Two new U.P. communities enlist in Michigan Main Street

Downtown districts in the Upper Peninsula have come a long way since the mass exodus of retail businesses a few decades ago. Sault Ste. Marie and Iron River are among those getting help with downtown revitalization from the Michigan Main Street program.
If you're old enough to remember things like phone booths and home stereo systems with legs, then you probably remember when downtown districts were bustling hubs of shopping and other activities.
If you're not old enough to remember such things, you'll be excited to know the community hubs your parents talked so fondly about are making a comeback, especially where a program called Michigan Main Street has been implemented.
You can't turn back the hands of time, but you can learn from the past and incorporate that knowledge with fresh, new ideas and innovations. In a lot of ways, that's what the Michigan Main Street program is doing in the cities in Michigan that have adopted this approach to downtown revitalization.
Unlike some downtown initiatives that seem to come and go after a lot of fanfare and even taxpayer expense, Michigan Main Street, administered by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, has a proven track record for making a big difference in towns like Calumet and Iron Mountain, which have been in the program for several years now.
"Our local Main Street program is volunteer driven," says Laura Krizov, manager of the Michigan Main Street Center. "If they (local residents) want to see something happen it's not the state telling them what to do, it's truly a local program."
In Iron Mountain, Michigan Main Street has helped the city obtain its goals of filling in and expanding retail space downtown, organizing popular and enduring events like the Italian Fest--which brings hordes of folks downtown--and a focus on shopping local.
"You have these groups of people who come together to make things happen and the Main Street program gives them the structure to do these things," says Rebecca Grider, manager for Main Street Iron Mountain.
Sault Ste. Marie is one of the latest Upper Peninsula cities to be awarded the Michigan Main Street designation.
"They actually courted us," says Knepper, director of Sault Ste. Marie's Downtown Development Authority. "They saw some of the things we were already doing downtown and after a couple of visits decided to accept our application."
Sault Ste. Marie already has a leg up on downtown development due to an eclectic mix of specialty retail, entertainment, business, government offices, and an ever-expanding hospital and healthcare facilities.
As part of the application process Knepper undertook the rather arduous process of measuring the square footage of each building in the downtown district, upstairs and down. He admits there is still space to fill in the downtown district, particularly upstairs space, which could eventually be used as residential apartments, a welcome trend which is occurring in many cities. And this, says Knepper, is where the Main Street Michigan program can really help.  
"We're really excited because one of the things the Main Street Michigan program does is help us focus a little more tightly on downtown revitalization."
He says he and the DDA board will soon be receiving training in The Main Street  Four Point Approach, a national approach to reviving downtown districts which focuses on organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring.
"We're already doing pretty good in the area of organization," says Knepper. "Another is promotion, which we hope to grow on; we have to get the word out about the downtown."
Design has to do with a number of things, not the least being the preservation and renovation of historic structures. This is already occurring in the Sault with the recent conversion of an historic building in the Soo to what is now called Park Place, which consists of several residential apartments as well as retail space on the ground floor. The Soo Theatre is another historic building that has been restored and is being used extensively as an entertainment venue and for teaching the arts.
"Something we're working very hard on is improving the look and feel of the downtown." says Knepper. "The Main Street program will help us with this." He says Michigan Main Street also will provide free technical assistance in the form of an architect to help with plans to redesign historic buildings.
Economic restructuring involves bringing more retail, entertainment, business, and restaurants into the mix. The downtown has a head start as well in this area, including a winery which is slated to open downtown this spring.
Iron River is also entering the program this year. Both Sault Ste. Marie and Iron River are entering at the associate level, which means they can participate in learning the basics of the program while also being invited to attend national conferences. While the program doesn't dole out funds per se, it helps cities to obtain grants simply through their participation in the program and showing progress towards its goals.
After participating in the program at the associate level for five years and achieving the desired results of the program, the cities will graduate to the selected level. At this level the local Main Street cities will receive much more extensive training and assistance which will lead to the masters level, the highest level of involvement in the Michigan Main Street program. Iron Mountain and Calumet are currently at this level, the only two U.P. cities to achieve it so far.
"We're excited this year to have two Upper Peninsula communities to come into the associate level," says Krizov.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and owner of Haylake Business Communications. You can find him on Twitter at @moranwrite.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.