP 2.0).

The original RAP program awarded $83.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars in September 2022. This second iteration of the program, RAP 2.0, received an appropriation of $100 million in the budget supplemental signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in February 2023. 

With the RAP 2.0 Program, the MEDC partners with local communities to support community revitalization needs across Michigan by investing in projects that promote population and tax revenue growth.
What are people saying: “Escanaba is making a huge effort to update our infrastructure, to revitalize our downtown, and to work together between local departments and state agencies,” Woerpel says. “This is a really exciting opportunity to coordinate efforts and springboard further developments throughout downtown.”

“(These) grants underscore our commitment to the people, places, and projects that are integral to the growth of Michigan’s economy,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says, in a press release announcing the grants. “These investments will help create vibrant places that attract and retain talent, add new housing options, enable business creation and attraction, and provide resources for Michiganders and our communities. I will work with anyone and do anything to continue getting things done for our state.” 
Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange, UPword, and other Issue Media Group publications. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.